This is a difficult list to define. The simplest thing to do here would be to list the five most expensive music videos ever made, write a nice paragraph describing them and let you marvel at the depths of the seemingly endless wallet of the music industry (or at least before the internet stole all of its money).
The problem with that list, however, is that it’s sort of boring now. It’s been seen in various iterations from print to television since video budgets first hit the million-dollar mark. It’s also a list entirely populated by Madonna and Michael Jackson. By no means am I discounting them, (as you’ll see below), but if you just want to watch some Madonna and MJ videos, then I highly recommend YouTube.
The reason this list becomes difficult is that you can set different parameters and alter the outcome. For instance, while Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson together hold the official record for “Most Expensive Video Ever” (with “Scream” at a budget of $7,000,000 or $10,834,025 in 2015 money), it’s Janet Jackson alone who appears most frequently in the statistics, starring in six of the top fifty most expensive videos. Contrary to this, Britney Spears appears five times in the top fifty yet doesn’t even come close to matching the money of the five artists you’ll see here.
For a sense of mathematical clarity, this list is calculated as follows: within the confines of the top 50 music video budgets (with all totals in USD and adjusted for inflation in the year 2015), these are the five artists who have had the most money spent on their videos overall. This is still unfair in a way because some of these artists absolutely dominated the top 50 whereas others managed to get in here on the budgetary strength of one or two videos, but the music industry being unfair is the name of the game. So without further ado…
Amount Spent: $26,822,179
Number of Videos: 4
There’s just no way of having this list without Madonna. Of the top five most expensive videos she has three of them and with good reason. The videos are all huge, ambitious and cinematic, and were created by feature film directors such as David Fincher and Mark Romanek (who most recently returned to music video work for Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off”).
Romanek’s video for Madonna’s “Bedtime Story” is a confident and considered dreamscape of surrealist imagery incorporating Sufism and Egyptian iconography. Its incredibly rich, saturated color palettes, switching from desert oranges to midnight blues conjure up scenery evocative of Frida Kahlo paintings, and Dali-esque surrealism. To achieve an aesthetic this ambitious in 1995 meant weeks of post-production to ensure the digital effects were as perfect as technology would allow.
The video premiered in cinemas as opposed to television and has been installed in various art galleries worldwide. To its credit, 20 years after it was made it still looks incredible, (if perhaps a little dated). These themes of incredible, cinematic imagery and intense digital effects are carried through to Madonna’s other incredibly expensive videos. In 2002’s “Die Another Day,” she has a fencing match against herself and in the David Fincher-directed “Express Yourself” we see a suited Madonna dance her way through some very gloomy and oppressive sets straight out of a Fritz Lang nightmare.
Artist: Michael Jackson
Amount Spent: $22,858,994
Number of Videos: 5
Now Michael Jackson’s placement on this list is subject to the following caveat: the video for “Scream” has its reported budget split 50/50 between Michael and Janet’s overall totals. The other options would be counting the video twice (which would put Michael at number 1 with a total spend of $28,292,698 and Janet would remain in third place with a total of $24,201,270) or to discount the video altogether. It seems a little nonsensical to disregard the most expensive music video of all time in an article about expensive music videos, so this leaves us with the totals and rankings you see here.
Michael Jackson’s video output is nothing short of legendary. The John Landis-directed (famed for An American Werewolf In London) 13-minute horror masterpiece “Thriller” was, upon release in 1983, the first video to cost $1 million to produce ($2.6 million in 2015). A benchmark both culturally and visually, it started Jackson’s videos on a trajectory of increased scope, controversy and, of course, budget.
Four years later, 1987 saw the release of the 18-minute West Side Story–referencing, Martin Scorsese-directed video for “Bad” – another huge, sprawling video laden with incredible ensemble choreography (and Wesley Snipes) at a cost of $4.5 million. Beyond this, Jackson returned to work with John Landis for 1991’s “Black or White” which at a 2015 cost of $6,925,971 is the fifth most expensive music video of all time, and just looking at the scale of the production it’s easy to see why – Macaulay Culkin rebels against his dad in a cartoonish extended intro, Michael glides seamlessly between huge sound stages filled with dancers and incredible set design, there are actual lions(!) and a sophisticated morph-effect outro featuring Tyra Banks – an outro which is recreated for brilliant comic effect in Das Racist’s video for their song “Michael Jackson,” by the way.
