A Complete Breakdown of the History of Music Videos

At this year’s Emmys, perhaps the decision that caused the most consternation on the part of fans and critics was Beyoncé’s Lemonade losing out to Grease: Live, with Vulture’s Matt Zoller Seitz tweeting that this was a little like “CITIZEN KANE loses to HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY.” But perhaps this reaction tells us something bigger about the cultural landscape: could the mass furore surrounding the decision show just how far music videos have come since their inception?

In 1981, MTV was the original startup: a company whose product didn’t quite exist yet. Despite launching as a 24/7 music television channel, in I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution, Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum describe how initially the network had only “about a hundred” promotional clips, as the music videos “in inventory, [were] mostly by marginal or unpopular British or Australian bands.” MTV was forced to go to record labels and ask them to make these videos for free, which they would then go on to screen.

Fast forward to the present day. TV is in decline and it’s taking MTV along with it – in 2015, Nielsen Data suggested the channel had lost 40% of their 12-34 year old audience in the previous five years. But let’s be clear, this doesn’t mean young people’s appetite for videos has waned – a report from 2015 found that millennials spend most time online watching videos (admittedly this is tied with their other #1 favorite activity – spending time on social media). Meanwhile a lot has changed since the 1980s, including the prestige factor of music videos – heavyweight directors are more and more eager to get involved in the industry, while the technological advances offered by the internet means music videos are increasingly experimental. But how did we get here? Let’s explore.

However before we do, it’s worth noting: this isn’t a “best videos of all time list.” That’s a theme for a totally different (and much longer) article. This piece will concentrate on videos that have moved the medium forward through technical innovation.

Pre-MTV

Before Beyoncé, there were The Beatles. Just like Beyoncé circa 2016, The Beatles were eager to give their fans the fullest audiovisual experience possible, recording promotional clips that could be shown abroad. They also starred in two full-length films, Help! (the eponymous soundtrack which constituted a Beatles’ album, a little like Lemonade) and A Hard Day’s Night (the songs of which appeared on side one of their album of the same name). Other bands would follow their lead and also make promotional clips in the ’60s and ’70s. David Bowie was also an early-adopter, releasing the video for “Space Oddity” in 1969.

Probably the most significant music video of this era was Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which debuted in 1975. When “Bohemian Rhapsody” rocketed to the top of the charts in Britain, the band were on tour and couldn’t perform on the British music show, Top of the Pops. They recorded this, for the time, special-effects-packed video to play in their absence. On the video’s 40th anniversary, Rolling Stone noted “Its influence cannot be overstated, practically inventing the music video seven years before MTV went on the air.” Well, quite.

MTV Launches (1981)

The music video giant launched at 12.01AM Eastern Time on 1 August 1981 with The Buggles’ video, which had first aired two years previously on Top of the Pops in lieu of a live performance. The message of The Buggles’ hit — that advances in technology could pre-empt a cultural shift — proved prescient when the pop artists who created the most talked-about videos (Madonna, Michael Jackson) began to dominate the musical landscape. This climate of publicity in exchange for great visuals was established by Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” in 1983.

“Thriller” isn’t just a seriously great video. It acts as the origin story for what we recognize as music videos for major artists today: high production values (by the standards of the time), Hollywood directors (“Thriller”’s director John Landis was also behind movies like An American Werewolf In London and the Eddie Murphy vehicle Trading Places) and a clear narrative. It was also ludicrously expensive to make in comparison to the other videos of the time — it cost over $500,000 to make at a time when most videos cost in the tens of thousands to produce.

The full 13-minute video debuted on MTV as part of an exclusive deal MTV struck with MJ’s team and was played 3-5 times a day, something which increased MTV’s audience tenfold. In 2009, the video was inducted into the National Film Registry of Congress for being “culturally, historically or aesthetically” significant. Despite this coming over 20 years after the video’s initial release, it marked the first time a music video had received this honor.

Just three years later a video dropped that while less-beloved these days, still made history. Peter Gabriel’s 1986 video for “Sledgehammer” won nine awards at the MTV Music Awards in 1987 — a total that remains, as yet, unsurpassed — and it’s also the most played clip in the history of the channel. The video’s use of claymation, pixilation and stop motion animation was considered avant-garde at the time. One of the two animation companies behind it, Aardman Animations, would go on to create Wallace and Gromit.

