Video Stars: Ladies of the Eighties

aimeeWith the dawn of the 80’s came the rise of the music video, culminating with the founding of MTV. Image, which had always been significant in the realm of pop music, was suddenly elevated to unprecedented importance. A large number of previously popular bands did not make the transition into the 80’s, but those who were willing to invest in the music video system found themselves riding an unstoppable wave to the top of the charts. Many of these artists were women, willing to roll with the changes and take the opportunity to shine.

One of the biggest video stars of the decade was undoubtedly Cyndi Lauper. Growing up in Queens, Cyndi worked in thrift stores like Screaming Mimi’s to make ends meet while she sang in nightclubs. After leaving her first band, Blue Angel, in 1982, Cyndi recorded her debut album, She’s So Unusual. She became the first female artist to achieve 4 top ten hits off the same album, and soon made a reputation for herself on the strength of her music videos. Using her background in thrift stores to put together eccentric ensembles, Cyndi told stories with her videos and cultivated variations on her distinctive look in each one. 1983’s “Time After Time” is an excellent example of Cyndi’s careful control of her image as a relatable heroine:

College student Aimee Mann left the punk band the Young Snakes to form the new wave band ‘Til Tuesday in 1982. An accomplished songwriter, Aimee penned the hit song “Voices Carry” in 1985 after a fight with her boyfriend. The lyrics tell the tale of a woman being held down by her abusive partner. “He wants me— if he can keep me in line”, she sang. The song’s accompanying video expanded on the theme, and featured Aimee’s trademark spiky blonde hair. Such a story was unusually serious for MTV, but the high quality of the song ensured its airplay. Aimee would eventually go solo, and garner an Academy Award nomination for her work on the Magnolia soundtrack.

Few artists in the 80’s saw as much success as Prince. When he met singer and percussionist Sheila E, he promised her they would collaborate. Several years later, he made good on his promise by involving her in the sessions for his massively successful Purple Rain album. He then offered her a song he had written, “The Glamorous Life”. It shot up the charts into the top 10, and made Sheila E a superstar. The video for the single established Sheila’s image as a bewitching chanteuse, while reiterating her talents as a musician.

Although she played lead guitar in the Runaways with Joan Jett, Lita Ford dreamed of becoming a heavy metal star along the lines of her idols, Deep Purple. After leaving the band, she launched a solo career in 1983. After two disappointing albums, she took control of her career and produced her third album, Lita, herself. The album finally made her a superstar, with four hit singles (one a duet with her hero, Ozzy Osbourne). The video for “Kiss Me Deadly” was classic Lita: all black leather, bleached hair and tough attitude, she was the party girl of the decade.

Although they formed in the late 70’s, L.A. new wave band Berlin didn’t really get their big break until 1986. That was the year they collaborated with producer Giorgio Moroder on a song for the Top Gun soundtrack— “Take My Breath Away”. Lead singer Terri Nunn, who also pursued acting alongside her music career, sported two-tone hair and elegant style. After their number one hit, Terri left Berlin to go solo, and recorded for the Better Off Dead soundtrack. “Take My Breath Away” won the Academy Award for Best Original Song.

Trained as a classical vocalist, Pat Benatar surprised everyone who knew her when she began singing rock in the mid-70’s. Scoring her first hit in 1979 with “Heartbreaker”, the tiny and tough Pat refined a look that was made for the video age: very high heels and lots of spandex. Her video “You Better Run” was the second music video to be played by MTV (the first was “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles). She went on to become one of the biggest stars of the decade, with hits like “Love is a Battlefield” and “We Belong”.

Video Stars: Jenny Lewis

jennyWith her girlish, shadow-tinged vocals, conversational lyrics, and stellar sense of style, Jenny Lewis has become an indie rock icon. Though she’s only been a recording artist for 15 years, Jenny’s career has been incredibly diverse; she has performed as a solo artist, as well as with Rilo Kiley, The Postal Service, and Jenny and Johnny, covering a wide range of music genres along the way. An actor as a child, she was featured in “The Wizard”, “Troop Beverly Hills” and “Pleasantville”, and guested on shows like “The Golden Girls“. She eventually left that profession after becoming increasingly more interested in music, and discovered a burgeoning talent for writing songs. Jenny’s acting experience later translated into her music videos, while her insider’s knowledge of Hollywood cropped up in her songwriting.

Jenny formed the band Rilo Kiley in 1998, with her then-boyfriend, Blake Sennett. He was also a former child actor, appearing in “Salute Your Shorts” and “Boy Meets World”. The band released their first album that year, as well as their first video, for “The Frug”. The video showcases Jenny’s  natural charisma, as well as the band’s quirky late 90’s indie style.

Rilo Kiley had released two more albums when Jenny was asked to be part of The Postal Service’s album Give Up, a project spearheaded by Death Cab for Cutie’s Ben Gibbard. Jenny contributed backing vocals on several songs, and appeared with Gibbard and Jimmy Tamborello in the futuristic video for “We Will Become Silhouettes”. She also toured with the Postal Service in 2003, and participated in their 2013 reunion shows.

