Some songs are fantastic, some are not so good, and the 1980s had plenty of examples of both. However, there were also many completely divisive songs in the 80s, and depending on who you speak to they were either fantastic or awful, catchy or just totally annoying!
Let’s look at a few of them, and be sure to let us know which side of the fence you fall on…
We Built This City – Starship
Starship’s earworm rock anthem We Built This City has become something of a cult classic, but listeners tend to fall into two camps: those who love how cheesy it is and those who despise it. Do you love or hate this debut single from the 1985 album Knee Deep in the Hoopla? A 2011 readers’ poll by Rolling Stone magazine saw this tune voted as the worst song of the 80s.
Likewise GQ Magazine has described We Built This City as “the most detested song in human history”. It features an argument between a singing duo and a (wordless) music executive who is exploiting them for money. The famous lyrics don’t refer to one specific city, but instead make reference to San Francisco, New York City, Los Angeles and Cleveland, Ohio.
Don’t Worry, Be Happy – Bobby McFerrin
An unusual song, and it’s definitely the “Ooooh ooh ooh ooh ooh ooooooh” bit of the song that winds many people up! Just as many find this toe-tappingly good, though! Don’t Worry, Be Happy is an entirely a capella tune, with all of the background ‘instrument’ sounds created by sole vocalist Bobby McFerrin. It was the first a capella song to top the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Don’t Worry, Be Happy was first introduced to the public in the 1988 movie Cocktail, starring Tom Cruise. Despite its mixed reception since its release, critics doubt this catchy tune is going anywhere: Kieran McCarthy of Allmusic has predicted that it will “probably remain prevalent in pop culture as long as humans speak English and play music.”
Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go – Wham!
One of those songs that sums up what 80s music was all about – bouncy, catchy and just good fun – Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go can also prove simply too much for some people. Wham! duo George Michael and Andrew Ridgeley reportedly predicted that the tune would sail straight to number one, but it actually took a week to achieve this spot, where it remained for two weeks.
Written and produced by George Michael, the lyrics of this dance pop classic were inspired by a note written by Andrew Ridgeley to his parents. In a hurry, Ridgeley once scrawled, “Wake me up up before you go”, accidentally duplicating the word “up”. To create balance, Ridgeley then jokingly added another “go” onto the end of his note.
Physical – Olivia Newton-John
Is Physical a little less divisive than the other songs on this list? Possibly, as we haven’t ever met anyone who dislikes it, but we have heard rumours that those people exist – are you one of them? Covered by Kylie Minogue, Sophie Ellis-Bextor and Juliana Hatfield, and more recently a source of inspiration for Dua Lipa and Doja Cat, this song has been a touchstone for female pop stars.
Physical was originally written by Terry Shaddick and Steve Kipner for a male rock singer to perform, until Olivia Newton-John received a demo from her manager Lee Kramer. Newton-John was originally uncertain as she thought the lyrics were “too cheeky”, but she ultimately transformed her career through it. Physical also features a guitar solo by Toto’s Steve Lukather.
I Just Called to Say I Love You – Stevie Wonder
One of the best-selling songs of the 1980s, Stevie Wonder’s I Just Called to Say I Love You obviously has a huge fan base. It remains Wonder’s most popular song of all time, chief among his smorgasbord of international hits. But this pop ballad is also classed by many as simply too cheesy and dull. Would you agree with the haters?
The famous tune also caused a bit of a headache for Wonder himself. In 1995, Wonder fought a lawsuit against Lee Garrett and Lloyd Chiate, who claimed that they, not Wonder, had penned the song. Wonder, on the other hand, claimed he wrote the lyrics in 1976 while visiting his mother in San Fernando Valley. The jury eventually sided with Wonder.
Sussudio – Phil Collins
Phil Collins had a string of big hits in the 80s and 90s, both solo and with Genesis, and Sussudio was one of them, but many consider it one of his weakest – where do you stand? The English singer-songwriter released this melody as a single in January 1985, and both the single and its album (No Jacket Required) topped the US Billboard charts later that year.
Critics remain divided on Sussudio. Writing for the Daily Vault, Michael R. Smith has described the song as “like nothing you had ever heard before on the radio… pure magic”. In 2013, however, Tom Service wrote in The Guardian, “Sussudio brings me out in a cold sweat; the production, the drum machine, the inane sincerity of the lyrics; there’s no colder or more superficial sound in popular music, precisely because it takes itself so seriously.”
