A thousand years from now, anthropologists will chalk up the 1980s as a mythical era akin to King Arthur's Camelot or when people drove blue-green Saturns. Unless you were there, nothing about the decade made sense: Broadway-style dancing was mandatory, boys wore makeup all the time, and shoulder pads were so wide and sturdy, you could balance babies on them. It was a magical time.
The best way to unwrap the mystery of the '80s is to look back at the art form it perfected: music videos. Here are five music videos that capture everything you'll ever need to know about the funnest decade of the 20th century.
It took the entire decade of the '80s to figure out that not everyone with a mouth and a beating heart should rap, and we endured a lot of painful fast talking to get to that conclusion. When Wham! members George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley wrote a rap about enjoying life while unemployed, they had no idea the hip-hop genre was never ever meant for them.
Was it the mom capris or the sensible flats that gave it away? We'll never know.
Context is key here. In 1982, rap was still an underground American thing -- Run-DMC was barely a band, and this exercise in hyper whiteness was released a month before Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's "The Message." So you could say Wham! helped push the rap movement into the mainstream. Or you could not say that and avoid ridicule. Judging two intensely Caucasian people for diving into a genre they were ill-suited for is like judging your senile grandfather for mistaking you for his Korean girlfriend. It made sense to him at the time. So Wham! actually called their rap "Wham Rap!" -- who among us hasn't named their dog "Dog," or their baby "Human"?
Like Grandmaster Flash and Coolio, George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley used their song to discuss an important social issue of the day: unemployment. Just because they looked like extras in a Revenge of the Nerds frat party scene didn't mean they weren't hard up. Unfortunately, they don't do the best job of conveying how tough things were. For example, Grandmaster Flash peppered his lyrics with gritty realities from life on the streets.
George Michael, not so much.
Wham! Street cred! Because this is a song about unemployment, George goes on to give very specific instructions about filling out paperwork for getting benefits.
Do you think the Furious Five would help you cut through red tape? Don't count on it.
The key to life is having fun, says George Michael. So he picks up his friend Andrew and they transport themselves to a white space where they can do a jerky elbow dance and wear their leather jackets in peace. Looking back, we get an important lesson from this video: Work is bad for your soul. Every single '80s movie came to the same conclusion. Have fun, live while you're young, be Ferris Bueller, but forever.
The '80siest Moment:
If self-awareness were a drug, the 1982 version of George Michael was stone cold sober. Even though the '80s were all about image over substance, NO ONE realized how stupid they looked, ever. If they did, George Michael probably wouldn't have given us this screenshot at 1:59:
George seems to be giving away a lot more than his inability to rap.
What do you get when you cross Paula Abdul's saucy good looks with Paula Abdul's high-pitched voice and Paula Abdul's short stature and dance moves? Answer: 1980s dance music group Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam. For all I know, Lisa Lisa & Cult Jam was Paula Abdul temporarily coupled with Ozone and Turbo from the hit break-dancing movie Breakin'.
While we'll never know what god Cult Jam worshiped, we can deduce from the 1986 video for "All Cried Out" that he (or she?) was a softly lit deity who was covered in gauze and loved a good breakup song. Lisa Lisa and her cult were to love songs as Charles Manson and his cult were to crazy, which is to say they were really good at them. Maybe too good, if you know what I mean.
If your lover has left you, betrayed you, or attempted to strangle you in lacy fingerless gloves, "All Cried Out" will speak to your heartbroken soul, even if the accompanying video is a bit on the literal side. Here's a quick sample of lyrics with visuals.
Ask the P.S. 22 Choir of New York City to sing this song and you'll find that at least two dozen kids mime the motions for "rain" and "crying," because that's what elementary school kids do. The '80s were the elementary school children of people. Until things take a turn for the dark side.
