I love pop music. I love the eighteenth century. When these things collide, I am in heaven. Ascend with me on this bop-filled playlist of ten eighteenth-century-influenced music videos.
As we’ll see, artists use images of eighteenth-century culture for a variety of interesting ends. Dizzee Rascal and Madonna reimagine the French court as a BIPOC and LGBTQ+ haven. Annie Lennox sets feminist criticism to music. And most recently, of course, Lil Nas X pole dances into hell (and through the long eighteenth century) in a glorious queer retelling of Paradise Lost. But enough spoilers—plug in your headphones and enjoy.
Falco, “Rock Me Amadeus” (1985)
Ah, the plosive sounds of a German rap about a man who devoted an entire diary to his farts. On paper, “Rock Me Amadeus” should not work. In practice, it’s perfect.
This music video draws a through line from the eighteenth century to its aesthetically extra twin period, the 1980s. Knowing that the eighteenth century witnessed the birth of the modern celebrity, Falco uses his 15 seconds of fame to draw commonalities between 1700s wunderkind Amadeus Mozart (again, he of the fart diary; more people need to know that Mozart actually did this) and Falco. Looking back, this is ironic given Falco’s eventual fate as a one-hit wonder. Even so, “Rock Me Amadeus” is a pretty great way to peak.
Rating: Five cravats out of five, with bonus points for Falco’s divine cloud of cotton candy hair.
Biz Markie, “Just a Friend” (1989)
Poor Biz just wants some pants action, but the object of his affections is too busy hanging out with a guy she says is “just a friend.” What’s a boy to do? Why, dress up as Mozart and embrace eighteenth-century sensibility via some now iconic lovelorn lyrics: “Oh baby you, you got what I neeeeeed…”
Internet lore says that Biz Markie wasn’t actually supposed to sing the chorus, but the person they hired never showed. Biz stepped up to the plate despite the fact that he is a beatboxer and rapper, not a singer (like, not at all). But god bless this man and his goofy, vulnerable chorus; the fact that Biz is so painfully tone deaf just makes the song cut deeper. There is no bravado here, just a desperately thirsty man wailing about getting rejected—a fitting callback to the many SadBoys who populate 1770s fiction.
Rating: Five doomed marriage proposals out of five. RIP Biz, I will miss you!
Gary Moore, “Over the Hills and Far Away” (1987)
Dad rock goes to the eighteenth century in this so-bad-it’s-good music video. Gary Moore mixes and matches eighteenth-century elements with 1980s glam rock, resulting in a maudlin olde time ballad with guest appearances by big hair, shred guitar, a regimental drumline, and an amazing 20-second interlude where a fiddle and a bagpipe duel over who gets a solo.
But plot-wise, this video is a mess. It’s about an innocent guy who goes to jail for murder because he won’t admit that he was smashing his best friend’s wife at the time of the crime. But here’s the thing: Multiple lyrics declare that this guy and his secret girlfriend plan on getting together when he’s done serving time, but instead of coming clean about their affair and clearing the guy’s name, they just… write sad letters and let him rot in jail?
Say you were together on the night of the murder, then the guy can get out of jail and the two of you can ride into the sunset! The video pitches their incompetence as deep and romantic, which would bug me more if Gothic-adjacent romances didn’t have equally dumb reasons for postponing the unions of their own star-crossed lovers. Even though I’m pretty sure that callback isn’t intentional, it does make Moore’s nonsensical music video a worthy successor to some of the eighteenth century’s clunkier love stories.
Rating: Two Four linen smocks out of five. I thought this video sucked when I first saw it. Now I am in too deep and might walk down the aisle to this song. Also, Gary Moore looks like Raymond Carver in a wig, tell me I’m wrong!
Jamelia, “Money” feat. Beenie Man (2000)
Bridgerton: The Musical! This clever video race-bends the eighteenth-century gentry by casting BIPOC actors as guests at a swanky eighteenth-century ball. We’ve got beautiful dresses, a delightful meld of country dance and early 2000s pop choreo (AKA many tiny hops), and of course, women getting fed up with presumptuous men.
One key difference between a real Regency shindig and this ball is that here, the fair sex can actually vent. Our heroine Jamelia spends the entire video rebuffing her suitor’s advances. She channels Lizzy Bennet energy by singing, “You think I got a price tag on me? … You couldn’t be more wrong.” And she means it! Defying the audience’s need for two hot people to kiss, Jamelia and Beenie do not end the video as a couple. This means that Jamelia insults this man for three straight minutes, waves her fan around a lot, then leaves. It’s very beautiful to me.