Ebony and Ivory – Paul McCartney featuring Stevie Wonder
A song with a real message and meaning, but featuring what’s regularly voted one of the worst duets of all time, was Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder’s Ebony and Ivory simply too commercial and too ‘in your face’ with its message to be anything other than annoying? McCartney reportedly penned this somewhat repetitive tune on a farm in Scotland.
A song about racial integration, Ebony and Ivory also played a surprising role in Apartheid history in South Africa upon release in 1982. Two years later, Stevie Wonder won his Academy Award for Best Original Song (for the aforementioned I Just Called To Say I Love You) and, in his acceptance speech, he dedicated the prize to the imprisoned Nelson Mandela. In retaliation, South Africa’s Broadcasting Corporation banned Ebony and Ivory.
The Lady in Red – Chris de Burgh
Another song with lots of fans, many people just find The Lady in Red too generic in tone. Lyrics like “I’ve never seen you looking so gorgeous as you did tonight, I’ve never seen you shine so bright, you were amazing” have proven teeth-grindingly irritating to plenty of listeners. However, this is also one of those songs where you hear people lambast it as they’re singing along.
The Lady in Red refers to de Burgh’s first ever meeting with Diane Davison, to whom he is happily married to this day. The pair were introduced when she attended one of his early performances at his parents’ hotel. The song reportedly has famous fans: Neil Norman wrote in The Independent, “The 1986 mawkfest – according to de Burgh – has reduced many famous people to tears including Diana, Princess of Wales, Fergie and Mel Smith.”
Mickey – Toni Basil
Mickey is one of those songs that people enjoy in the beginning, but the longer it goes on, the more your finger moves to the skip button. We all love that opening and singing along, but how many of us hear the song through to the end? This new wave cheerleading chant managed to reach number one on the US Billboard Hot 100 in 1982.
However, it is considered a classic example of a one hit wonder, as singer Toni Basil has never since re-entered the top 40. Before the song came out, Basil was a high school cheerleader, and later a dancer with the massively successful street dance group Lockers, touring with Frank Sinatra. She also directed the music video for Mickey.
Together Forever – Rick Astley
Rick Astley had a number of hit songs in the 80s, including a handful that were incredibly popular. For better or worse, an internet meme has introduced his song Never Gonna Give You Up to a whole new generation. Together Forever, however, just hasn’t stood the test of time. It reached number one on the Billboard Hot 100 on 18 June 1988, and it is Astley’s most recent song to score the top spot in the USA.
Strikingly similar in structure and melody to Never Gonna Give You Up, Together Forever is a bubbly dance-pop song that simply grates on many. However, it clearly does have a few famous fans to this day. In 2021, The Voice USA coaches Blake Shelton, John Legend, Kelly Clarkson and Nick Jonas teamed up to cover this lesser-known tune.
When Will I Be Famous? – Bros
A catchy tune, and listening back to it, it might even seem a bit ahead of its time with its electronic sounds and subject matter, but When Will I Be Famous? was divisive even at the time of its release. Particularly popular in Ireland and the UK, it came out as a single on 16 November 1987, and would later feature on the Bros 1988 album Push.
For those who hated the song, there were further irritating revivals in adverts for The Sunday Mirror and, later still, a Hyundai commercial (which in turn catapulted the song to fame in Japan). Nevertheless, When Will I Be Famous? scraped a place on Rolling Stone’s 2020 list of the 75 Greatest Boy Band Songs of All Time.
Agadoo – Black Lace
A deliberately ‘annoying’ song, did Agadoo do-do its job properly? We can’t help singing and/or whistling this one for days after we’ve heard it – how about you? This novelty song didn’t entirely succeed in its quest, according to respondents in a dotmusic survey in 2000. They picked it as only the fourth most annoying song ever, behind The Birdie Song, Teletubbies Say Eh-Oh and Aqua’s Barbie Girl.
Reportedly based on a Moroccan tune, it was originally recorded in French under the title Agadou. Black Lace singer Dene Michael has since reminisced about the nonsense song to The Guardian: “We once did an interview on Whistle Test and the presenter asked us: ‘So, what’s it all about?’ And we said: ‘It’s a protest song about cruelty to fruit.'”
I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) – The Proclaimers
Proclaimers anthem I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) is beloved by many, but it’s also among the most likely tunes to get stuck in your head for hours on end. In 2016, online market research company OnePoll surveyed British people to find which songs were the most extreme ‘ear worms’, and discovered that 500 Miles was the most irritatingly catchy of all.
