The 10 Most-Memed Songs of the 1980s (And Five More That Could Be Next)
From the heartless act of “rickrolling” to the wholesome beauty of Toto’s “Africa,” here are 10 smash hits from the ‘80s that have lasted well into the 21st century.
The 1980s were a decade of big hair, big hooks and big laughs -- sometimes intentional, sometimes not. The era produced some of the most enduring pop songs of all time, and as the internet and social media allow listeners to indulge their nostalgia more than ever, these songs have enjoyed a second life in the 21st century.
Many of them have become viral memes, and some have simply been reappraised as unabashed masterpieces by a generation of listeners who weren’t even alive during the Reagan administration. Rob Sheffield said it best: “If you were famous in the ‘80s, you will never, never be unfamous again.”
Here are 10 of the decade’s most meme-able songs -- including a certain 1982 classic we recently featured in a Billboard oral history -- and five more that could someday enjoy the same fate.
10. Men Without Hats, “The Safety Dance”
Men Without Hats lead singer Ivan Doroschuk wrote “The Safety Dance” after being kicked out of a club for pogoing. He clearly had the last laugh, as the song became a global smash hit and has appeared everywhere from South Park episodes to a slew of first-generation memes. Despite some earnest interpreters, Doroschuk insists the song isn’t about safe sex or anti-nuclear protest. It’s simply about freedom of expression — a message that never gets old.
9. Europe, “The Final Countdown”
By the time they released The Final Countdown in 1986, Europe had abandoned the hard-charging, prog-metal sound they sculpted in Sweden in the late ‘70s and fully embraced the pop-metal fluff that had taken the U.S. by storm. Anchored by an unshakable keyboard riff and singer Joey Tempest’s pristine vibrato, the record’s title track remains a fan favorite at professional sporting events and pep rallies alike, even though VH1 named it one of the “50 Most Awesomely Bad Songs… Ever.” Considering the song hit No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 and Europe continues to play to huge crowds around the world, it’s unlikely they take the hate personally.
8. Nena, “99 Luftballons”
In an alternate universe, Nena’s “99 Luftballons” would have faded into obscurity as new wave and post-punk fell out of favor in the United States in the mid-‘80s, a curious relic from a bygone era that somehow managed to reach No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. Instead, it’s endured as one of the era’s catchiest odysseys, even though its original German lyrics serve as a protest against “NATO nuclear missile deployments.” During a 2006 Hurricane Katrina fundraiser, one diehard fan donated $35,000 to broadcast the song on VH1 Classic for an hour straight. And who says ‘80s music had no principles?
7. Biz Markie, “Just a Friend”
One of the more improbable Hot 100 top 10 hits of the '80s, “Just a Friend” turned Biz Markie into a certified cult hero (and pop one-hit wonder). Markie’s disarmingly relatable, slice-of-life raps and gloriously off-key chorus vocals make “Just a Friend” one of the most hilariously catchy rap songs of the decade. The track has enjoyed a long afterlife in TV shows such as It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and Black-ish, and Markie introduced himself to a whole new generation of listeners by starring in the brilliantly wacky TuneUp commercial alongside Andy Milonakis.
6. Journey - “Don’t Stop Believin’”
Crazy though it may sound now, Journey’s timeless pop-rock anthem wasn’t their biggest hit, only reaching No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100. (That honor goes to “Open Arms,” which peaked at No. 2.) Still, perhaps no ‘80s rock song has achieved the same cultural ubiquity in the 21st century. “Don’t Stop Believin’” catapulted back into the public’s consciousness after appearing on The Sopranos’ season finale in 2007; since then, you’d be hard-pressed to find a sporting event, high school dance or wedding reception that doesn’t blast that immortal opening keyboard riff.
5. Bonnie Tyler, “Total Eclipse of the Heart”
With its anthemic chorus and instantly recognizable “turn around” hook, Bonnie Tyler’s “Total Eclipse of the Heart” resonates as one of most heart-wrenching power ballads of the era — and an enduring karaoke staple to this day. The video is a lesson in over-the-top ‘80s production values, as Tyler waits longingly by the candlelit window of a castle as doves fly through open doors — and that’s just in the first minute. Ever the opportunist, Tyler belted her chart-topping hit aboard Royal Caribbean’s Oasis of the Seas during the solar eclipse on Aug. 21, 2017, proving that nobody can outclass the master.
