The 1980s were a turning point in nerd culture.
From Revenge of the Nerds premiering in 1984 to The Breakfast Club breaking down high school caste barriers to Patrick Dempsey exploring the meaningless void of popularity in Can’t Buy Me Love to Blade Runner just being badass, the booming technology industry along with the American cinema machine gave voice to nerds like never before, creating a sense that through science and technology and purple sweatbands, anything was truly possible.
In fact, it was somewhere around 1986 when nerd culture and pop culture finally and irrevocably fused into some kind of strange new beast that only eats virtual neon sunsets.
And the music of the ‘80s reflected this, producing some of the nerdiest pop music ever made.
When I started writing this, I assumed I’d be pushing it to craft a top 10 list. Instead, I had to finally call it at 15—because who has the damn time to consume any more nerdy ‘80s pop music than that?
To appear on this list the song has to have a clear nerd hook—we’re talking science, tech, horror or fantasy. Also, no deep cuts. These need to be songs that actually made a dent in the charts—in other words, songs that I personally have heard on the radio. These are, after all, supposed to be pop songs.
And I consciously chose not to include any Weird Al parodies. That could warrant its own list, and in fact, already has to a degree, which you can read here.
So without further ado, here are the nerdiest pop songs from the 1980s.
Oingo Boingo — Weird Science (1985)
While not every selection on this list will seem self-evident, this one definitely is.
Written for King-of-80s-teen-film John Hughes’ movie of the same name (also a largely forgotten ‘90s TV series) Weird Science even features a young Danny Elfman, who would of course go on to earn extra nerd credit as a composer for film and TV—including composing The Simpsons theme song and the score for movies like Edward Scissorhands (oh, and the Tim Burton Batman (plus the singing voice for Jack Skellington (you get the idea))).
The simultaneous fear and excitement of technology that permeated the ‘80s is fully present here. Of course, in the movie all the potential of that technology just ends up being harnessed to create a wannabe girlfriend for the dweeby protagonists. So ‘80s.
Styx — Mr. Roboto (1983)
Besides teaching the world how to say “Thank you Mr. Robot” in Japanese (still waiting to use that one myself), this is also one of the most whacked out sci-fi music videos of the 1980s.
Apparently, this is what people thought the “modern man” was like back in the ‘80s. And while in today’s age of automation there’s mostly complaining, Styx was super happy with all the things robots were doing, specifically “doing the jobs that nobody wants to.”
Some nearly 40 years later we’re still not sure what secret is being kept. But, hey, we’re thankful for it anyway.
The Buggles — Video Killed the Radio Star (1980)
Ladies and gentlemen, get ready to hear what the future sounds like.
Just squeaking into the ‘80s and ushering in a decade’s worth of nerdy songs is this iconic track that was famously the first music video ever played on MTV.
The Buggles totally called it—radio is dead and in general audio is a format nobody likes (er—guess those huge glasses didn’t give them the ability to see podcasts coming).
While songs that quickly date themselves can often be quite forgettable, this is actually a really good tune. It’s catchy as hell and the bass line is probably in the top 20 of any bass lines from the ‘80s.
Any song whose video features stacks of synthesizers, CRT TVs, silver suits, AND an explosion of sparks behind a strange-looking child definitely earns extra nerd points.
Oh, and I love that the “new technology” they’re referencing apparently includes stacks upon stacks of modules with endless wires and knobs just to play a single Moog synthesizer.
Huey Lewis and the News — Back in Time (1985)
Turn up the amps because we’re about to … uh, listen to some saxophone pop?
Clearly, a song that asks the question “Is this the ‘50s or 1999?” belongs on this list—something I personally asked myself constantly in 1999.
This is something that’s gone out of style recently, but back in the 1980s and ‘90s every big movie got some pop star or band to do a big song alongside the movie. There were two approaches—songs that sum up the vibe of the movie (e.g., Aerosmith’s Don’t Want To Miss a Thing from 1998’s Armageddon) and those that basically laid out the plot of the movie in song form (e.g., Ghostbusters from, well, Ghostbusters).
In the case of Back in Time, which, you guessed it, was commissioned for the release of Back to the Future, there’s really no attempt to do anything but recap the general plot of the movie—sans the fact that Marty’s mother … well, nevermind that.
At one point Huey even throws out, “Get back, Marty.”
While we’re still waiting for hoverboards (I mean, REAL hoverboards), this will do nicely to fill the time.
Limahl — The NeverEnding Story (1984)
Remember that other hit song from Limahl? OF COURSE YOU DON’T BECAUSE THAT DIDN’T HAPPEN.
Continuing with the theme of songs made for movies is this gem, made for the movie of the same name. As soon as you hear those opening synth chords, you’re transported to Fantasia.
If there’s one thing that’s true for anyone who lived through the ‘80s, it’s that we are all Bastian at heart and we all had to leave our proverbial Artaxes in the Swamp of Sadness long ago.
And yeah, you read that right—just Bastian, not SEbastian. Deal. With. It.
Was the NeverEnding Story real? Is the Nothing still out there, waiting to turn us all into, just, nothing—despite our big, good, strong hands? Should children stay away from luck dragons?
For the last question, most definitely yes, otherwise, who’s to say?
