What does Madonna, Lauper, and Lennox Got To Do With It

Alex Mejia

December 17, 2015

Conflicts and Culture in America


What does Madonna, Lauper, and Lennox Got To Do With It

“The meaning of music videos has been thought to present a puzzle… Time unfolds unpredictably and without clear reference points… A video will hint at a character’s personality, mood, goals, or desires but will never fully disclose them” (Experiencing Music Videos 37). Most songs tend to be about three to four minutes, giving artists that amount of time to tell a story in whichever manner they please. Some people would describe the ‘80s as a period “when there was a lot of shock factors… especially with the dynamic changes in technology with the evolution of the personal computer, the changes in media and entertainment with MTV and the change in moral views, including the sexual revolution and the paranoia of killer AIDs” (Mejia, Richard). The artists took the opportunity to push social boundaries and question social norms through their music in a more non-traditional approach (Interview). In closely examining the music videos “Like a Prayer” by Madonna, “Sweat Dreams” by Eurythmics and “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” by Cyndi Lauper, the artists contribute to and promote the sexual revolution of women by redefining what it means to be a woman


A new cable channel was born on August 1, 1981: Music Television (MTV) that combined television and music into one (Lewis, 1990). Initially, MTV was seen as, “… a 24-hour, commercial cable channel, beamed via satellite across the United States and was devoted to presenting rock music videos around the clock”, but in reality it did more than that (Kaplan, 1987, 1). It can be argued that MTV had postmodernism characteristics because the youth of America were drawn to MTV for exemplifying a new stream of consciousness; of not wanting to follow a traditional path and wanting society to become more contemporary. This mindset and attitude fueled the women’s sexual revolution that started in the 1970s and then carried into the 1980s (Kaplan, 1987). By promoting artists such as Madonna and Cyndi Lauper who advocated equality and recognition for women through their music, can be concluded that MTV made a strong contribution to the development of women in society and in turn society itself.


When Madonna, one of the most iconic figures in the 1980s, became popular it was said that, “this kid is wild” but also a great performer (Mejia, Richard). To this day many people do not only discuss her musical contributions but also how Madonna represented herself as a woman in the 80s. She was known for “gender bending” because she was not afraid to be very sexual or appear in crazy and exotic costumes when she performed (Duke, 1996, 124-125). Madonna did not believe in constraining herself by any social norms but rather she chose to be independent by not letting anyone control her image, which was uncommon in the 80s (Duke, 1996). In her music video “Like a Prayer”, Madonna wears a dress that almost looks like lingerie in a chapel with a Black Jesus who comes alive and then proceeds to share a kiss with him. All three events would be described as shocking, especially during a time when Reagan was espousing family traditions and values. Part of maintaining a conservative society would not allow women to be dressed in clothing that could be viewed as too risqué, such as the dress Madonna wears in this video. Also kissing someone of color on television in the 80s was unheard of and made people uncomfortable but Madonna is demonstrating that women should be given the sexual freedom of who they want to be intimate with, even if it goes against cultural norms.


From an early age it was apparent that Annie Lennox did not follow a traditional path; a couple weeks before her final exams Lennox dropped out of college and pursued her career in music. In 1980, Dave Stewart and she formed the Eurythmics and three years later came out with “Sweat Dreams,” where Lennox made it clear that she was the only one in control of her image. Especially during this era where there was pressure on women to maintain a certain image and desiring to break free, Lennox wanted to be perceived in a different manner, she “…did not want to be pigeon-holed into neatly defined pop categories. She was uncomfortable with the sexism inherent in the pop industry of the early 1980s, and unwilling to put herself on sexual display” (Rodger, 2004, 18). Unlike Madonna who contributed to feminism and sexual oppression by representing herself as a sex symbol, Lennox wanted to dissociate herself from sexuality. It can be further explained in Sweet Dreams music video, the audience can see her distancing herself away from the gender the social norms of appearance by not only cutting her hair short but also dying it orange. Then later she and Stewart are wearing matching suits but Lennox reveals hint of “femininity” by wearing red lipstick and makeup. A woman wearing men’s clothing in the 80s was not the norm and many were surprised to see this but Lennox dressed as a man to embody strong male emotions such as anger. Also in the song, she plays with her voice to make it sound indistinctive to the audience. The mixture of “this vocal ambiguity and Lennox’s gender ambiguity combined to pose serious threat to gender construction of the 1980s, and particularly those present in pop music” (Rodger, 2004, 20). It is as though Lennox is questioning why does there need be these distinct social differences of what it means to be a man and a woman but more important is that women can be more than just a sexual object. One can still be considered feminine without having to be sexual and have qualities that are masculine such as anger. Also Lennox not following the traditional attire of a woman, the media assumed that she was a lesbian but with frustration she would say, “I am very feminine. I am not gay. But I feel as a woman, sometimes, very masculine, powerful” (Rodger, 2004, 21). Society views those types of characteristics as associated with a male and being powerful is not a characteristic for a woman. And in this case if a woman tried to acquire those traits, people automatically think that the lady was a lesbian.