Decline of MTV’s Music Programming (1992–)

After The Real World launched to insane viewing figures, MTV decided to take a chance on reality TV. They introduced growing numbers of reality TV shows and started phasing out music shows. As I Want My MTV’s Rob Tannenbaum told NPR “It’s very easy to trace the line from The Real World to Snooki…It’s an alcoholic, crooked line all the way there, but MTV quickly realized and learned that narrative television, even reality TV, rated better than music videos.”

Resurgence Of Music Videos (2005–)

In 2005, former PayPal co-workers Steve Chen, Chad Hurley and Jawed Karim created YouTube, which they initially intended to be a way people could share their home videos with each other. In October 2006, YouTube was acquired by Google and in 2009, Vevo was born. It was the product of debate between Universal Music Group (UMG) and Google over content licensing for YouTube. Vevo meant record labels could actually make money on their videos being streamed — small ads often appear on the bottom of the video as well as links to buy the music you’re listening to.

The Vevo deal (along with the other deals YouTube has made with content providers) means that it’s easy to find music videos for your favorite acts while YouTube still seems to be growing in popularity — in December 2015 it overtook Google for the first time to take the world’s second most visited website ranking (Facebook is at the #1 spot). Arguably this could be the reason for the rise in exciting, innovative and experimental music videos in the past few years: if YouTube remains at the top of the pile in terms of visits, it makes sense for record companies to focus on videos since it becomes one of the most valuable promotional tools an artist has at their disposal.

2013

Beyoncé’s First Visual Album

Beyoncé’s first visual album wasn’t, in fact, the cinematic, sweeping Lemonade, but its 2013 eponymous predecessor, Beyoncé. This album release was full of surprises: not only did Beyoncé release it with no prior warning, but every song was accompanied by its own video, all of which dropped on the same day as the album. According to the PR release accompanying it, “While not a concept album, the record is designed to be consumed as a comprehensive audio/visual piece from top to bottom.”

The fact that Knowles-Carter was able to film all of her videos in secret while on her “Mrs. Carter Show World Tour” should have clued us in to the fact that she would be perfectly capable of stealth-dropping a music movie just three years later.

Pharrell Williams Drops The World’s First 24-Hour Album

Who would have thought Despicable Me 2 would have prompted such televisual innovation? Williams’ song for the film’s soundtrack, “Happy”, was accompanied by a Christian Marclay-esque 24-hour-long video, which showed real people dancing along to the hit for four minutes at a time. Each section was filmed in a single shot which meant there was no chance for do-overs, creating a lovably spontaneous end result.

However, two factors kept it from seeming too chaotic: Williams performed his own hit on the hour, each hour and it was displayed online in the format of a clock that you can click on to access the time of day the section was recorded at. Half the fun of the Los-Angeles based video is celeb spotting: Tyler the Creator, Earl Sweatshirt, Jasper Dolphin, Jamie Foxx, Jimmy Kimmel and Kelly Osbourne are just a few of the famous names that star in the video.

Interactive Music Videos Go Mainstream (2010-2015)

How do you hold a generation whose brains are being eroded by the Internet’s attention? Coax them into participating. Between 2010 and 2015, any number of high-profile music acts made the most of the internet by making interactive videos (often which had to be accessed via their own website). Arcade Fire, The Streets (see above), Bob Dylan, Etienne De Crecy, Death Grips, Bombay Bicycle Club and Tanlines all made music videos that demanded audience engagement. Thanks to the trend, we also got the world’s first shoppable music video, courtesy of FKi, Iggy Azalea and Diplo’s “I Think She Ready”.

However, arguably the most powerful use of the interactive music video came in 2016 with Usher, Nas and Bibi Bourelly’s “Chains” video. It opens on the statement “While racial injustice keeps killing, society keeps looking away.” The Tidal video uses facial recognition technology to gauge when you’re looking at the screen, meaning you’re prompted to keep your gaze on the victims of police violence that appear in the video, with the message “Don’t look away” appearing and the music stopping when you look elsewhere.