This song takes me right back to the adventure I joined Bastian and Atreyu on all those years ago, and maybe am still slogging through to this day, all because a child(like) empress somewhere was never named for some reason.
For me, this song and movie helped to spark my love of fantasy and adventure in film and elsewhere—and for that reason, it belongs right here on this damn list.
Big Audio Dynamite — E=MC2 (1985)
While this song is named after the most famous math equation of all time, I’m not totally convinced that B.A.D. fully understands the theory of special relativity. Just sayin’.
This one honestly only makes the list because it’s named after the aforementioned most-well-known equation ever. I’m not really sure what this song is about otherwise. It actually feels like B.A.D.’s take on the We Didn’t Start the Fire or It’s the End of the World As We Know It type of song that just sort of lists things.
Although, there are two lines that do add a little nerdiness:
Meh, good ‘nuff.
Was (Not Was) — Walk the Dinosaur (1988)
If dinosaurs weren’t already nerdy enough for you, there’s also references to Miami Vice, Elvis flying a rocket ship, time travel, and sadly, killing said dinosaur.
Some argue this song is really about nuclear armageddon—which has a rich nerd history of its own, but I’d say it’s clearly about a new dance which swept the nation from coast to coast.
This track also appeared in the live-action Flintstones movie from 1994, and of course I’m sure you remember George Clinton’s version from the live-action Super Mario Bros. movie of ‘93, that, for some reason did the below to our childhoods:
Kraftwerk — Pocket Calculator (1981)
Honestly, is there much more we need to say here?
Alright, maybe a quick defense of this song as “pop.” Maybe it’s a bit of a stretch, but it did reach as high as 39 on the charts and lived on the top 100 for 6 weeks. SO THERE.
Ray Parker Jr. — Ghostbusters (1984)
Once again, a song that just sort of talks about the plot of the movie it was written for at the highest possible level.
But how could this song not make this list? If you don’t have this on your Halloween playlist for starters, you instantly lose nerd credibility.
Plus, Ghostbusters the movie has some of the best and most classic nerd representations in cinematic history. You can be smart and dry like Egon, or witty and sexy like Venkman (OK maybe not sexy, but he does get with Sigourney Weaver).
Who you gonna call? I mean, besides a lawyer….
Europe — The Final Countdown (1986)
If there’s a list of songs from the ‘80s, there’s a good chance this one’s on it. And my list is no exception.
Is it about fleeing an apocalypse? Simply traveling to space?
Who gives a crap? It’s AWESOME.
It was pretty bold of a band to adopt a name as a stand-in for an entire continent, but Europe clearly earned that right with this song.
Yet while it can certainly be played ahead of any event, holiday, or basically any activity, just remember that it has nerd roots:
The Ramones — Pet Sematary (1989)
Here’s another one for your Halloween playlist, but only if you want to seem cool as hell.
Whether you’re into the Dark Tower series, or you’re more of an It kind of person (weirdo), every nerd’s life has been touched in some way by Stephen King’s work, whether the written word, film, or (extremely unlikely) TV.
Rumor has it that King himself asked the quintessential punk rockers, The Ramones, to pen this bad boy for the film adaptation of the book of the same name, where fluffy and mittens come back from the dead to get revenge for all those times you refused to give them attention.
Joey Ramone makes a pretty straightforward plea:
Me neither, Joey. Me neither.
Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark — Electricity (1980)
It’s hard to get much nerdier than stock images of people turning dials and flipping switches alongside dudes with terrible haircuts rocking old-school synthesizers. And the bass player’s dance at the beginning of the video…
This really is just an homage to electricity, straight up, even calling it “the ultimate discovery.” So the next time you’re looking at a light bulb, show a little respect, will ya?
And alright, technically this came out as a single in 1979, BUT it was also included on the full-length album in 1980. So it counts, damn it.
Thomas Dolby — She Blinded Me With Science (1982)
That’s right, another song on this list that literally has the word “science” in it.
The best part of this song + music video is definitely the random professor-type dude just saying “Science!” every so often.
And once again, apparently the vision of science and technology from the 1980s is that it would always somehow have something to do with supermodels. It truly was a golden age.
DEVO — Gates of Steel (1980)
Put on your Energy Dome because things are about to get DEVO-y up in here.
Alright, perhaps this wasn’t the most popular song from Devo’s Freedom of Choice (that would be “Whip It”, of course), but it’s possibly the nerdiest and definitely my personal favorite.
What are the lyrics about, exactly? Who cares! It’s sort of sci-fi-ish and that’s good enough for me. Oh, and it rocks.
Coming out in 1980, DEVO really set the tone for the entire decade.
Newcleus — Jam On It (1984)
As soon as this song starts, it transports you to another planet where all the robots breakdance and humans spend their days riding keytars across the cosmos.
Plus, the band’s name gives a little shout-out to physics. I would have loved to hear the band meeting when someone pitched the idea: “You know, like nucleus, but like, NEW.”
It was a really tough call for which song would round out this list, but if you’ve ever seen a live performance of Newcleus, or their album covers, then you’ll understand why I made the choice I did.
Plus, there was this weird cultural overlap in the ‘80s between nerd culture and underground hip-hop. I just made that up, but if someone wants to actually make that argument … shoot me an email.
This was a tough one, and it was difficult to leave some of these off the list. So just in case you need a few more ‘80s nerd jams, here you go.