With 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”.