The song narrowly beat competition like Bohemian Rhapsody and 9 to 5 to win that dubious title. The Proclaimers’ most popular single, it reached number 11 in the UK Singles Chart, and would later take the number 1 spot in Iceland, Australia and New Zealand. It would reach the US Billboard Hot 100 later still, thanks to it having featured in the 1993 romantic comedy Benny & Joon.
Atmosphere – Russ Abbot
“Now we’re out here all together, everybody’s hand in hand, we can make it last forever, when we’re dancin’ with the gang!” sang Russ Abbot in 1985. It certainly wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea – but his pop tune Atmosphere managed to peak at number 7 in the UK charts and it remains his most successful musical effort. However, it wasn’t Abbot’s first foray into the musical world.
Abbot was a drummer and backing singer in the 60s and 70s for a band called the Black Abbots, which released a few modest chart successes. Abbot would later find his groove in television, starring in The Comedians, Russ Abbot’s Madhouse and The Russ Abbot Show. Probably due to the star’s enduring popularity rather than the song’s quality, in December 2020 two radio presenters from Nottingham launched an (ultimately unsuccessful) internet campaign to make Atmosphere the Christmas number one.
Come On Eileen – Dexys Midnight Runners
Dexys Midnight Runners are technically a two-hit wonder – they topped the UK charts with Geno in 1980, two years before their best-known hit, Come On Eileen, scored the top spot. A teenage anthem, this song has suffered for its endless radio and club night repetitions – meaning that, on the 20th listen, it might have already become a bit too much to bear.
Perhaps disappointingly to fans of the Dexys’ most enduring song, Eileen was never based on a real woman. Rumours once swirled that it was inspired by a childhood sweetheart of Dexys Midnight Runners singer Kevin Rowland. But in an interview with The Guardian, Rowland instead revealed, “In fact she was composite, to make a point about Catholic repression.”
We Didn’t Start the Fire – Billy Joel
Love it or hate it, most of us can sing along to Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire, which scored a nomination for the Grammy Award for Record of the Year in 1989. It was Billy Joel’s third number one single in the US – yet the singer himself is among the tune’s most outspoken critics, saying that he finds his own recording unbearably irritating.
Joel has said that even while composing the famous song, he “didn’t think it was that good to begin with” and thought it was “almost like a dentist drill.” He also told Billboard, “It’s terrible musically. It’s like a mosquito buzzing around your head.” When singer Gary Zimmerman sued Joel for copyright infringement in 1993, Joel couldn’t believe it, later quipping: “Some guy actually thought I had to steal that from him.”
Video Killed the Radio Star – The Buggles
Another massively popular song that suffered from being overplayed, Video Killed the Radio Star came with the first ever music video to feature on MTV in 1981. Rolling Stone Magazine described the song’s video as “a weirdly affecting sci-fi fever dream by Highlander director Russel Mulcahy that dramatized this changing of the pop-cultural guard.”
Recorded and released in 1979, it was MTV that made Video Killed the Radio Star a household earworm in the 80s. The iconic video was filmed in a single day in South London. But despite its prophetic powers, the tune wasn’t enough to sustain The Buggles’ popularity. They dissolved in the same year, having only ever released two albums.
99 Luftballons – Nena
The German one-hit wonder track 99 Luftballons (or ’99 balloons’) divided international audiences in more ways than one. Americans and Australians favoured the German-language original over the English translation, whereas the English version, retitled 99 Red Balloons topped the charts in the UK, Canada and Ireland. However, plenty of listeners hated both versions in equal measure.
In his book Music: What Happened?, musician Scott Miller says that Nena’s tune had “one of the best hooks of the eighties”, but he also added, “It must be admitted that this song suffers from an embarrassingly out-of-place disco funk interlude, and the word Kriegsminister [Defence Minister].” The band Nena themselves favoured the German original, denouncing the English translation as “silly.”
Making Your Mind Up – Bucks Fizz
To this day, despite its somewhat annoying nature, Making Your Mind Up is something of a source of pride in the UK. British band Bucks Fizz won the 1981 Eurovision Song Contest with this upbeat number, their performance famously including a scandalous tearaway reveal of the female singers’ miniskirts. The BBC later paid homage to the song by naming the British Eurovision selection show after it.
