It was the decade of big hair, Reagan, Iron Lady Margaret Thatcher, Pac-Man and Donkey Kong, Rubik’s Cube and Swatch Watches. But there was more to the ‘80s than that. According to Lori Majewski and Jonathan Bernstein in their new book “Mad World: An Oral History of the New Wave Artists and Songs That Defined the 1980s,” the decade was the last golden age of pop music. It was also a period of great social and economic change.
During the years of protest and reform in the 1960s, society’s hero was the person who helped others. By the 1980s, people were tired of social struggle and society’s hero was the person who helped himself. “Greed is good,” said Gordon Gekko in Oliver Stone’s film Wall Street, and Bret Easton Ellis, the novelist best known for Less Than Zero (1985) and American Psycho (1991), expanded on the phrase: “Greed is Good. Sex is Easy. Youth is Forever”–which is a precise epitaph for the 1980s.
So what happens when the “Me Generation” collides with the golden age of pop music? What happens when British glam rock rubs against American disco and German electronica, and the underground becomes the overground and bands like A-Ha, The Human League, and Devo become mainstream thanks to a little station named MTV? There are several ways a song can express an era. Here’s a look at 7 songs and how they arguably defined the ‘80s.
7 Billie Jean: Michael Jackson (1982)
Before the plastic surgery and claims of skin bleaching, before Neverland and child molestation charges, before rumors that he slept in a hyberbaric oxygen chamber to slow the aging process, and long before the infamous baby dangling incident in Berlin, Michael Jackson was the King of Pop. Thriller was released in 1982. Seven singles from the album reached the Top 10, and the record spent a combined 10 weeks at No. 1. Slant magazine listed Thriller as the Best Album of the 1980s.
While “Beat It” featured a guitar solo by Eddie Van Halen and received the Grammy Award for Record of the Year, “Billie Jean” was the first single off Thriller. The song was the precursor to a decade that Michael Jackson owned. There are contradictory claims as to what the lyrics of “Billie Jean” refer to. Michael Jackson said the song was about groupies. Another theory suggests it’s about a female fan that claimed Jackson fathered one of her twins. Most historians agree that the '80s was the beginning of the "Culture of Celebrity. ” "Billie Jean” is not only built on a distinctive bassline and Michael Jackson’s signature vocal hiccups, but it contains lyrics to a plot ripped from supermarket tabloid headlines.
6 Tainted Love: Soft Cell (1981)
Soft Cell, an English synthpop duo, scored 10 Top Forty hits in the UK and has sold 10 million records worldwide. However, Marc Almond and David Ball are primarily known for their 1981 hit “Tainted Love.” The song combines drum machine beats and tinkling, synthesizer-generated effects, along with a chorus from The Supremes 1964 hit “Where Did our Love Go” –all of which coalesce to create a futuristic sound perfectly engineered to usher in a new decade.
“This is Your Brain on Drugs” was an anti-narcotics campaign that started in 1987. If music is a gateway drug, then the international success of “Tainted Love” paved the way for synthpop acts like Depeche Mode, The Pet Shops Boys, and Erasure. Moreover, Soft Cell’s lo-fi electronica influenced future artists from Moby to Paul Oakenfold, and without the handclap, Casio beats in “Tainted Love” there would be no EDM.
5 Don’t You (Forget About Me): Simple Minds (1985)
Performed by Simple Minds, “Don’t You (Forget About Me)” is the theme song in the 1985 John Hughes film The Breakfast Club. Propelled by the success of the coming-of-age comedy drama, which starred Brat Packers Molly Ringwald, Anthony Michael Hall and Emilio Estevez, amongst others, the song was No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard chart for three weeks.
“Don’t You (Forget About Me)” is an enduring anthem of teenage angst in an era when the teen film was at its best. Director Amy Heckerling launched the ‘80s teen film zeitgeist with Fast Times at Ridgemont High, but John Hughes became the voice of the misunderstood teen. Hughes directed classics like Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. From suburban angst and unrequited love to class struggles and teen archetypes, John Hughes wrote for teenagers and his films summarized the teen experience, but his earnest writing, witty one-liners and astute observations crossed generational lines.
