We never had anything like this before. For the first time, we got to not only hear our favorite bands and artists when they released a new song, but we got to SEE them too. And this leads us to the 10 best 80s music videos on MTV.
Music videos had never really been a thing before the 80s, but with the advent of MTV, they came on like gangbusters. Music videos were now able to capture the tone of the band–and the song–and create a whole new vibe to the recent release.
So, with the explosion of new video content thanks to MTV, what were the very best ones of the 1980s? Luckily, I’ve got you covered.
The Rise of MTV in the 80s
Before we cover the 10 best 80s music videos on MTV, we need to look back on how groundbreaking this new music television network really was.
It’s not that MTV invented the music video–but they packaged it together onto a 24-hour station with an edgy and hip new format. Music videos had existed before, but not in the way you know them now.
As it is with most things related to music, we need to thank the Beatles. When the Beatles got massive in the 60s, everyone wanted a piece of them. This is still the relatively early days of television, not to mention air travel. It was tougher to take off to all corners of the globe. And the Beatles were demanded in all corners of the globe.
Since it could take weeks to get out to say, New Zealand as an example, they decided it was easier to record themselves playing their latest single and send it to TV stations down there. That way, they wouldn’t have to fly to the other side of the world for a 3-minute performance.
This solution to the demand problem gave rise to the first music videos. But the Brits will help to develop this new visual format.
The Importance of Top of the Pops
There were many big bands in England and the music scene was evolving rapidly. The idea came to showcase all these new bands on a weekly show called Top of the Pops. This would feature the chart-toppers performing for television audiences at home, and this inadvertently gave rise to music videos as we would come to know them.
For British bands, it became second nature to record themselves playing their songs as they knew how important it was to be featured on Top of the Pops. They also knew how important their visual representation was and how crucial it was to look good on camera for the adoring fans. These British bands became experts at packaging their song–and look–together into these short video clips, and this would serve them well with the rise of MTV.
MTV Changes the landscape of Music Forever
I’ve got an entire blog that covers the full history of MTV here, but let’s look at some of the quick highlights.
The network started on August 1, 1981, with the announcement, “ladies and gentlemen, rock n’ roll…” This simple statement ushered in a new era where the popular culture would be forever changed.
But, like many pioneers, MTV was slow to catch on at first. Many thought it was a foolish idea, and the other issue was that there weren’t that many videos to play. We all know that the first video played was “Video Killed the Radio Star,” and it was a big hit. But there weren’t a lot of other big hits.
MTV was forced to fill a lot of air time with footage from NASA (which led to the famous moon logo and the Moon Man awards they give out). But eventually, MTV became a staple of pop culture. And some of the biggest acts to make use of it at first were those British bands like Duran Duran, Depeche Mode, and even Billy Idol.
They were so used to making music videos because of Top of the Pops that creating new content for MTV was second nature, and it led to the second British Invasion. A lot of other American bands had trouble with this new concept and it quickly pushed them to the side.
But since the 80s were an exciting time for this new way to consume music, what were some of the best 80s music videos on MTV? Let’s countdown the top ten. This is of course from my perspective so feel free to fight amongst yourselves…
The 10 Best 80s Music Videos on MTV
Bonus #11. Money for Nothing – Dire Straits
What the hell is this: graphics made by a computer? In a music video? Consider our minds blown. It looks primitive by today’s standards, but was pretty groundbreaking at the time. It’s a great visual experience for an equally great song. The opening guitar riff is one of the most famous in music history and the accompanying visual did it justice.
10. Addicted to Love – Robert Palmer
I don’t know why, but this always strikes me as the “Single Ladies” of the 80s. It’s another 80s music video with some iconic imagery that’s been duplicated many times. Palmer is the classic front man backed by the all female band. It’s simple but the fashion models really helped cement it as a top video when it came out on MTV in 1986.
The idea with the video was to have the models look like mannequins. One of the models says that she was pretty tipsy after a lot of wine, was on really high heels, and fell forward smacking Palmer in the back of the head with her guitar causing him to hit his head on the microphone.
9. Faith – George Michael
Similar to Addicted to Love, Faith was simple and iconic. It has a definitive imagery that is a great reflection of the decade. And to further cement it in the history of classic music videos; you may also picture Weird Al recreating. That’s the sign of a truly powerful music video.
Faith was a big song for George Michael as it was him breaking free from Wham! To show he was more than just a “teenybopper.” Faith was released in OCtober, 1987, and was a massive hit. It is certified diamond, meaning it’s sold at least 10 millions copies. The music video is a stripped down production to showcase George Micahel who was trying to reinvent himself, and it ended up being one of the best music videos of the 80s.
8. Material Girl – Madonna
This lady not only ruled the airwaves in the 80s, but MTV as well. Actually, if there was a poster child for MTv it was Madonna. I know Michael Jackson is probably the biggest artist, but he already was famous before MTV. Madonna and MTV came up together at the same time and both used each other to propel one another.
Madonna made perfect use of this new medium, and it seemed tailor made for her. She got it, and knew how important it was to create an image and a brand before that was even a thing. Material Girl captured the essence of Marily Monroe mimicking her performance from “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend.”
The video was filmed all the way back in 1985 and it’s where Madonna first met Sean Penn.
7. Physical – Oliva Newton-John
If you didn’t grow up in the 80s, it’s hard to emphasise how massive this song was as it spent a crazy 10 weeks at number one. The music video on MTV was also able to capture the essence of it. Today, it looks like a fitness infomercial, but this was a time when the growth of fitness and aerobics were booming in the country.
Physical was a great way to capitalize on this new growing fad. An interesting thing with this song was that it was originally intended for Rod Stewert, and then to Tina Turner.