Jenny returned to Rilo Kiley in time for their fourth album, 2004’s More Adventurous. This album brought the band their biggest success, and Jenny was featured prominently with more lead vocals and personal songs. The video for “Portions for Foxes” features louder guitars and a tougher Jenny:

Two years later, Jenny released her first solo album, a collaboration with the Watson Twins entitled Rabbit Fur Coat. On it, Jenny showcased her songwriting in a new way, with folk and country-tinged ballads performed with a soulful flair. She was open about her influences, which included Laura Nyro, Emmylou Harris, and various Laurel Canyon legends. The video for “Rise Up With Fists!” featured a set inspired by Hee Haw, and costumes from the Loretta Lynn school of country:

Jenny returned to the Rilo Kiley fold one more time, for their last album: Under the Blacklight. “Silver Lining”, with a guitar line lifted from George Harrison, proved to be perfect fodder for a video. Jenny plays a bride who is uncertain about her groom and her future, showcasing her acting skills:

With the breakup of Rilo Kiley, Jenny was free to return to her solo career. In 2008 she released Acid Tongue, which expanded on her previous record. This time she branched out, with heavier songs balancing out the folk and country. The video for “See Fernando” is a retro spy caper, allowing Jenny to be her most playful:

In 2010, Jenny teamed up with her current boyfriend, Johnathan Rice, to form the duo Jenny and Johnny. They released I’m Having Fun Now, an album heavily influenced by late 80s/early 90s indie rock. The video for “Big Wave” allows the couple to play off each other on the streets of Hollywood:

Video Stars: The Women of Lilith Fair

sarahWhen Sarah McLachlan organized the first Lilith Fair traveling music festival in 1997, the concept was groundbreaking: three stages, dozens of performers…all of them women. Sarah had grown angry at the conventional concert promotion wisdom of the day, which stated that two female performers should never be featured back-to-back (because the audience would presumably lose interest). In 1996, she went against this advice and organized her own tour, which featured a new artist named Paula Cole. The tour was hugely successful, and the next summer she expanded this idea and Lilith Fair was born. The festival was so beloved by fans and critics that it returned in 1998 and 1999, with a reunion in 2010. The early Lilith Fair years coincided with a flood of hit songs and videos by female performers, causing music writers to claim that 1997 (and 1998) was the “Year of the Woman” in the music industry. The late 90’s was also the peak of the importance of the music video, and the Lilith Fair performers made their share of interesting clips to promote their songs.

Sarah McLachlan’s album Surfacing was released in the summer of 1997, just as the first Lilith Fair tour was picking up steam. The album was one of the biggest hits of the year, with four of its songs reaching the Top 40. Its first single, “Building a Mystery”, set the mood for not only the album, but the entire Lilith Fair experience: thoughtful lyrics, expressive singing, and the assurance that the listener was about to hear something amazing:

Shawn Colvin’s “Sunny Came Home” launched the somewhat obscure singer into the mainstream, landing in the top 10 and winning a Grammy award for song of the year. The song’s dark subject matter, about a woman who burns down her home in order to break with the past, went over the heads of many listeners on the radio, but was made obvious in the video:

Sheryl Crow’s album The Globe Sessions, her third, began with the single “My Favorite Mistake”. A story of heartbreak and betrayal, the song was rumored to be written about Sheryl’s ex-boyfriend Eric Clapton, although she has always denied this. The video was shot on vintage film, and featured Sheryl in her then-trademark leather pants, playing her favorite guitar:

“I Do” was the featured single from Lisa Loeb’s album Firecracker. At first listen, the song appears to be about a relationship, although Lisa eventually revealed that she directed the lyrics to her record company, who pressured her to write “radio-friendly” songs: “We were almost finished recording the album, Firecracker, and the record company told us that we still needed a single. I decided to write a song that sounded like a song about a relationship but was actually about the record company not ‘hearing’ a single on the record already. You can hear it in the lyrics, ‘You can’t hear it, but I do.’ The song ended up being an expression of strength and power even when someone’s not treating you right.” The video was a fixture on MTV:

Sixpence None the Richer had released quality music with little fanfare for half a decade before their single “Kiss Me” burst onto the scene in 1998. The band made two videos for the song; the second received a great amount of airplay on MTV and featured the band performing the song while sitting on a bench. The original video, however, was a tribute to the classic French film Jules et Jim:


When Natalie Merchant left the band 10,000 Maniacs in 1993, she immediately began to work on a solo album. Her hard work and eloquent lyrics served her well, and her 1998 album Ophelia became her biggest success yet. The single “Kind And Generous” reached the top 10 while Natalie was touring with Lilith Fair, proving how invaluable a spot on the tour had become by its second year of existence. The video featured Natalie as a member of a carnival:

Video Stars: Debbie Harry

Music - BlondieAs the most commercially successful band to come out of the New York City punk scene of the late 1970s, Blondie learned that it definitely paid to have a charismatic, photogenic and brilliant lead singer—Debbie Harry. Pioneers of the music video, Blondie showcased their dynamic songs in a way that few bands of the time were prepared to do, and they placed Debbie front and center. With her signature bleach-blond hair, off-kilter style (she performed in a ripped-up wedding dress years before anyone had heard of Madonna) and killer vocals, she stole the show.

In the clip for their first single, “X Offender”, Debbie sports a Pink Ladies jacket and ponytail:

For 1976’s “In The Flesh”, it’s a slinky black dress and beret:

In a performance of “(I’m Always Touched By Your) Presence, Dear” from Great Britain’s Top of the Pops, she is monochromatic in blue:

“Hangin’ on the Telephone”, from the band’s masterwork “Parallel Lines”, is a great example of Debbie’s playful showmanship:

1979’s “Shayla” has the band moving in a new, more dramatic direction, with Debbie exhibiting an industrial-chic look:

In “Rapture”, Blondie helped bring rap music to the mainstream, as Debbie stalks the streets in a lace shawl and high heels:

The effect these videos, and others by Blondie, would have on up and coming talent— Madonna, Cyndi Lauper, and, more recently, Gwen Stefani, to name a few— is immediately perceptible. But no other band, and no other singer, would quite match the effortless cool of Blondie and Debbie Harry.