8 Pop Divas That Ruled the 1980s

The 1980s were an epoch era for pop. Notorious for its big hair and made-up faces, shoulder pads, and layers of neon, the decade was also known for its more maximalist sound, often drenched in new waved synth. The ’80s also delivered some of the most iconic women in pop.

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Kicking off the decade, Pat Benatar was already transitioning from harder rock and onto the pop charts with her 1980 hit “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” and later singles “We Belong” and “Love is a Battlefield.” Bonnie Tyler bewitched listeners with her ethereal hit “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” and Kate Bush left behind a collection of her own classics, like “Running Up That Hill” that would resurface decades later on the sci-fi series Stranger Things.

German pop star Nena vividly captured the imagination with her biggest hit “99 Luftballoons” (“99 Red Balloons”), while Patty Smyth and Scandal boasted a breakup anthem of the ages with “Goodbye to You” before their more virilous 1984 hit “The Warrior.” After the Go-Gos parted ways, Belinda Carlisle broke out on her own with her 1986 solo debut (Belinda) and hit “Mad About You,” followed by Heaven on Earth a year later.

[RELATED: 5 Deep Cuts from Kate Bush That You Should Be Listening To]

By the late 1980s, teenage Tiffany went to No. 1 with the Ritchie Cordell-penned Tommy James and the Shondells hit “I Think We’re Alone Now,” while her teen peer, Debbie Gibson, also broke out with her 1987 hit “Only in My Dreams,” and heartbroken swoon “Lost in Your Eyes,” among other pop hits.

Gloria Estefan made her solo debut with Cuts Both Ways before the decade closed out, and Paula Abdul also moved on from choreographing cheerleaders and music videos to releasing her pop hits “Straight Up,” “Opposites Attract,” “Cold Hearted,” and “Forever Your Girl.”

The roster of women who made pop explode during one of the most decadent decades is lengthy. Here’s a look (in no particular rank or order) at eight women who ruled pop in the 1980s.

1. Tina Turner

After releasing two more uncharted solo albums — Rough and Love Explosion — following her split from Ike Turner in 1976, Tina Turner appeared on other artists’ albums and also performed with Rod Stewart and the Rolling Stones before finding her music again.

When Turner released her fifth solo album Private Dancer in 1984, she picked up three Grammy Awards, including Record of the Year and Best Female Vocal Performance for her No. 1 hit “What’s Love Got to Do with It.” Hit’s “Better Be Good to Me” and the Mark Knopfler-penned “Private Dancer” also hit the top 10. Turner was already a pop legend by the time she starred in the 1985 film Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome along with her No. 2 hit “We Don’t Need Another Hero.” She found more success with her 1989 hit, “The Best,” from her seventh album, Foreign Affair

Turner, who died on May 24, 2023, at age 83, released 10 albums within her career through her final release Twenty Four Seven, in 1999 and was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for a second time in 2021 as a solo artist; her first induction in 1991 was as part of Ike and Tina Turner.

Check out 5 Songs You Didn’t Know Tina Turner Wrote HERE.

2. Cher

Within their decade-long run together, Sonny Bono and Cher sold more than 40 million records worldwide. Though Cher already released a number of solo albums since her 1965 debut, All I Really Want to Do, along with a number of hits with Bono in the ’70s, her bigger breakthrough came in the late 1980s with her Michael Bolton-penned 1987 hit, “I Found Someone,” Diane Warren‘s “If I Could Turn Back Time” in 1989.

[RELATED: Top 10 Cher Songs]

Throughout the 1980s, Cher also jumped into acting and took on several roles, including one alongside Meryl Streep in 1983’s Silkwood, and Moonstruck, which earned her an Academy Award for Best Actress in 1988. Cher’s numerous roles span Mask, Mermaids, and If These Walls Could Talk, among more through the 2010s.

Inspired by her ’70s peers ABBA, Cher starred in the film Mamma MiaHere We Go Again in 2018 and released her 26th album, Dancing Queen, a collection of covers of the group’s songs.

3. Whitney Houston

After posing on the cover of Seventeen magazine in 1981 at the age of 17—one of the first black women to appear on the cover of the teen magazine—by the age of 19, Whitney Houston moved from model to recording artist when Clive Davis signed her to Arista.

By the age of 22, Houston released her eponymous debut in 1985 and earned three No. 1 singles —”Saving All My Love for You,” which won a Grammy for Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female, along with “How Will I Know,” and “Greatest Love of All.”

[RELATED: Whitney Houston Nailed the National Anthem at Super Bowl XXV]

Houston continued her hit-making with her 1987 follow-up, Whitney, along with four more No. 1s and another Grammy, and later albums I’m Your Baby Tonight (1990) and My Love Is Your Love (1998). By the 1990s Houston’s work soundtracks expanded. The Bodyguard (1992), featured her hit cover of Dolly Parton‘s “I Will Always Love You,” and other hits “I Have Nothing,” and her Chaka Khan cover, “I’m Every Woman” — along with Waiting to Exhale in 1995.