Virtual-Reality Music Videos Become Big (2015)

In 2015, The Weeknd, Björk and U2 all gave us music videos that harnessed elements of virtual reality, with Björk holding her video release in an art gallery and handing out Oculus Rift headsets to watch the 360-degree YouTube video on.

Film Directors Get In On The Action (2016)

Obviously, this isn’t the first time that there’s been high numbers of Hollywood directors getting involved in music videos: the mid ’80s-’90s was a boom period for this, with directors like Anton Corbijn (who notably directed Nirvana’s “Heart-Shaped Box”, Depeche Mode’s “Enjoy The Silence”) Spike Jonze (who directed Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage,” Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You” and Björk’s “It’s Oh So Quiet” amongst others) and David Fincher (who directed Madonna’s “Vogue”, Jermaine Stewart’s “We Don’t Have To Take Our Clothes Off” and Aerosmith’s “Janie’s Got A Gun”) all going over to the melodic side of creating visuals.

However there was a clear progression: directors usually took the path of first working in music videos to working their way up to movies. Now music videos have found a level of prestige where even established directors will try their hand at a music video (or return to where they first honed their craft).

This summer alone, Harmony Korine gave Rihanna her own chance to star in a Spring Breakers-esque universe in her “Needed Me” video, while Paul Thomas Anderson hopped back in the music video director’s seat for Radiohead’s “Daydreaming”. This feels like a cultural parallel to TV’s growing prestige, where more and more directors are giving TV the time of day over movies (see: House of CardsTrue Detective, The Young Pope).

Music Videos Dominate The Headlines (2016)

In the introduction, I noted this article would stick to videos that constituted a type of innovation of the form, specifically a technical one. While the videos below aren’t necessarily the most technically innovative we’ve seen in recent years, their overall impact and sheer dominance of the headlines this year has ushered in a tidal change for the medium and so are worth a brief examination.

Beyoncé – ‘Lemonade’

After the visual album dropped via HBO following minimal warning on Beyonce’s part, a thousand thinkpieces were penned. What more is there to say about Beyoncé’s 45-minute magnum opus? Only that checking how relatively brief this video is, while the sheer multitudes it contains – Beyoncé’s personal life, nods to Black Lives Matter, spoken word, cameos from the great and good, an attempt to reclaim rock music’s black legacy, nods to Pipilotti Rist, references to the Yoruba goddess Oshun are just a few items on the menu – means you expect it to clock in at the two hour mark.

The sheer scope of commentary on the video and the way Beyoncé managed to coax the viewing public into that most pre-internet of things – the music video debut as event viewing model (of which “Thriller” is the clearest example) – implies that this release has changed the music video model forever.

Kanye West – “Famous”

Poor Kanye. Only in 2016 would “Famous” be the second-most hotly discussed video of the year. Its a combination of everything necessary for a viral video — dropping it at short notice, its ambiguity surrounding the reality or falsity of the figures shown, the high-production values, the celebrities, screening it at events across the world and making it available for one day only via Tidal so it literally became event viewing — combined with the fact it’s equally impressive as video art meant it was one of the standout music videos of the year.

Still, the only review I’d imagine West cared about — from the artist whose painting “Sleep” inspired the work, Vincent Desiderio — was one of raving enthusiasm, with Desiderio stating that he was “almost in tears” when he saw West’s video for the first time and that he and West “just hugged each other.”

The internet has made shorter, punchier visuals even more important than they were circa MTV’s heyday as a music channel; with YouTube, musicians aren’t just up against TV shows, but are pitted against a seriously diverse range of content, from cat videos to comedy to movie trailers. Technology like the iPhone means that one doesn’t need to have funding and a camera crew to make a legitimate video. It also means that big name artists are up against hordes of garage bands armed with little more than a great idea, a smartphone and a few filming accessories. This could be why bigger artists are going for more and more out-there ideas when it comes to their videos — it’s increasingly harder to stand out in a sea of content.

This seems like a good thing: the more experimental and original these music videos become, the more prestige the medium has and the more attraction it has for big-name Hollywood directors. So, sure, 2016 hasn’t been great on many counts — including Beyoncé’s failure to win an Emmy — but when it comes to music videos, I’d argue things are just starting to hot up.

Now that you’ve brushed up on your history, here are 10 music video directors every Highsnobiety reader should know.