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Remember When 1980s Pop Had A Fling With The 18th Century?

Veronica Litt

Hey, do you remember when 1980s pop had a fling with the 18th century? I do and I think about those glorious 18th century music videos ALL. THE. TIME.


18th Century Music Videos

Music from the 1980s and early 1990s was straight-up obsessed with 18th-century aesthetics. Belinda Carlisle’s “La Luna” video clothed actors in Marie Antoinette-style gowns and adorned sets with Rococo furniture. Andrew Lloyd Weber and his brother released a baffling album-length, pop-rock remix of Paganini. Adam and the Ants’ “Stand and Deliver” video features the lead singer as a glam highwayman who grifts the hoity toity upper classes. And who could forget Falco’s eternally-danceable anthem “Rock Me Amadeus”?!

(There’s also the French provocateur Mylène Farmer. She made a WILD video about an English soldier who’s obsessed with her butt—seriously—but that’s a story for another day).

But…Why? Madonna Has The Answer

In the 1980s and the early 1990s, the Restoration and the Regency made their way into movies, music, and fashion shows (see Vivienne Westwood’s trademark tricorn hats)—and they did so for good reason. The 1980s and the 18th century have a lot in common. Both were times of lavish spending and extravagant fashion trends brought on by economic booms. Could OTT power suits and puffy shoulder pads be the 1980s version of cartoonishly wide hoop skirts? I see it.

Nothing gets at this angle better than the material girl herself, Madonna. Now, we say “iconic” a lot these days, but Madge’s performance of “Vogue” at the MTV Movie Awards truly merits the word. As the 1980s Sun Queen, Madonna oversees divinely dressed club kids taking over a Versailles-esque ballroom. For four glorious minutes, we get to bask in all-out opulence: silks and taffetas, towering hairstyles, and exquisite fans that unfurl in time with the beat.

Everything is ostentatious and beautiful—a stunning display of pleasure, youth, wealth, and luxury. If this is the 18th century, Gordon Gekko wishes he had a time machine.

*Hedley Lamar Voice* Kinkyyyyy!

But of course, if we have a beautiful, gleaming surface, we’ve gotta have a seedy underbelly—and Madonna delivers. In the second half of her performance, Madge plays to type and gets a little freaky. At one point, as she appropriately sings “Bump and grind it,” she reveals her period-appropriate bloomers. Even more outrageous, she fans at her apparently inflamed nethers for an extended period of time. AND, despite being coded as gay, her male back-up dancers constantly dive under her voluminous skirts.

Sure, this world is beautiful, but it’s also hella kinky—just like the actual 18th century. Did you know that a little person named Baron Montfort liked to hang out under courtesans’ skirts at parties? Yeah, that happened. And honestly, that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

We often think of history as dry and crusty but good lord, you guys, the 18th century was a wild ride. People ran weird sex clubs, magazines printed near-explicit illustrations, soft-core novels like Fanny Hill got pirated like crazy, and we know for a fact that people were making intimate toys. The 1700s were a freaky deaky time, so of course friggin’ Madonna latched onto that sex positive energy.

Annie Lennox Enters The Arena

More proof that both the 18th century and the 1980s were gettin’ busy? Dangerous Liaisons. In 1988, Stephen Frears released his adaptation of Pierre Choderlos de Laclos’ incredibly scandalous 18th-century bestseller. Long story short: Two sociopaths named Merteuil and Valmont (played to perfection by Glenn Close and John Malkovich) mess around with people until Valmont catches feelings for a goody two-shoes (Michelle Pfeiffer). Then they all die or get banished, but before that happens, it’s a pretty spicy time.

Dangerous Liaisons made quite an impact on the 1980s and 1990s music scene. Madonna actually wore one of Glenn Close’s gowns for her “Vogue” performance. Then, just two years later, Annie Lennox paid homage in her own way. While making the video for her sacred bop “Walking on Broken Glass,” Lennox hired Malkovich to basically reprise his role as Valmont and play her love interest.

But don’t get it twisted: Annie Lennox did way more than write some musical fan fiction. Her music video actually rewrites Dangerous Liaisons in a pretty kick-butt way. Where the novel sees bad girl Merteuil lose everything, Lennox’s video suggests that A) ambitious women who are in touch with their desires aren’t automatically monsters and B) that they can and should get happy endings. Her video celebrates the most compelling aspects of Glenn Close’s bad girl character, revelling in her transgression and at the end, rewarding her with her boo.

And barring all Merteuil’s evil plots, there’s a lot of good here. I, for one, am very happy to root for a gal who straight up tells a man, “I’ve always known I was born to dominate your sex and avenge my own.” 10/10 Merteuil!

More Than An Homage

In “Walking on Broken Glass,” Lennox plays Merteuil’s femme fatale soul sister. While the good girls wear white crinoline, Lennox is decked out in luxurious scarlet velvet. When she should grin and bear it, she gets trashed and loses her dang mind, literally tearing John Malkovich away from his new girlfriend. This gal knows what she wants and fights for it. Respect to you, ma’am.

Would this have been acceptable in the 18th century? God no, but that doesn’t mean women didn’t think about it all the time. In the 1980s, feminist criticism was taking old ideas about pliant female characters and pious women writers and reconsidering their social messages. As it turns out, when you look at old books from the right angles, there’s a heck of a lot of rebels to uncover. We thought 18th century ladies were happy to play nice but wowy zowy, scholarship proved us wrong. Underneath almost every seemingly prim and proper novel lurks a woman writer who is furious about her lot in life.

This kind of criticism made readers rethink female characters from the 1700s. Is Merteuil just a villainess, or can we read her schemes as a way to exert control in an oppressive world? Are Jane Austen’s novels light little romcoms or trenchant analyses of how patriarchy constrains women? I’m gonna go with option B on both counts. Just like Madonna connected the 18th century’s consumer culture to the 1980s’ “Greed is Good” mentality, Annie Lennox made a through-line from the 1700s’ proto-feminist literature to 1980s’ second wave feminism.

TL;DR: Aesthetics aren’t just set dressing. They always, always, always carry political and social underpinnings. When it comes to 1980s music videos, that means getting down with some of the pressing concerns from a period long gone by: the 18th century.

And as a bonus, here’s a playlist of music videos set in the 18th century. Highlights include everything above, plus Lil Nas X’s instant classic “Montero” and much more!

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20


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