WTF, Lisa Lisa? Who knew that simmering next to the Snuggle Bear was a pint-sized girl full of rage and hyperbole? Lisa Squared's weirdly aggressive anger is one of the reasons why "All Cried Out" is a perfect tableau of the decade. Every emotional shortcut is here. Let's put it this way -- here's Sinead O'Connor giving the camera raw, unmasked heartbreak in 1990:
Until the 1990s, no one knew you could do that. Talking straight to the camera was a thing, but '80s video directors thought you needed about 50 hints to convey inner turmoil. Which is why slow jams were power packed with soft camera focus, dramatic hand gestures, wafting curtains, dry ice, a grand piano, slow, half-step walks, and turning your back on the camera like it just did something dirty to your mom.
The '80siest Moment:
At 1:50, we're introduced to the breakup partner, whose voice is represented by multiple members of Full Force and whose face is represented by a model who might be part lion.
Now here's where things get fancy. Inside the breakup boy's head are two voices: One we'll call Head Wound, and the other we'll call Bowlegged Lou (because that's his real name). Lisa and her crew thought that the best way to convey these inner voices was with that portrait trick where you put a person's head in the air in the sky above the same person. Like this:
Here's Head Wound singing what Lion Man is thinking.
And here's Bowlegged Lou doing his version of Lion Man's thoughts.
Eventually they do away with Lion Man altogether as the two voices duel it out in a ghostly face-off.
If schizophrenia had a face, this would be it. When you're looking back on the '80s, you have to remember that two men singing at the air passed for drama and no one was mad about it.
Among the downsides of the music video era was the sudden notion that everyone should dance. And not just shuffle back and forth naturally, but DANCE dance, with arabesques, chasses, and grand jetes. If those words don't make sense to you, these pictures should explain them. Here's John Travolta in 1977's Saturday Night Fever:
And here's John Travolta in the 1983 sequel, Staying Alive:
Look closely and you spot the differences.
In the first movie, Travolta plays a streetwise kid who likes to dance at discos on the weekend. In the sequel, he's a Broadway dancer who wears scraps of denim and rolls in grease before performances. This was what the 1980s did to people. Everyone had a bad case of the Broadways. How else do you explain Bruce Springsteen doing the Carlton dance?
We can spend a lot of time talking about '80s icons acting like flailing monkeys in their first attempts to connect with the MTV generation, but there's only one guy whose whole career was gutted by one bad video. Before "Rock Me Tonite," Billy Squier was an arena rocker with a huge following. After "Rock Me Tonite," Billy Squier was the first guy to dance his way into obscurity.
The concept for the video is simple: A regular guy is getting ready for a concert. First, Billy put on his semi-shredded shirt ...
Then he army crawled on the floor for a while, as grown men often do ...
Then he writhed for a bit. Then he air humped a pink T-shirt while simultaneously slinging it around like he was doing a lasso trick. The effect was pretty impressive, actually.
A minute into the video, Squier is totally sticking with standard rock star moves, believe it or not. Billy Idol writhed, Prince army crawled. Everything was fine. Sure, there were pink satin sheets on the bed and pop art Billy Squier eyes on the wall, but it was the '80s. Those things were standard issue. If only Squier could just stay on the floor for a while, everything would be OK.
The '80siest Moment:
At about 1:16, Squier pulls out his big moves. His dance moves. The ones he's been doing for years on stage. The ones that are going to seal his fate as an '80s icon.
Oh lord, we've got ourselves a skipper. For the next three minutes, Billy manages to skip across every inch of the room in a terrible approximation of dancing. If a bad improv group had a character called "happy little girl," Billy Squier's dance moves are how she'd flounce across the stage. It doesn't help that he's knock-kneed, so his legs kick outward. Put the face of Eddie Van Halen on the body of Mr. Bean and this is what you get.
From that point on, nothing else mattered. What started as a typical '80s video became a cautionary tale about what happens when you try to be a rock star in a Broadway world. You might do a straight-legged flop onto you satiny bed because there's so much anguish in your head.
Or sing into an air microphone while marching jauntily.
Finally, the moment comes when Billy gets his guitar and joins his band. We can put this nightmare behind us- oh wait.