Written by Andy Hill and John Danter, Making Your Mind Up was the debut single for Bucks Fizz, a pop group that was founded only two months earlier. The song sold over four million copies worldwide, and its enduring legacy was proven in 2020, when the band performed their 80s hit in a virtual set for Eurovision amid the global pandemic.
The Safety Dance – Men Without Hats
Forbes has described Canadian new wave song The Safety Dance as a “staple of 1980s music”: “Accompanied by a strange if silly video, the fun and exuberant electropop song is associated with the era of big hair, shoulder pads and MTV.” But lead singer Ivan Doroschuk has stated that this divisively popular tune was in fact born from an annoyance.
He said it was composed as a protest against a pogoing prohibition. Pogoing was a style of new wave dancing that involved jumping up and down aggressively, to the chagrin of club owners and bouncers. The music video also shows a glimpse of nuclear imagery, but Doroschuk has commented, “it wasn’t a question of just being anti-nuclear, it was a question of being anti-establishment.”
Shaddap You Face – Joe Dolce
Another novelty song, Shaddap You Face has faded into relative obscurity in recent decades – surely to the delight of many. It’s a sauntering tune about a disrespectful Italian schoolboy, written and performed by Joe Dolce. This singer, an American-Australian star of Italian descent, originally penned the track as part of his one-man show named Joe Dolce Music Theatre.
Shaddap You Face was released as a single in 1980 and climbed to the number one spot in 13 different countries; it has since been translated into over 50 languages. The track found particular favour in Australia, becoming the best-selling single of all time in the country. It has sold an estimated 6 million copies worldwide and remains Dolce’s best-known work.
The Birdie Song – The Tweets
The Birdie Song – also known as the Chicken Dance and The Bird Song – dates back to the 50s, when it was written by Swiss accordion player Werner Thomas. This wordless oom-pah tune was adapted on various occasions before 1981, when record label pioneer Henry Hadaway decided to bring the tune into the world of contemporary pop.
Hadaway produced a version of The Birdie Song performed by instrumental ensemble The Tweets. Extremely repetitive, this song was famous for its simple dance and it became a surprise hit of the 80s. The tune was often paired with the equally annoying unofficial lyrics: “with a little bit of this and a little bit of that and shake your bum“, or, “I don’t want to be a chicken, I don’t want to be a duck, so I shake my butt, quack, quack, quack, quack!”
Happy Talk – Captain Sensible
One of the stranger entrants on this list, Captain Sensible – born Raymond Ian Burns – is known for co-founding the punk rock band The Damned, and for creating a new British political party called the Blah! Party. He’s unmistakeable in his red beret and white-framed sunglasses. In between punk rock and politics, he also had a number one hit single in the form of Happy Talk.
At the beginning of his solo career, Captain Sensible recorded his version of Happy Talk, which was originally a musical number from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1949 musical South Pacific. Gratingly sunny, Captain Sensible’s version included backing vocals from the band Dolly Mixture and held the number one spot in the UK for a total of two weeks.
Girls Just Want to Have Fun – Cyndi Lauper
Critic Ian Gittins has suggested that Girls Just Want to Have Fun may prove Cyndi Lauper was “the very first Spice Girl”. Despite mixed reactions, Lauper still holds pride in this catchy anthem, saying that she chose to sing it with women’s liberation in mind. Released in 1983, it was Lauper’s first major single as a solo artist, separate from the band Blue Angel.
“My spiteful and activist little mind got going,” Lauper has recalled upon first reading the song – which was penned by Robert Hazard. “Because I burned my training bra at the first demonstration at the Alice in Wonderland statue – for me, for my mother, and for my grandmother, and all the women I saw in the generation before me who were disenfranchised.”
Just Can’t Get Enough – Depeche Mode
Review site Consequence has described Just Can’t Get Enough as “one of the most memorable (and arguably annoying) synth melodies ever.” Recorded by Depeche Mode, this synth-pop anthem was a smash success in the UK, USA and Australia when it was released in 1981 – although some listeners are more inclined to disagree with its title.
Depeche Mode singer David Gahan has some criticisms for the music video, noting in 2017: “A couple [of the girls in the video] were models, and they were a little older than us, so it was kind of exciting to have them dance around us. The video leaves a lot to be desired. When I look at it I’m like, “Oh my God.” But that’s kind of what videos were then – low budget. And the little performance parts are kind of cool. The acting stuff’s terrible of course.”