Music videos weren’t exactly a new phenomenon when MTV debuted in 1981. French musicians had been making short films to accompany their songs since the invention of the Scopitone visual jukebox in the late 1950s. However, MTV’s launch upped not only the quantity of music videos being produced, but the quality.
We racked our brains trying to come up with a list of the greatest music videos of the 1980s. While some of our picks are painfully obvious, there are a few that we felt flew under the radar.
9. Public Enemy “Night Of The Living Baseheads”
More effective than any D.A.R.E. class you were forced to sit through, Public Enemy’s “Night Of The Living Baseheads” video managed to both make you laugh, while scaring you away from the evils of freebasing cocaine. “Night Of The Living Baseheads” was a rather unorthodox video, cleverly interrupting Chuck D’s performance scenes to a mock newscast (Flavor Flav as co-anchor? Genius!).
8. L.L. Cool J “I’m Bad”
LL Cool J’s girl gets kidnapped while posting anti-drug flyers on the street. LL assembles his posse who take out the bad guys (who all just so happen to be rich white guys… MESSAGE!). The video’s narrative, coupled with LL’s iconic performance scenes make this one of the best videos of the 1980s. “Gimme that walkie talkie!”
7. Prince “When Doves Cry”
Is there a more iconic moment in a music video than a camera passing through two stained glass doors into a room with flowers scattered about the floor and doves flying around while a man sits in a bathtub? Prince & The Revolution’s “When Doves Cry” music video is one of the few truly memorable videos that the Minneapolis genius ever released, not to mention a hell of a song.
6. Run DMC “King Of Rock”
Two black men wearing all black leather and white adidas walk into the Museum of Rock N Roll and are told immediately as they enter that they “don’t belong in here.” Run DMC’s “King Of Rock” video served as a powerful statement of hip-hop’s arrival and intent to takeover mainstream American culture. 22 years after this video’s release, the first rap group, Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, were inducted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, with Run DMC to be inducted 2 years later.
5. Janet Jackson “Pleasure Principle”
The public had already fallen in love with Janet Jackson by the time her “Pleasure Principle” video debuted. We all knew that Janet could had some moves, but it wasn’t until she flipped the light switch at the beginning of this video that we all learned that Michael’s little sister could give him a run for his money.
4. Janet Jackson “Rhythm Nation”
The black-and-white “Rhythm Nation” video was a dancer’s wet dream. The tightly choreographed military-inspired dance routines coupled with the song’s message helped establish Janet Jackson as an artist whose music video releases became events, just like her brother.
3. Michael Jackson “Beat It”
The red jacket. The knife fight. Need we say more?
2. Michael Jackson “Billie Jean”
If anything planted the seed for Michael Jackson’s almost superhuman persona, it was this video. Only a man that was 100% magical could dance like Michael did, not to mention cause the sidewalks to light up with each step he took.
1. Michael Jackson “Thriller”
In the 80s, the music video experienced a period of rapid growth and innovation as musicians pushed the limits of what could be done in the span of a three and a half minutes, or in the case of Michael Jackson’s Thriller, fourteen minutes. There’s a reason why “Thriller” often takes the number one spot on lists of the greatest music videos of all time. To repeat these reasons would be overkill. All it takes is one viewing to know that this was a monumental moment in music and film history.