What is the significance of eye symbolism? It goes a long way back in history, at least as far as Ancient Egypt, where the Eye of Horus and the Eye of Ra were both symbols of power. An important Christian symbol is the Eye of Providence, an eye enclosed in a triangle, surrounded by rays of light, to represent the omniscience of God. It can be found on the dollar bill in the USA, and more recently has been appropriated by secret societies. But that’s just the history. The image of an eye can represent far more than that, but first take a look at this video, at around the 1 minute and 25 seconds mark. If my linking skills are up to the task, the video should start in the right place:
That’s Sweet Dreams are Made of This by Eurythmics, from 1983. Listen to the whole thing if you like. It’s a great song. That’s a whole lot of eyes featured in a short sequence: human and horse.
In 1985 Eurythmics were using eye symbolism again, in There Must Be An Angel (Playing With My Heart). Look at how the following video ends, at around 4 minutes 36 seconds, with a zoom in to an eye:
I love that song. But it stood out to me when I was watching those Eurythmics videos how the eye symbolism is used in both of them, and I started watching a few more 80s pop videos to see if this was something that happened a lot. It didn’t take me long to find my next example.
That’s Take on Me by A-ha, from 1986. It’s packed full of eye images, at 0.09, 0.12, 0.17, 0.56 etc. And I kept finding more and more examples. I will link to a few more as we go along, but let’s just acknowledge for now that it was quite commonplace in 80s pop video. So the question is, why?
Eyes are a powerful symbol, and can be used to represent all kinds of things. The most obvious, and most important, is perception. Back when I was doing some English studies at college I had to choose a topic for my major coursework project. I chose dead metaphors, words or phrases in English that started out as metaphorical language but are now part of commonplace speech, to the extent that we don’t even notice the metaphors any more. English is built on them. If we look at knowledge in terms of vision, there are endless examples. Would you like me to shed some light on that? I just did. Do you understand my point of view, or are you blind to the point I am trying to make here? Trust me, I’m not trying to pull the wool over your eyes. Do you see what I mean? But the metaphorical language goes much deeper than that. How about the “mind’s eye”?
That’s Pale Shelter by Tears for Fears, from 1983. Note the close up shot of a crocodile’s eye at 0 minutes 12 seconds. You probably won’t want to watch beyond that. It’s not the world’s greatest pop song. But that’s a good example of an eye being used to represent danger. We would probably tend to think of eyes more as representative of intimacy and love and would assume that is why we would find them in pop videos, but if you can stomach a few seconds of a Michael Jackson video take a look at the following, at the 1 minute 46 seconds mark. Again, the video should start at the right point:
That’s the aptly named Torture, from 1984. Eyes can symbolise both good and evil, and it’s probably fair to say that a room full of disembodied eyes is doing the latter… or perhaps mystery. What is behind a person’s eyes? Eyes obscured by sunglasses can also be mysterious. We don’t quite feel as though we can connect with the person, as if part of them is being kept hidden. For an example of this, we must turn to none other than Leonard Nimoy:
That’s Going Down to Liverpool by The Bangles, from 1984, making a big deal of Nimoy’s eyes right from the start. By the time you’ve reached the 30 second mark and seen another big close-up, you’ve probably got the point, and don’t need to torture yourself with the song any more. Let’s look at something much more pleasant from the same group. Look at how Eternal Flame (1988) starts, all out of focus and then focusing in on an eye:
I won’t try your patience by linking to any more videos, but you’ll find more examples easily enough if you look around. Go find Madonna’s Like a Prayer at 0.52 if you want another.
I mentioned above the “mind’s eye”, and that’s where we get into deeper territory. Can we understand the world around us just by using our main senses such as sight. Do our eyes deceive us? We will look at this all in more detail next time, when we take a look at eye imagery in Doctor Who (well, sorry, that is our first love here!). For now, I think it is important to recognise the power of a closeup shot of an eye, as the camera tries to travel right through to the soul.
So what was going on in the 80s? Was there some kind of a grand conspiracy? I don’t think so. The eyes are intimate and meaningful, and in the 1980s the pop video as a genre was in its infancy. Maybe they were just doing the obvious thing. Sweet Dreams.
… are made of this. RP