4. Phil Collins, “In the Air Tonight”
Phil Collins’ debut solo single epitomizes the aesthetic of early-‘80s pop-rock: vaguely foreboding lyrics, chilly production and a palpable sense of melodrama from beginning to end. The track’s intensity slowly mounts until the 3:40 mark, climaxing with a thunderous drum break that’s become one of the most iconic fills of all time. Collins himself recognized this in a recent tweet, advising fans to play “In the Air Tonight” near midnight on New Year’s Eve so they could start 2018 off with a bang — literally.
3. George Michael, “Careless Whisper”
George Michael proved his worth as a bankable solo artist by striking out from Wham! with the infectious, breezy ballad “Careless Whisper.” The song shot to the top of the Billboard Hot 100, and its inimitable saxophone hook has since been meme’d numerous times. One YouTuber named Arf racked up nearly 5 million views by pitch-correcting their dog’s bark in the “Careless Bork” video, while Sexy Sax Man stormed fast-food establishments and Laundromats across the country with his own rendition of the smash hit.
2. Rick Astley, “Never Gonna Give You Up”
With his ill-fitting suits, auburn ducktail hairdo and totally unexpected baritone voice, Rick Astley was destined to become a viral meme since before Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web. Two decades after releasing the chart-topping “Never Gonna Give You Up,” the British crooner got his due thanks to the emergence of “rickrolling,” an internet prank in which users click on a video with a misleading headline only to be greeted by “Never Gonna Give You Up.” Sorry if you opened that video in the hopes of a Led Zeppelin reunion, but Astley’s hilarious dance moves aren’t a bad consolation prize.
1. Toto, “Africa”
It’s hard to explain exactly why Toto’s chart-topping smash has enjoyed such an incredible Internet renaissance 35 years after its release, but it’s downright impossible to resist the song’s unadulterated pleasures. The production is so clearly of-its-time, the instrumentation so ineffably wholesome, and the chorus a perfect blend of fantasy, melancholy and utter nonsense. None of the band members had actually been to Africa at the time of the song’s release; late drummer and co-writer Jeff Porcaro described it thusly: “A white boy is trying to write a song on Africa, but since he's never been there, he can only tell what he's seen on TV or remembers in the past.” In other words, it’s the perfect anthem for a generation steeped in nostalgia and existential angst.
Other ‘80s hits with meme potential:
The Outfield, “Your Love”
Outfield singer Tony Lewis clearly did his time at the Steve Perry School of Vocal Acrobatics, as his sky-high tenor turns “Your Love” into an irresistible anthem of lust and longing. The song hit No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1986 and became one of the biggest songs of the summer. Countless modern rock bands have covered it, but none have achieved the effortless glory of the original power-pop gem.
Culture Club, “Karma Chameleon”
Underneath the sunny instrumentation and ebullient chorus of Culture Club’s only stateside char-topper lies a cautionary tale about the perils of lacking conviction and letting others walk all over you. More importantly, its video established Boy George’s signature look: fingerless gloves, extravagant makeup and multicolor braids underneath a black bowler hat. Why the singer is riding a paddleboat down the Mississippi River in 1870 and thwarting the pickpockets among his multiracial party is a mystery, but clearly we could all learn a thing or two from Boy George’s infectious sense of unity.
Night Ranger, “Sister Christian”
Overlooking the creepiness of the fact that Night Ranger drummer Kelly Keagy wrote “Sister Christian” for his teenaged sister, Christy, the song remains one of the finest examples of bombastic ‘80s power balladry. Its hooks are gargantuan and its lyrics nearly unintelligible (“You’re motoring, what’s your price for flight?” in case you’re wondering), creating plenty of opportunity for ‘80s enthusiasts to misinterpret them on Twitter.
Dexys Midnight Runners, “Come On Eileen”
Is it any surprise that an English band with a name as gleefully nonsensical as Dexys Midnight Runners rocketed up the Billboard Hot 100 with a song that anchored its hook around a Celtic fiddle? Even in 1982, “Come On Eileen” sounded unlike anything on the pop charts, and it’s enjoyed a second life as a staple of high school dances, ever since it was featured in the radiant dance scene to The Perks of Being a Wallflower.
1. Men at Work, “Down Under”
Men at Work’s chart-topping “Down Under” painted a fascinating portrait of Australia for American audiences in the early ‘80s. Out of the titular land marched five goofily costumed men, swilling pints at the local pub and traipsing through the Cronulla sand dunes in fake mustaches and business suits, all to an irresistible flute melody. “Down Under” is actually about a globetrotting Aussie, but if U.S. affairs continue to worsen, the song may entice modern-day listeners to go visit the seemingly utopian continent for themselves.