But don’t feel too bad for Beenie—he does more than get burned by Jamelia. In the first few seconds of the song, he shouts out his Jamaican roots. Relevant contextual info: Britain ruthlessly exploited enslaved people in Jamaica from 1655 to 1834. By casting himself as a Regency gentleman, Beenie writes back to the empire that counted him as less than human. Also, dude rocks those ruffled sleeves.
Rating: Five pearl chokers out of five.
Katy Perry, “Hey Hey Hey” (2017)
Like all of Katy Perry’s artistic output, this video brings me pain. The song’s basic message is that you can wear makeup and still be empowered which, sure. That’s fine. But if this is what we have decided centuries of feminist criticism has boiled down to, we’re in trouble.
For most of the video, Perry plays Marie Antoinette as the victim of a controlling society. Again, that’s not completely wrong. But I think we can all agree that centring this aspect of Antoinette is quite the choice. Did Katy not get the memo that the 1% are not the most sympathetic people in the year of our lord 2017? Marie Antoinette had a complicated life, but she also played at being poor in a life-size doll house while her impoverished subjects died of starvation. Is this really the kind of person we’re supposed to feel bad for during a presidential regime that deepened economic inequality at every opportunity?
This song is many things: nightmare fuel, fatphobic trash, a toxic girlbossification of a complicated historical woman, and a manifesto about how thin, rich white women are allowed to be smart AND pretty. But above all else, it shows us the dangers of letting white feminism takes center stage. As feminist critics grapple with the future of the field, at least we can all agree that this is not what we want to do.
Rating: One petticoat out of five. It would have been zero without the video’s sole redeeming quality: a Falco callback via Marie’s Amadeus band tee.
Annie Lennox, “Walking on Broken Glass” (1992)
The video for this sacred bop sees Annie Lennox set Dangerous Liaisons fanfiction to music. Just four years after Stephen Frears’ film adaptation came out, Lennox makes John Malkovich unofficially reprise his role as Valmont and rewrite the ending of Choderlos de Laclos’ novel. In the Lennox Cut, the femme fatale character Merteuil doesn’t wind up disfigured and exiled. Instead, she gets to act out—she drunkenly attacks her romantic rival, embarrasses her nebbish boyfriend (played by a young Hugh Laurie!), and wears rich red velvet in a sea of white crinoline—and still get a happy ending. The video concludes with Malkovich leaving his prim wife for Lennox’s Merteuil, who kicks up her feet and grins as Malkovich spins her around.
If you think this sounds like a musical version of some 1980s feminist criticism, you are right. Just like Gilbert and Gubar urged their readers to rethink famous literary villainesses like Bertha Mason, Lennox follows suit and reclaims a bad girl of her own.
Rating: Ten thousand jugs of wine out of five. I love this video!
Dizzee Rascal, “I Don’t Need a Reason” (2013)
In this banger, British rapper Dizzee Rascal hits viewers over the head with the idea that he’s a modern Sun King. Along with his luxe court, Dizzee shoots clay pigeons, dances, and chugs wine. At first glance, “I Don’t Need a Reason” seems like the inevitable love child between eighteenth-century excess and lavish rap videos. But if we think about the video’s form, things get more interesting.
IDNAR’s best feature is the surreal repeated loops that enhance the video’s overarching message: Despite Dizzee’s boastful lyrics, this party can’t go on forever. Gif-ready clips see Dizzee build a house of cards then bang on the table and send it tumbling down. A party guest swings a pineapple around and hits himself in the head. Dizzee plays chess, only to knock his own piece off the board. Best of all, Dizzee’s character does not seem to know that this is not how chess works (kinda like how Dizzee’s symbolic twin Louis XIV had no clue about how to run a country!).
Eighteenth-century literature experimented with the printing press to merge form and content (hello, Clarissa’s mad papers and Tristram Shandy’s marbled page). In 2013, Dizzee does the same with gifs and apps like Vine (RIP).
Rating: Five out of five pineapples, plus a bonus point for the video’s many fun hats.
