Skip to Content

7 Songs That Defined the 80s

7 Songs That Defined the 80s

We think certain 80s songs stand above the rest. While some people say no good music came out of that decade, we like to think these seven great hits prove them wrong.

You may already be familiar with most of these tunes. But we have some behind-the-scenes fun facts that might be new to you.

Join us as we go back to the 80s and remember how good some of these songs were.

Let’s rock!

About Songs of the 80s

With the declining popularity of disco heading into the 1980s, the music industry had room for a new style. MTV also began airing music videos, making a band’s physical appearance just as important as its sound. The 80s saw the emergence of hair rock and dance moves like the moonwalk and running man to go along with hit songs. 

The music that accompanied the new dance crazes featured electronics and drum machines. Most songs from the 80s also featured keyboards or synthesizers and over-the-top production in the studio. Pop artists like Michael Jackson and rockers like Whitesnake rose to prominence around this time. Other 80s artists you’ve probably heard of include Billy Joel and Cyndi Lauper.

Now, we’ll get into the seven songs that we think define the 80s.

#1 Livin’ on a Prayer

About the Song: Bon Jovi wrote this hit with Richie Sambora and Desmond Child. It tells the story of two kids, Tommy and Gina, who work hard to overcome adversity to make it in the music industry. 

They based it on Desmond’s real-life experience working as a cab driver while dating a singing waitress. The song became a kind of anthem for young New Jersey kids who resonated with the story.

Greatest Lyric:

Tommy used to work on the dock
Union’s been on strike, he’s been down on his luck
Gina works the diner all day
Workin’ for her man, she brings home her pay

First Appearance: Bon Jovi released Livin’ on a Prayer as the second single from his third album, Slippery When Wet, in 1986. It quickly climbed to the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100.

#2 Everybody Wants to Rule the World

About the Song: The English pop group Tears for Fears released their first number-one hit, Everybody Wants to Rule the World, in 1985. Band members Roland Orzabal, Ian Stanley, and Chris Hughes co-wrote the song while taking a break from recording another great hit, Shout.

Everybody Wants to Rule the World may be a catchy tune, but it has some dark subject matter. It describes humankind’s obsession with power and the warfare it brings.

Greatest Lyric:

Help me make the
Most of freedom and of pleasure
Nothing ever lasts forever
Everybody wants to rule the world

First Appearance:

The lyric, “Everybody wants to rule the world,” first appeared in a 1980 song by The Clash called Charlie Don’t Surf. Roland Orzabal once jokingly gave the lead singer of The Clash five English pounds for the rights to the line.

#3 Take on Me

About the Song: Admit it, you’ve jammed out to the iconic pop synth intro to Take on Me by a-ha. It may surprise you that this tune didn’t hit the charts initially. 

However, Warner Bros. Records paid movie theaters to show the song’s music video before films after its release in May 1985. And MTV began playing the video in August 1985. After it aired, the tune became a regular on many radio stations, and it eventually reached number one on the charts in October, five months after its release.

Greatest Lyric:

So needless to say
I’m odds and ends
But I’ll be stumbling away
Slowly learning that life is okay

First Appearance: In 1982, a-ha recorded this song under the title Lesson One, which got them their contract with Warner Bros. They rewrote the tune in 1984, but it flopped, so the band found a new producer who helped create the version we know today.

#4 Billie Jean

About the Song: Pop legend Michael Jackson wrote Billie Jean about a woman who’d been stalking him. According to his producer Quincy Jones, she even broke into his house. The stalker claimed that Jackson was the father of her twins.

Many artists credit this great hit with breaking the color barrier on MTV. More music by Black musicians made its way into the mainstream after the song’s release.

Greatest Lyric:

For forty days and for forty nights
The law was on her side
But who can stand when she’s in demand
Her schemes and plans

First Appearance: Billie Jean rocketed to the number one spot on the charts in 1983 and won Michael Jackson two Grammy awards. 

#5 Don’t Stop Believin’

About the Song: Journey’s keyboard player Johnny Cain had the idea for Don’t Stop Believin’ when he first moved to Hollywood to pursue his musical dreams. He thought of quitting, but his dad always encouraged him to keep working hard.

Cain remembered seeing swarms of hopeful artists like himself out on Sunset Boulevard every Friday night. He recalls seeing optimistic actors and musicians refusing to quit on their dreams.

Greatest Lyric:

Some will win, some will lose
Some were born to sing the blues
Oh, the movie never ends
It goes on and on and on and on

First Appearance: Journey released this song in 1981. While it only reached number eight on the charts at the time, this enduring hit became the first song on iTunes to be downloaded two million times.

#6 Sweet Child O’ Mine

About the Song: Guns N’ Roses adapted a poem by their lead singer Axl Rose for their hit Sweet Child O’ Mine. He wrote it about his then-girlfriend Erin Everly.

The band’s guitarists Slash and Izzy Stradlin contributed the song’s iconic guitar solo and chords, respectively. Sweet Child O’ Mine won an MTV Video Music Award for Best Heavy Metal Video in 1989.

Greatest Lyric:

She’s got eyes of the bluest skies
As if they thought of rain
I’d hate to look into those eyes 
And see an ounce of pain

First Appearance: The band released Sweet Child O’ Mine as the third single from their first album in 1988 after their first two singles flopped. The song steadily climbed to number one on the charts. 

#7 Girls Just Want to Have Fun

About the Song: Cyndi Lauper’s producer Rick Chertoff had to beg her to record Girls Just Want to Have Fun. Good thing he did because the tune became an anthem for women everywhere.

The song’s music video also set the stage for global fashion trends. Additionally, it won the first-ever MTV Music Video Award for Best Female Video in 1984. 

Greatest Lyric:

Some boys take a beautiful girl
And hide her away from the rest o the world
I wanna be the one to walk in the sun
Oh, girls, they wanna have fun

First Appearance: Robert Hazard wrote this hit and recorded a demo in 1979. When Lauper decided to sing it for her 1981 album, she changed a few lyrics to make it match her female perspective.

Songs From the 80s That Still Rock

Most, if not all, of these songs released in the 80s can still be heard today. Don’t Stop Believin‘ is a popular karaoke tune, and is also played at some sporting events. And Girls Just Want to Have Fun deserves a spot on every road trip playlist. These enduring tunes have certainly stood the test of time.

Did we miss one of your favorite songs from the 80s? Tell us in the comments!