And then there’s the aforementioned “Scream,” which I’ll get into below.
Artist: Janet Jackson
Amount Spent: $18,767,566
Number of Videos: 6
So that “Scream” video, huh? It cost $7 million to make in 1995, which is about $10.8 million today. The video, directed by Mark Romanek (who is clearly a man who knows how to spend money), is an ultra-slick, high-contrast black-and-white montage of Michael and Janet Jackson having a very nice time in zero gravity. Apparently the concept was conceived as a reaction to the press attention the Jacksons were receiving – which actually makes it kind of sad. The huge, sparse sets populated only by the duo as they drift through the universe together avoiding any tabloid spin whatsoever. Depressing subtext aside, the video does play with the zero gravity elements in a variety of fun ways, and the set designs themselves while quite minimalist in aesthetic, are each huge undertakings (and there are 13 different sets in all). It’s testament to the art direction and Romanek, that much like his very expensive video for Madonna in the same year, this video still looks great 20 years on. Sadly the same can’t be said for all of the videos on this list.
Out of the six videos Janet has in the top 50, she actually only appears alone in two of them. Of those two, the most expensive (at a 2015 total of $3.4 million) is “Doesn’t Really Matter” from 2001. It’s laced with very primitive CGI (by today’s standards) that renders a saturated, nightmarish vision of the future where the only thing you can watch on television is The Nutty Professor and everyone’s bizarrely happy about that for some reason. Mercifully the director Joseph Kahn went on to do great things with Taylor Swift (have you seen that video for “Bad Blood” yet?!) as well as that incredible gritty Power Rangers reboot with James Van Der Beek.
Artist: Ayumi Hamasaki
Amount Spent: $9,613,519
Number of Videos: 5
Not exactly a household name in the West, but Ayumi Hakasami is a singer and model dubbed by some as the “Empress of J-Pop.” Since her debut album was released in 1999 she’s sold over 53 million records, making her the fifth best-selling artist of all time in Japan. In 2005 she released a three-track DVD single, and one of those videos was the eight-minute woman-empowering video for “My Name’s Women.” It’s her most expensive video at around $2.4 million and plays out like a scene lifted straight from a gangster movie by way of The Great Gatsby. Incredible set design, stunning makeup and lavish costumes for a room full of extras probably devoured the budget on this video.
The song itself contains lyrics like “don’t forget that we don’t exist to be convenient for you” – a pretty positive feminist message about 10 years before Beyoncé was doing it. Incidentally, none of Beyoncé’s videos even make the top 50, despite her making an entire video album.
Artists: Guns N’ Roses
Amount Spent: $9,051,161
Number of Videos: 2
Even before the financial shambles of Chinese Democracy, Guns N’ Roses were no strangers to spending huge sums of money to realize their vision. Which is how videos like the $6.5 million-clip for “Estranged” came to be. Like Chinese Democracy, however, it’s safe to say that the results are mixed at best.
“Estranged” is the almost nonsensical conclusion to a trilogy of videos (the other two being “Don’t Cry” and “November Rain“). In a recurring theme in expensive videos it clocks in at almost 10 minutes long and consist of footage that seems to meander between scenes of an entire SWAT team raid on Axl Rose’s mansion, live footage from a stadium show in Munich, and some peculiar dolphin motifs that culminate in a forlorn Axl jumping into the ocean from the deck of an oil tanker. Oh, also Slash rises out of the water to perform a guitar solo (which is actually pretty incredible, but mostly because I always think of the reference Sum 41 make to it in their “In Too Deep” video).
At least the slightly less expensive ($2.5 million) video for “November Rain” is a little more cohesive, with Axl doing his best Elton John and Slash’s iconic guitar solo in front of a church intercut with an actual narrative of love and loss.
Special Mention: MC Hammer
Amount Spent: $6,548,136
Number of Videos: 2
I couldn’t do this article without also mentioning MC Hammer. Proving once and for all that money doesn’t buy quality, I present to you this 1991 full 15-minute video for “2 Legit 2 Quit.” At a 2015 cost of upwards of $4.2 million, it is the eighth most expensive music video ever made, it contains cameos from Danny Glover, Tony Danza, Jose Canseco and a torturously long intro featuring James Brown playing a game of “how many James Brown songs can we shoehorn into this dialogue?”