Though Houston died on February 11, 2012, at age 48, her legacy in pop lives on.

4. Janet Jackson

The youngest of the nine siblings within the Jackson family, Janet started making a name for herself by acting, first starring on The Jacksons variety show in 1976 before recurring roles on Good Times and Diff’rent Strokes from the late 1970s through early-’80s, while releasing her 1982 self-titled debut and Dream Street two years later.

By the time Control hit in 1986, Jackson was a bonafide pop star with hits “Nasty,” “What Have You Done For Me Lately,” and her first No. 1 single “When I Think of You.”

Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814, Janet, and The Velvet Rope, and All For You, gave Jackson four more consecutive back-to-back No. 1 albums with Discipline (2008) and her most recent 11th album, Unbreakable (2015) also topping the charts.

In 2022, Jackson’s life was chronicled in the two-part documentary titled Janet Jackson before she returned back on tour in 2023.

5. Pat Benatar

By the end of the 1970s, Pat Benatar burst through the dancing queen era of disco with her own new wave of operatic rock. Starting out in the New York City club scene, Benatar later signed to Chrysalis and released her debut, In the Heat of the Night, in 1979 with the breakout hit “Heartbreaker.” As her relationship with guitarist Neil Giraldo developed, so did their music. With Giraldo as co-writer and arranger, Benatar released five more albums and won four consecutive Grammy Awards, including three for hits “Shadows of the Night,” “Fire & Ice” and “Love is a Battlefield.”

Following her 1991 release, True Love, Benatar’ released three more albums, including her 11th, Go, in 2003. In 2022, Benatar and Giraldo premiered their stage production of Invincible – The Musical, a contemporary take on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet set to their catalog of music. That same year, they were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.

Check out the Top 10 Pat Benatar Songs (1979-1988) HERE.

6. Madonna

In 1984, Madonna broke out with her first No. 1 single “Like a Virgin,” written by the songwriting duo of Billy Steinberg and Tom Kelly, and also had a hand in writing a number of her earlier hits, including her three No. 1s off her 1986 album, True Blue—”Live to Tell,” “Papa Don’t Preach,” and “Open Your Heart.”

[RELATED: 7 No. 1 ’80s Hits Written by Madonna]

Earlier on, she also penned “Into The Groove,” featured in the 1985 film Desperately Seeking Susan, which she also starred in with Rosanna Arquette, her True Blue hit “La Isla Bonita,” which topped the charts in the UK, “Who’s That Girl?” in 1987, and her 1989 No. 1 “Like a Prayer,” among others.

Madonna has chronicled her varied eras—from Like a Prayer through Erotica and Confessions on a Dance Floor and more—in song.

In 2019, Madonna released her 14th album, Madame X, and revealed her Celebration Tour (2023-2024).

7. Cyndi Lauper

Cyndi Lauper has had one technicolored time in music, from her earlier days in Blue Angel through her 1983 solo debut, She’s So Unusual, and hits “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” “Time After Time,” and “Money Changes Everything.” The follow-up True Colors, which was self-produced by Lauper and Lennie Petz, reached No. 4 on the Billboard 200 chart with the title track hitting No. 1 on the Hot 100.

After releasing A Night to Remember (1988) and the hit “I Drove All Night,” Lauper explored several new genres, taking on jazz standards with At Last (2003), blues on Memphis Blues (2010), and her ode to country with 2016 album Detour.

Lauper has sold more than 50 million records worldwide and is an Oscar away from EGOT status after picking up Grammy Awards, an Emmy, and a Tony Award—the latter for Kinky Boots, which ran on Broadway from 2013 through 2019.

Check out Cyndi Lauper’s 8 Greatest Hits HERE.

8. Annie Lennox

After Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart parted ways with their post-punk band The Tourists in 1980 and formed Eurythmics, the duo explored more experimental and eccentric sounds. Lennox also co-wrote hits “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” “Would I Lie to You?” “Here Comes the Rain Again,” and “Missionary Man,” among others throughout the 1980s, and more spanning Eurythmics’ eight albums together.

[RELATED: 6 Top Annie Lennox Songs From Her Six Solo Albums]

By 1992, Lennox expanded into her solo catalog with her debut Diva and hits “Walking on Broken Glass” and the hypnotic “Why,” through the more revelatory Bare (2003) and her most recent collection of covers on Nostalgia in 2014.

In 2004, Lennox received a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for Best Original Song for “Into the West,” which she wrote for the film The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.

Lennox was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame with Stewart for Eurythmics in 2022.

Read our interview with Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart in the 2023 Legends issue HERE.

Photo: Jim Steinfeldt/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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