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 bad ass, 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).
The simultaneous fear and excitement of technology that permeated the ‘80s is fully present here. Of course, in the movie all the potential of technology just ends up being used 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.”
And apparently some nearly 40 years later we’re still not sure what secret exactly 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 line from the ‘80s.
And 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.
Apparently, 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.