Another important aspect of the “Sweat Dreams” video to address is in the beginning Lennox hits the boardroom table with a riding crop and continues to do so to keep the beat. In many music videos of the ‘80s, women artists would keep the rhythm using their bodies in a more sexual manner but instead Lennox does it in a more “freer gender roles” by using the crop (Vernallis, 2004, 172). There is this reoccurring theme of distancing herself from gender based norms of sexuality and incorporated them into her own persona.

Although Cyndi Lauper came onto the scene towards the end of the ‘70s and the feminist movement, in the ‘80s she showed her interpretation of the new women: “a woman identified stance” (Kaplan, 1987, 127). Through her music she wanted to give everyone a voice. Lauper most infamous video, “Girls Just want to Have Fun” can be seen as, “the year 1983 makes a watershed in the history of female-address video. It is the year that certain issues and representations began to gain saliency and the textual strategies of female address began to coalesce” (Lewis, 1990, 117). Kaplan, author of Rocking Around the Clock, out of his five categories of how to describe MTV music videos, labels “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” as Social Conscious Under this category the video needs to contain love/sex that is portrayed as either a type of love is seen as problematic or there a desire for autonomy and cultural critique of authority of a public figure or parent (Lewis, 1990). The video embodies all three aspects by showing Lauper’s desire of wanting to have autonomy from her parents and in society. In the video it demonstrates this negative dynamic between young adults and parents was a common theme in the ‘80s, as”… anti-parental sentiments, often expressed in deliberating ridicule of adults” (Lewis, 1990, 127). Each parent scolds her for not following social norms of being a girl in the ‘80s but she doesn’t agree and remains doing as she pleases.

As seen with the first two music videos by Madonna and Annie Lennox, “music videos also reflect gender stereotypes” (Vernallis, 2004, 82). Many videos of ‘80s video of female artists, portrayed women in a more domestic setting such as a bedroom or in the house which would fit perfectly to this notion that music videos are another way of commenting on society. According to the author of Experiencing Music Videos, this portrayal of women and domesticity could have an array of significance such as, “… from sexual provocation to revelation of a woman’s private space and parody of domesticity” (Vernallis, 2004, 82). In the beginning scene of Cyndi Lauper video, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” she takes a more parody approach; her mother is sitting in the kitchen, cooking breakfast waiting for Cyndi to come home. The video is about her coming home from being out late, then having a slight argument with her parents, then goes outside with her friends, dances in public and then brings everyone over. One of the most important elements of the music video is when Lauper and her friends walk around the city, essentially “… claiming it as their own” (Vernallis, 2004, 82). It goes back to this idea that women or girls’ place is in the more private domestic sphere and by showing them with this persona of freely walking around the streets, indicates that women can belong in a the public sphere. Especially when they walk by the construction area, where on many occasions women get harassed and not seen as safe, the girls establish their territory by confidently continuing on their way (Lewis, 1990, 118-119). Unlike Madonna and Annie Lennox, Cyndi Lauper took a more playful manner, catchy and subtle way to advocate women’s equality.


The overall women’s sexual revolution in the ‘80s can be understood and seen through the music videos shown on MTV. Many of the female artists such as Annie Lennox, Madonna, and Cyndi Lauper used not only their music but also their social status to represent the girls and women in American who did not have a voice. As stated above, all three artists agreed that women should be viewed and treated as equal but they all concentrated on different aspects of the women sexual revolution. Many of their videos had some shocking elements especially for that time period but that is how they got their messages across. These female artists wanted to spark a conversation and open people’s eyes that women need to be recognized that women are human beings too. After researching about female music videos and the social impact, it made me rethink the first written assignment we had in the beginning of the year. I focused mainly on the epidemic of AIDS and how far medicine has excelled, but America has also had a lot of improvements with gender equality. Sad to say that there are still a lot of problems that our society has not fixed but if it was not for the feminism movement and women artist activists in the 1980s, I don’t think we would be were we are today. As I have said before that there was not just one event that can be used to describe the ‘80s but if I had to choose one word, it would have to be shocking. Furthermore, the events that occurred in the ‘80s such as Annie Lennox wearing a suit or Madonna kissing a Black men were shocking to the people that experienced live in that decade but for me, who has been studying about the ‘80s, thinks that the way people reacted was shocking. As an American women living in the 21st century, I give thanks to female artist who pushed the social envelope and got the older generation to learn to accept women for who they are. If it were not for people strongly advocated for equality, as today society we would not have women CEO or women holding high political positions in government. Before writing this paper I honestly was not aware how strong of an influence MTV, music, and the overall media affected the advancements of women in society. Usually when I listen to “oldies” music, I would never sat back and just listen to the words and exactly what they were trying to portray in their music or videos because the music was so enjoyable to dance and sing along to. But now after this class, I can appreciate Madonna or Cyndi Lauper more not just as an artist but also as women who had an agenda to fulfill.



