15 Songs Millennials Must Listen to in Order to Understand the 1980s

You’ve seen Thriller and heard all about Madonna, but what do you really know about the decade that ushered in the millennial generation? Think the era of scrunchies, boom boxes, pump sneakers and DeLoreans was just a fad? Think again. Some of the 1990s’ greatest pop culture trends were birthed in the millieu of Reaganomics, cable television, and a music video-loaded MTV.


15. Culture Club – “Karma Chameleon”

The ’80s was the decade of John Waters, the B-52s and all things camp coming to fruition. Decked out in eyeliner, lipstick and braids, Boy George popularized the aesthetic of this gay subculture with a poppy little tune about conflicted relationships. As for the music video, where better to set a gay guy’s love song in the ’80s than an 1870s riverboat called the “Chameleon” where a cheating gambler’s karma comes back to haunt him? Dude, it’s the ’80s: “Don’t ask, don’t tell” started here.

14. Pat Benatar – “Love Is a Battlefield”

If you were a chick in the ’80s, you either glam’d up like Cyndi Lauper, candy-popped like Tiffany, or rocked out like Pat Benatar. (Madonna was a genre-hybrid, depending on her mood. Look! She’s feeling herself up on live TV! Whatever.) Pat Benatar carried the badass chick rock spirit of the ’70s (think: Blondie) through ’80s glam, paving the way, oddly enough, for female country rockers in the new millennium. Carrie Underwood wouldn’t be slashing tires today if Pat Benatar hadn’t made it clear that Love Is a Battlefield way back when.

13. Robert Palmer – “Addicted to Love”

These chicks defined ’80s cool. Megan Mullally’s character on the ’90s sitcom Will & Grace would comment that the ’80s were the ’40s on coke. The aesthetic of Addicted to Love, with the fitted dresses, perfect hair and exaggerated glamour makeup, offers that drugged-up version of ’40s style. These chicks jam in sync, emotionless, as if the sex was zapped out of them by Steinem’s feminist warriors a decade prior. They are machines equipped with, and meant to serve, the “one-track mind” Palmer is singing about. Think Katy Perry is a vapid sex machine? Check out these broads.


12. Devo – “Whip It”

Geek culture was birthed in the ’80s. Artists like Weird Al made being a nerd cool. The genre-mashing group Devo, with their trademark blend of satire, social commentary, and science fiction, breathed fresh life into the music world with their groundbreaking video Whip It.

11. Grateful Dead – “Touch of Grey”

Around since the ’60s (and originally known as the Warlocks), the Grateful Dead didn’t record from 1980-1987. When the band got back together after Jerry Garcia almost died, they brought their trademark style to MTV with Touch of Grey. In doing so, The Dead resurrected the jam band for a mainstream audience, paving the way for groups like Phish and Widespread Panic and, of course, influencing the creation of Woodstock ’94. They also provided an outlet for straight guys who didn’t dig eyeliner and spandex to rock out.

10. Salt-N-Pepa – “Push It”

Rap started in the ’80s. Sure, I could just show you M.C. Hammer in parachute pants and be done with it, but as it turns out, his wasn’t the strongest influence on a genre that would inevitably become as corrupt as the ghetto itself. Salt-N-Pepa’s penchant for illicit innuendo not only made them the first female rap group to garner real attention, it also paved the way for the raunchy rap of the ’90s. Today, Beyonce sings about sex and no one really bats an eye thanks to Salt-N-Pepa.


9. Eurythmics – “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)”

La Roux wouldn’t be were it not for Annie Lennox and her powerful androgynous bent. The Eurythmics were equal parts geek, art, and sensuality. Intellectual enough to raise questions through their music, their tunes were still accessible to a mainstream audience. Annie Lennox became an androgynous powerhouse not unlike Grace Jones, whose Cher-like theatrics scored her Bond girl status in A View to a Kill.

8. Tiffany – “I Think We’re Alone Now”

Want to understand chick style in the ’80s, or finally get the Robin Sparkles joke from How I Met Your Mother? Look no further than Tiffany, the teenage queen who became known for impromptu concerts in shopping malls around the country. When pop was safe for little girls, we’d hit play on our cassette decks and jam out to Tiffany’s version of “I Saw Her Standing There” and her hit single “I Think We’re Alone Now.” A one-hit wonder, Tiffany fell into relative obscurity, leaving her crimped hair, acid wash jeans, and one awesome album to the ages.