It’s crazy to think that this song came out all the way back in 1981, and is pretty hilarious to watch today. But it was a massively popular song–and music video. It won the Grammy award for best music video of 1983 when that was still a thing.
6. Like A Prayer – Madonna
Was this the video that started the era of music video controversy? If it didn’t, it really helped get the ball rolling and for that reason, deserves a place on the list of best 80s music videos on MTV.
This video seemed like sacrilege to me when I was a kid, but looking back now, it’s relatively tame. Especially compared to what exists out there now. But did “Like a Prayer” pave the way for artists to express themselves however they wanted?
Either way, this video upset A LOT of people, and Madonna took that all the way to the bank. The music video featured a lot of religious imagery, and Madonna knew exactly what she was doing. I guess it was a “no publicity is bad publicity” situation, but there was still a lot of bad publicity.
The Vatican, family groups, and religious organizations were outraged at the video and boycotted Pepsi who was using the song in one of their commercials. Despite its controversy, it remains one of the best music videos of the 80s, and of all time.
5. Girls Just Wanna Have Fun – Cyndi Lauper
There was no other music video in the 80s that captured the energy and excitement of the decade than Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. It’s also a pretty revolutionary music video which we’ll get to in a moment. A big thing that led to this music video was Cyndi Lauper randomly sitting next to WWF legend Captain Lou Albando on an airplane.
This led him to being cast in the video and also helped usher in the rise of the WWF as we know it (check out my article all about that here).
The music video was just like Lauper; fun, unique, and quirky. It only cost $35,000 to make and came out in 1983. The whole project was an upstart production and required a lot of volunteers and the free loan of what was then very state-of-the-art video equipment.
Here’s another interesting thing about this music video: Lorne Michaels from SNL allowed the production free use of his million dollar digital editing equipment. This allowed them first-time-ever CGI images of Lauper dancing with her lawyer which leads the whole cast to dance through New York. Lauper was actually involved with creating these computer generated images.
Fun fact: of all the music videos on this list, this has the second most views on YouTube with nearly 900 million.
4. Beat it – Michael Jackson
This could easily be number one on this list of the best 80s music videos on MTV, but there’s a few reasons I put it at number 3. Beat It is a song and video that could possibly have come out in multiple decades and fit right in. It’s simple, but that’s not to say it isn’t visually striking. The smart thing was keeping it simple as to showcase Michael Jackson.
It doesn’t notably represent the decade in its visuals, and that’s why I put it a bit lower. The other reason is Micahel Jackson dominates the decade so much that we have to give other people a shot too (but we’ll see him again in a second).
Beat It is also notable as it was the first time Michael Jackson put out a real Rock song. This wasn;t a genre he had been involved with, and Beat It was his way to show he could hit hard.
This song still feels aggressive and intense to this day, and even though I say this video is kind of simple, it’s still a massively important video. Beat It helped to cement Michael Jackson as a pop icon and seeing the appearance of Eddie Van Halen further cements it as a pop masterpiece for the MTV era.
3. Walk This Way – Run DMC and Aerosmith
The song that almost never happened. Aerosmith was kind of a washed up band going in the 80s after having success in the 70s. Run DMC was recording their classic album “Raising Hell” when they were flipping through records while in the studio with Rick Rubin.
They stumbled upon an album from 1975 called “Toys in the Attic” by a band they had never heard of: Aerosmith. They started to freestyle over the track called “Walk This Way” and Rubin thought this could make an ideal single. It could combine rap and rock and create an unprecedented new sound.
Rap was just coming into its own in the 80s and was not yet the dominating genre it would soon become. They were able to get Steven Tyler and Rick Perry to record the song and then appear in the groundbreaking video.
The symbolic video has the two bands breaking down walls to conjoin into one of the greatest songs–and videos– of all time. Perry and Tyler reluctantly appeared in the video as they were afraid they were going to be made fun of.
2. Thriller – Michael Jackson
Don’t yell at me. I know this is not only one of the best music videos of the 80s, and also all time, but I think it needs to be classified differently. Thriller is more of a short film or an expanded music video concept. For that reason, I don’t put it at number one. It’s groundbreaking, iconic, and influential, but it’s more like watching a performance piece than a straight song music video
Thriller is the soundtrack of Halloween and required viewing every October 31st. Michael Jackson showed the world what was possible when he released Thriller: music videos could be a serious art form,
But here’s the fun fact: The Thriller music video was actually released on MTV on December 2, 1983. There’s some good dinner party conversation.
I know a lot is said of Michael Jackson now, but can we just acknowledge how astronomically talented, influential, and iconic this guy was during the 80s? He owned the decade.
1. Take on Me – A-Ha
The video that helped define MTV, and an entire era, sits on top as my very best music video of the 80s. The video and song are the perfect embodiment of the 80s and the new MTV era. The unique video featured sketches come to life which not only perfectly captured the song–but made perfect use of the new video medium.
So here’s an interesting fact you may not know: there were two music videos for “Take on Me.” The first one was a simple and performance music video that came out in 1984 that features a different recording of the song.
The one we all know was filmed in London in 1985. This music video is unique as it combines actual pencil-sketch animation with live-action combined together by a technique called rotoscoping. This is where the live-action footage is traced over frame by frame to give the characters realistic movements.
The video required 3000 frames to be rotoscoped and took 16 weeks to complete. What we got was one of the most iconic music videos ever made and the one that I think represents the decade the best.
This video has the most views on YouTube of this whole list with over 1.1 billion. Take on Me is therefore number one of my ten best 80s music videos on MTV.
Wrapping It Up
It wasn’t easy trying to narrow down the ten best 80s music videos on MTV, but fortunately, I was up to the task. As I mentioned in my article about the very best songs of the 80s, the order of the choices may vary to you, but there’s no doubt that the majority of these would be on every list.