Work Cited

Goodwin, Andrew. Dancing in Music Television and Popular Culture: The Distraction Factory. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1992.

Kaplan, Ann E. Rocking Around the Clock. New York and London: Methuen, 1987.

Lewis, Lisa A. Gender Politics and MTV: Voicing the Difference. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990.

Mejia, Richard Jr. 2015. Interview: Lennox, Madonna, and Lauper’s role on the 1980s. On Phone.

Robertson, Pamela. Guilty Pleasures. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1996

Rodger, Gillian. “Drag, Camp, and Gender Subversion in the Music and Videos of Annie Lennox.” Popular Music 23, no.1 (January 2004): 17-29, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3877623 (accessed November 5, 2015).

Vernallis, Carol. Experiencing Music Videos: Aesthetics and Cultural Context. New York: Columbia University Press, 2004.


Alex Mejia

Conflicts and Culture: 1980s

December 13, 2015


Interviewee: Richard Mejia, Born 1948 (in his 30 yrs. in the 80s)

1) How did the overall public feel about MTV in the 80s?

  • “When there was a lot of shock factors… especially with the dynamic changes in technology with the evolution of the personal computer, the changes in media and entertainment with MTV and the change in moral views, including the sexual revolution and the paranoia of killer AIDs”
  • Expansion of the media
  • Artist can express themselves about how they feel about their own music
  • Expanding their ideas in other forms in a visual manner
  • More liberating sexually

2) How was gender perceived in society? Was there a negative reaction if someone tended to stray away?

  • Although the sexual revolution/feminism started the 70s it became full blown in the 80s because it was reinforced by MTV, the media and magazines
  • “Baby Boomers the movie”- embodies this idea- that’s how I remember the 80s
  • People understood that there was a focus point of a movement going on but it was hard to completely understand
  • Women were more vocal in making demands
  • People running the major companies had trouble understanding this movement because they were so used to having gender inequality
  • Generation Gap
  • Slowly being accepted
  • Ex: the company I worked for didn’t have many female partners… very rare

3) When Madonna first became popular, what where your initial reactions?

  • “This kid is wild”
  • Very sexually liberated but a great performer
  • She was another shock person factor
  • “Like a Prayer”- kisses someone of a different race… that was extremely rare! No one saw that!
  • Black and White usually didn’t mix in the media

4) What was the public?

  • Generally the same

5) From the beginning of the 80s and until the end, could you see a difference of how women were being portrayed in the media?

  • Yes, being portrayed in business roles
  • Very few women had executive position but not CEO level
  • More liberated and talkative… voicing their own opinion
  • Wanting more rights/ social recognition

6) Thinking back to when you were in the 80s, if you saw Annie Lenox (Sweat Dreams) in a suit, how did it make you feel?

  • Didn’t find it offensive but it was unusual
  • Still attractive woman though
  • Thought it was just part of the music video… like a costume

7) Out of the three music videos, did one push the envelope of the gender roles more than other?

  • “Girls Just want to have fun” would be the most because girls want to have fun, not listening to her father, and inviting everyone over to her house
  • They want to be just like guys
  • Madonna- SHOCKING! A man crying, mix races, cops brutality against Blacks in society

8) How strong of an influence do you think music/ media had in the sexual revolution of women?

  • A lot… the videos began to be seen as racy
  • Especially Madonna with her videos and showing more skin

9) Out of three music videos, did one stand out more to you? If so why?

  • The Madonna because it touched so many controversial topics in the 80s
  • Crying man
  • “A lot of taboos that weren’t talked about in society”
  • Black Christ
  • Police brutality
  • Again kissing a man that was not the same race, was unheard of

10) Do you think MTV help shape gender? Positively or negatively?

  • Positively
  • Women became more involved
  • They were more bold
  • I don’t think it shaped but for sure contributed
  • A strong influence

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