The appeal of pop music duets with both male and female singers has never been particularly susceptible to the rise-and-fall trends of decades or musical eras, thriving quite consistently across genres. Still, '80s music contains some particularly memorable examples of this phenomenon. And although overwrought love songs and sickly sweet ballads tend to be the order of the day for such star pairings, sometimes the combination of voices and memorable melodies helps transform the occasion into something more. Here's a look, in no particular order, at some of the finest both-gender singing partnerships of the '80s.
During the early '80s, Kenny Rogers was the duet partner du jour for a number of female performers thanks to his massive country-pop crossover success. Consequently, there are a number of duets featuring that grey-bearded wonder that could easily crack this list. However, I choose this one not just because it's my personal favorite but because Rogers' chemistry with the previously all-pop Carnes (who also co-wrote the song) is surprisingly engaging. As such, this hit from 1980 displays far more genuine passion and compelling heartache than it has any business having, given its glossy, highly mainstream pop style.
This 1988 tune is a special case in which the individual performers just happen to deliver top-notch efforts, which results in a surprisingly moving and lingering combination. The song's haunting, arpeggiated acoustic guitar opening may be the key to its success, as it allows both singers to display a gift for balladry theyre not really known for. This makes up quite nicely for the relatively vapid lyrics that don't really say much, as the main attraction clearly turns out to be the pleasing way hard rock legends Ford and Ozzy Osbourne actually sound together. A pretty respectable late-'80s hair metal moment.
Male vulnerability never had it as good as this gentle acoustic ballad from 1981, which showcased two of the finest rock singers of the '70s in an inspired combination. I sometimes sang along to this song - behind closed doors, of course - imagining a duet with whatever unattainable crush I may have had at the time. Nicks' trademark raspy, sultry delivery contrasts interestingly with Henley's smooth, high tenor, spotlighting the somewhat heavy-handed but effective metaphor of the title in lyrics like these: "Sometimes I'm a strong man, sometimes cold and scared, and sometimes I cry." Cue the sharing circle, boys.
If you can get past the sappy lyrics and the annoying fact that the artist name obscures the actual singers of the song, this 1983 smash hit ballad brings back the '80s memories in a gush of sticky sweetness. Sung in generic anonymity by Joe Pizzulo (who sounds like a poor man's James Ingram) and Leza Miller (I can't think of anyone she sounds like at the moment), the song manages to stand out in spite of its unremarkability. The saving grace must be the memorable melodic rush of the verse and the payoff of the chorus, which recently earned official immortality through an appearance in a GEICO television commercial.
Though not strictly a duet because it's performed by a group, this 1985 song perfectly encapsulates the prototypical male-female duet format. It sets up a dramatic scene and introduces listeners to two characters in a conflict-ridden situation. It's difficult to remember this once the slick and almost soul-free production kicks in, but this is decidedly adult material even if most of the starch is taken out of it. Nonetheless, this is doubtless an emblematic tune of the '80s, ripe for parody but also patently irresistible when it comes to a sing-along opportunity.
Naturally, it's impossible to get through a top 10 list of male-female duets without considering at least a few movie soundtrack entries. And although this one remains squarely in the shadow of more prominent silver screen duets of the period like "Up Where We Belong" and "Endless Love," it holds its own quite well as pleasant romantic balladry for when the credits roll. Co-written by '80s soft rock extraordinaire Richard Marx, the tune offers serviceable enough handholding background music while also benefiting strongly from the well-matched vocal presence of Heart's Wilson and Cheap Trick's Zander.
The male-female duet works as a highly dramatic form, and perhaps that's why it's so often linked with filmed entertainment, particularly cinematic releases. In this case, the rather disastrous 1980 film Xanadu provided an appropriate arena for a number of hit songs by its star, Newton-John. While the film's title track and "Magic" are more well-known, this mid-tempo ballad arguably represents just as pleasurable a melodic experience. Joining with Richard, a British pop legend with plenty of pedigree himself, Newton-John delivers a silky smooth if not challenging brand of romantic pop.