Madonna, MTV Awards Performance of “Vogue” (1990)
There is a reason that more than a few of the videos on this list come from the 1980s: this decade loved the 18th century. Both periods shared over-the-top outfits, big hair, and a general “Greed is Good” mentality via mass consumption and decadence. Who better to embody this finance-meets-fashion spirit than music’s ultimate Material Girl?
In Madonna’s heavenly performance of “Vogue,” she queers the French court with a troupe of club kids. Their exquisite champagne-hued outfits and coquettish fan choreography combine forces and yield a feast for the eyes. But while many music videos are content to equivocate Versailles with beauty, Madonna goes further by adding some period-appropriate raunch to the mix. At one point, she hikes up her skirts and shows off her bloomers. At another, back-up dancers reference Baron Montfort and dive under Madonna’s billowing skirts. Best of all, Madge prances across the stage while using her fan to cool her inflamed lady parts. Is this the greatest moment in musical history? I vote yes.
This horny choreo is both historically accurate and a fun salute to feminist criticism. As scholars highlighted women’s efforts to gain sexual agency in the eighteenth century, Madonna chips in by giving her favorite historical lass some long-overdue satisfaction. Related, the fact that she’s coded as a 1980s Marie Antoinette gives me a great excuse to make everyone go look up the 1790s propaganda where the French queen is beset by sentient penis/ostrich hybrids. Enjoy!
Rating: One million mantuas out of five. This performance breaks my rating system in the best way.
Adam & The Ants, “Stand and Deliver” (1981)
Highwayman glam + a Marxist fever dream + post-punk hauteur = “Stand and Deliver.” Like Madonna’s sacred “Vogue” performance, this video connects the 1980s’ booming economy with the eighteenth century’s conspicuous consumption. However, where Madonna embraces opulence, Adam poo-poos materialism. He plays a 1980s Macheath/lip-glossed grifter who one-two punches the gentry by holding them up, then refusing to take their stuff because nothing they have is worth stealing. High on the power of this devastating burn, our hero briefly becomes a life coach. He urges each of his victims/clients to rethink their priorities; unsurprisingly, they respond by trying to hang him. In the end, Adam magically escapes the noose and runs away with a glass of wine in hand. It’s what the kids would call “a whole mood,” and I love it.
Rating: Five tricorn hats out of five minus one point for Adam’s double-barrelled hypocrisy. This man A) made a lot of money with a song about how much he hates money and B) put on a lot of pretty makeup in a video where he insults people for caring about how they look. You can’t have it both ways, Adam!
Lil Nas X, “Montero” (2021)
We end with a masterpiece. A veritable bop. A gay anthem for the ages. Lil Nas X’s “Montero” takes us on a tour of the long eighteenth century through the Eden of Paradise Lost, into the Sun King’s court, and finally, toward the kind of hell that romantic weirdos like Blake liked to imagine.
In this flawless riff on Milton, the forbidden fruit is a hot snake, who LNX kisses (a metaphor!). As punishment, he is thrown into a neoclassical courtroom/gladiatorial arena. His judges are a panel of sneering hotties plucked from the top-down world of pre-revolutionary France. They sport sky-high baby blue wigs. One of them flourishes a huge patchwork denim fan. It’s like Versailles, if people in Versailles wore Canadian tuxedos/were as obsessed with Justin and Britney’s 2001 American Music Awards outfits as I am. (Side note: This article doubles as a petition for ASECS’s next ball to use “Tacky Y2K Goes To The 18th Century” as its dress code.)
Lil Nas X gets the crowd riled up, until one of the wigs knocks him unconscious—or maybe dead. He begins his ascent to heaven, only to abruptly change directions and, in the words of the newly-immortal hashtag, #poledancetohell. Upon arrival, LNX completes his transformation into a femme fatale. He seduces Satan with a lap dance, then sneaks behind him and breaks his neck.
Please join me in welcoming Gay Devil 2.0, also known as our field’s new patron saint. The combination of “Montero” and LNX’s incredible panier-style jumpsuit at the 2021 BET Awards clinch it: No one has done more to make our field appeal to undergraduates than this subversive, stylish young man.
Rating: One billion denim fans out of five. This video (and the incredible memes that followed) got me through Ontario’s many lockdowns.
Veronica is completing her Ph.D. in English and Book History at the University of Toronto. Her dissertation explores sexual politics in commercially successful books about women published between 1750-65.