4 Girls Just Wanna Have Fun –Cyndi Lauper (1984)
Long before Alanis Morissette or the Lilith Fair women were belting out songs about female empowerment, Cindy Lauper proudly let the world know that “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.” With wild red hair, arms stacked with bangle bracelets, and a mismatched Salvation Army fashion style, Cyndi Lauper was a zany, spirited solo artist with a love it or hate it voice. “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” was released in the spring of 1984, and for many it was the carefree party anthem of the summer. “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” was a track on Cindy Lauper’s debut solo album, She’s So Unusual, and it was the first debut female album to chart four top-five hits.
While Cindy Lauper’s song was the soundtrack for every girl who just wanted to go to the mall, shop for a new Swatch, and rifle through the racks at the United Colors of Benetton store, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” also characterized the optimistic spirit and carefree frivolity of the decade, when having fun –and maxing out credit cards -was more important than singing about the “big issues” that female singer-songwriters tackled a decade later.
3 Hungry Like the Wolf: Duran Duran (1982)
The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star” was the first video ever played on MTV (it aired in the U.S. at 12.01 on August 1, 1981), forever linking sound and video and changing how future generations experience music. However, the video for “Radio Star” was indistinct and forgettable. It was Duran Duran, one of the most successful bands of the ‘80s and a leader in the MTV-driven “Second British Invasion,” that set the standard for the new song/video revolution.
From “Hungry Like the Wolf” and “Rio” to “Union of the Snake” and “The Reflex,” Duran Duran’s videos were innovative, polished, and controversial. Partial nudity, suggestions of sexuality, exoticism, Duran’s Duran’s videography had it all, not to mention the group had heartthrob good looks and hired professional directors to film their 35 mm videos in glamorous and far-flung destinations. In an age of “Greed is Good,” Duran Duran was the first band to successfully fuse sound and video, fully exploiting MTV to achieve international rock and roll stardom.
2 Material Girl: Madonna (1985)
In 1985, Madonna released “Material Girl," the second single off the Like A Virgin album. The song reached No. 2 on the U.S. Hot 100 Chart, becoming Madonna’s third top five single. In the video for “Material Girl,” Madonna mimics Marilyn Monroe’s famous performance of “Diamonds are Girls Best Friend” from the 1953 film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.
The 1980s was a decade of expanding free enterprise, Wolf of Wall Street materialism, and shameless self-promotion, and if Michael Jackson was the King of Pop, Madonna was the undisputed Queen. Author Rikky Rooksby, in his book The Compete Guide to the Music of Madonna, says “Material Girl was a pungent satire on the Reagan/Thatcher young guns go-go era.” Nevertheless, the story of a “Girl” who chooses money over love hardly seems satirical, especially in a decade known for its shallowness and excess. The song is more of a direct observation: “You know that we are living in a material world/and I am a material girl.”
1 99 Luftballoons: Nena (1983)
An anonymous civilian releases toy helium balloons into the sky and the faulty East German Early Warning System mistakenly registers them as missiles. Panic ensues, and nuclear war follows. That’s the narrative of “99 Luftballoons” by the German New Wave band Nena, and it typifies the fear, paranoia, and subdued hostility that gripped the world during the Cold War (1947-1991).
“99 Luftballoons” might be the most famous example of catchy, danceable fear, but there are others. “I Melt With You” (1982) by Modern English isn’t a metaphor for young love, but the story of a couple having sex as a nuclear bomb drops and their skin literally melts. The English version of “99 Luftballoons,” which was renamed “99 Red Balloons” and went to No. 2 on the Billboard chart, added one significant detail to Nena’s End of the World story: the song’s narrator released the fateful red balloons, therefore making the listener complicit in the nuclear destruction.
The USSR ceased to exist in 1991. Historians cite that year as the end of the Cold War, but the world really changed in 1989. The stare-down between man and tank in Tiananmen Square, the release of the dissident Czech playwright Vaclav Havel, and the fall of the Berlin Wall all occurred in ‘89. Nena’s “99 Luftballoons” defined an era of mistrust, suspicion, and nuclear fear, but by 1989 those fears, for the most part, were over. On February 14, 1989, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran, issued a fatwa on Salman Rushdie for his depiction of Prophet Muhammad in the novel The Satanic Verses. The Cold War was officially over, and the War on Terror had begun.