7. Huey Lewis & the News – “Power of Love”

Androgynous feminism aside, romantic love was big in the ’80s. If guys weren’t glam-rocking their perms, braiding ribbons into their hair, or donning tie-dye, they were trying to win a girl’s heart. Countless ballads came out of the ’80s.


Filmmakers like John Hughes played into the teenage demographic with endless storybook romances, while the growing professional female demographic swooned at Working Girl, and hits like An Officer and a Gentleman slapped an all-American seal of approval on modern romance. The ’80s was the decade to fall in love with a secretly sensitive guy.

6. Queen & David Bowie – “Under Pressure”

As conflicted as Bowie fans are over his ’80s catalog, even the most passionate will attest to the sheer coolness of this powerhouse pairing. Under Pressure was so good, in fact, that a mediocre white rapper dubbed Vanilla Ice “borrowed” the beat for his own tacky tune. Opening with shots of crowded train stations and city streets, the song commented on the career pressure of ’80s yuppie culture while foreshadowing the impact of mobile technology in the 21st century.

5. Billy Joel – “We Didn’t Start the Fire”

Fueled by Reagan’s ramp-up of the Cold War, the apocalypse was a powerful undercurrent in ’80s culture. We’d quit ducking, covering, and building bomb shelters decades earlier. Nevertheless, the idea of Star Wars and impending nuclear disaster fueled distrust in political leadership (see: Genesis’s Land of Confusion) and a really big urge not to take the blame. Billy Joel wavers between a zen-like inevitability and a very Jewish “don’t blame me!” with “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” a definite precursor for R.E.M.’s It’s the End of the World As We Know It, an ’80s song that didn’t hit its stride until the ’90s.


4. Simple Minds – “Don’t You (Forget About Me)”

Resurrected for millennials thanks to the cult hit Pitch Perfect, the song that launched Simple Minds has never gone out of style. A powerful ballad about love and relationships, it can be as platonic as it is romantic in nature. Friendship was a huge topic in the 1980s. Films like The Breakfast Club played on the Gen-X reality of latchkey kids being raised by disconnected divorced and/or working parents. These seemingly “disaffected youth” would rely on one another as a makeshift family with which to face life’s challenges. Ross and Rachel, Monica and Chandler, Phoebe and Joey were all teens in the ’80s, the decade that birthed the Friends trend.

3. U2 – “Where the Streets Have No Name”

Before the Internet, near the dawn of 24-hour cable news, there was Bono. In the ’80s, the American march for civil rights went global, causing us to think twice about the various cultural boundaries and stereotypes that did more to divide than unite us. In some ways this strive for equality played out obnoxiously, giving birth to the political correctness movement of the ’90s. And yet, in other ways, we began to view tradition in terms of moral behavior, shrugging off the “we’ve always done it this way” mentality.

2. Bobby McFerrin – “Don’t Worry, Be Happy”


If you were a kid in the ’80s, chances are you were stuck doing some kind of theater or choral performance featuring this reggae tune or the even more obnoxious “Wind Beneath My Wings.” (I got stuck doing a sign-language version of the Bette Midler tear-jerker and was forced to re-live my hatred for the song throughout many a family wedding in the ’90s. Seriously, her best friend dies in the movie; this is not the song to narrate a romantic interlude.) As corny as it seems, Don’t Worry, Be Happy is a great mellowing ditty for when you’re in the mood to kick back. And the music video featuring Robin Williams is just plain fun.

1. Bruce Springsteen – “Born in the U.S.A.”

Despite Cold War tensions, the ’80s was an intensely patriotic decade. Reagan’s dual term in the White House lent a ’50s-like nostalgia to the era, a much-needed balm for a nation that had been at war with itself since Kennedy’s assassination two decades prior. Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the U.S.A. had everyone singing about being “proud to be an American.” Artists from all over the world banded together in America to sing for a number of causes, the most notable being African famine relief (“We Are the World“). Despite the AIDS crisis, Iran-Contra, and the seemingly endless battle with the Soviet Union, everything felt possible in the 1980s. We could still work together, fall in love, rock out under pressure, and survive. Perhaps that is why, whether we watch The Goldbergs, embrace a newfound love for leggings, or jam to these tunes, we love to reminisce about the ’80s.



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