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The MTV Yearbook was my starting point: it covers 30 years of MTV, stopping at 2011. It is a very good resource and I’m glad I found it, but what about the music videos made after 2011?
Another good resouce I came across during my research phase was, surprisingly, the Financial Times which provided some interesting suggestions.
Michael Jackson and Madonna take the prize for the most expensive music videos of all time:
– Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Scream and Black or White
– Madonna’s Bedtime Story, Express Yourself, Die Another Day
But are they any good? I would only give credit to Scream (1995) – at the time it used state of the art technology and even today it doesn’t look dated and is still very engaging to watch.
Unfortunately, throwing millions of dollars into a big pot labelled “music video” does not automatically result into a compelling, beautiful and intriguing video. You don’t even necessarily need CGI for dramatic effect. Since the rise of youtube, anyone can put together great music videos with limited budgets.
What about music videos that have exceptional artistic merit and creativity? Let’s look at the trailblazers, game-changers and trend-setters in the music industry.
Psychedelic colours and shooting the video backwards: techniques still used widely today in many music videos.
For example, Drop by Pharcyde features the shooting backwards technique and Oasis used plenty of psychedelic colours (and pretty much any reference to The Beatles possible) in Champagne Supernova.
Bob Dylan’s video is pretty much the prototype for the future emergence of the promotional music video (but many would say that Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody is the first promotional music video).
Subterranean Homesick Blues was shot around the Savoy Hotel in London (things you discover while researching the subject!). Incidentally the Savoy is also the location for Duran Duran‘s Girl Panic! video directed by Jonas Åkerlund, who also directed Lady Gaga in Paparazzi and Telephone).
It doesn’t stop there: plenty of artists took the concept of Subterranean Homesick Blues and made it their own:
INXS in Mediate
Bloodhound Gang in Mope
Curiosity Killed the Cat in Misfit featuring Andy Warhol
Belle and Sebastian in Like Dylan in the Movies
So with one video we’ve already come up with music references for different decades.
Most music writers will agree that Bohemian Rhapsody is the first music promo video that started a whole new trend – well before the birth of MTV.
Does it really matter that Subterranean Homesick Blues was made eight years earlier? Yes and no – Bohemian Rhapsody had to be filmed to replace Queen’s scheduled live performance at Top of the Pops.
Record companies latched on the video’s stellar success and started using music videos as a marketing tool.
Watching this video now makes you think of the BBC programme Great British Bake Off with those Bacofoil suits!
Two years before MTV started airing, The Buggles were expressing concerns that the music industry might be changing for the worse. Thankfully the message was not prophetic as not only is radio still very much loved, but the democratisation of music production including video making has allowed independent artists and bands to thrive.
Deciding on only two videos to represent the 1980s was very tough for me because:
– MTV started in 1981
– the music video truly exploded on the scene in the 1980s and there are so many excellent videos to choose from
The 80s were dominated by big names like Michael Jackson and Madonna, who had huge budgets to invest in lavish videos. The 80s were dominated by the music video, so in terms of sheer volume it’s impossible to just choose two examples.
I need to scratch my itch and mention some videos that didn’t make the final cut but which I consider to be compelling viewing:
– Kate Bush, Babooshka 1980
– David Bowie, Let’s Dance 1983
– Eurythmics, Sweet Dreams 1983
– Duran Duran, Is there Something I should Know?
– A-ha, Take on Me 1985
– New Order, True Faith 1987
You may turn your noses at the boxy animated characters and primitive computer graphics, but this video was a game-changer on its release in 1985.
Sure, you may think this video is the technology equivalent of comparing a daguerreotype to instagram. But hey, it was 1985. Pacman was invented in 1980, MTV the year after (and gets a name check in Money for Nothing too “I want my MTV”).
Starring plasticine, cells under the microscope, model trains, fire and ice and even dancing chickens, Sledgehammer was shot with stop motion animation – by the same team responsible for Wallace and Gromit, Aardman Animations.
It won nine MTV Video Awards and Best Video at the Brit Awards in 1987. You can see some similarities in Björk‘s 1993 video for Human Behaviour.
Maybe not the most inspired decade for video music history. Everything had been tried and done by then, so what happened next? Special effects and celebrity cameos. However, with the arrival of grunge, videos also took a different direction: they simply showed bands performing their songs, turning the tables on the whole concept of the music video and giving priority to the music.
So, Nirvana‘s Smells like Teen Spirit (1991) is the epitome of grunge and stripped back video production, while Chris Isaak‘s Wicked Game (1991) represents the trend of using celebrities – in this case supermodel Helena Christensen (didn’t we see her in Girl Panic! earlier in this article?)
I chose this video for two reasons:
– its simplicity, so that the viewer is forced to listen to the lyrics and their meaning
– it was the inspiration for Miley Cyrus‘ Wrecking Ball video (not that at first viewing it is that obvious, but Miley said that in an interview and then… well, everything went a bit pear-shape courtesy of a bitter twitter exchange with Sinead O’Connor).
Leaving Miley Cyrus and her shameless self-promotion aside, the video for Nothing Compares 2 U, with lyrics by Prince, won three MTV Video Awards and it is generally considered to be iconic.
This video started a very successful collaboration between Missy Elliott and director Hype Williams. Innovative in so many ways, The Rain uses all the tricks of the trade including CGI, dance routines and gues starring superstar hip hop artists like Timbaland, Lil’ Kim and Puff Daddy among others.
Most notably, the use of what looks like an inflatable black rubbish bag strapped around Missy‘s body makes a lasting impression.
Let’s mention a few videos that feature incredible visuals like Gorillaz‘s Clint Eastwood (2001), The White Stripes‘ Fell in Love with a Girl (2001) and Missy Elliott‘s Get Ur Freak on 2001.
The two videos I chose to represent this decade use opposing approaches to video-making: one looks like a home video while the other has all the bells and whistles typical of an expensive production.
What does it take to make a memorable video that goes viral worldwide (almost 23 million views at the time of writing)?
Simple: a homemade Bacofoil background, 8 treadmills and 4 band members.
Bad Romance is a concept video borne out of the creative collaboration between Lady Gaga and film director Francis Lawrence (The Hunger Games). The video pleased both fans and music critics, which is in itself a huge accomplishment, and was compared to Michael Jackson‘s Thriller.
Let’s start with a few videos that deserve a mention: you can’t ignore Pharrell‘s Happy video – I featured it extensively in a previous article. I am also choosing Pharrell‘s 2014 video Gust of Wind because of its clear inspiration from the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I have come across this gem from Japan thanks to Slant Magazine: Shugo Tokumaru, Katachi (2013).
I would finally like to mention one of my favourite bands, The xx, and their intriguing video for Islands (2010) and, from the same year, Lady Gaga and Beyonce in Telephone.
Who made the final cut then? I chose two complete opposites: the über serious and cool versus the über funny and uncool.
Gangnam Style is the most watched music video on youtube in history with more than 2 billion views – my colleague Jonathan doesn’t think it’s the greatest video ever but we simply cannot ignore that it is a huge phenomenon.
Sparkling with silliness and “daddy dancing”, this video has been copied and parodied around the world, making it one of the most influential music videos of all time.
Directed by the genius that is Anton Corbijn in his signature black and white, Reflektor is moody and mysterious with papier-mâché heads and mirrored disco balls morphing into a human. David Bowie provides some background vocals but regrettably does not appear in the video.
Starting as a photographer at the New Musical Express in London in the late 70s, Corbijn has photographed all the music icons worth knowing, from Depeche Mode to Morrisey, from The Rolling Stones to U2.
Make sure you add your favourite influential music videos of all time in the comments.