When MTV launched in 1981, “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles was the first thing to be aired. The British band’s debut music video quenched visual thirst with cartoon graphics on colorful live footage and scenes featuring a female alien descending from the sky donning a rainbow tinsel wig. For the first time ever, people could watch a song as a story on TV, and a multifaceted realm of popular culture was born. The Buggles’ song should have been called “Video Made the Radio Star.”
Music videos invaded homes like a seductive party guest, drawing in viewers with vibrant visuals, daring sex-appeal, and iconic wardrobes. Showcasing a select 250 artists, the 24/7 channel played on loop, which consequently carved out an MTV generation, with everyone exposed to and influenced by the same aesthetics – getting physical wearing Olivia Newton-John headbands, over-accessorizing like Madonna, and embracing sequins with Prince.
Record label owner Joe Cokell – who started his career at MCA records in 1992 and worked with legends like Nirvana, Elton John, Guns ‘n’ Roses, and Cher, among others – credits MTV for making music videos a permanent fixture on every label’s to-do list. “During the ’60s and ’70s, continuous live touring was the way to break bands, but then video became a major tool worldwide,” Cokell says. “But a poor reaction [to a video] could slow down a band’s career.” With just 250 artists on MTV, a flop couldn’t go unnoticed. But then, the internet came and sabotaged that simplicity.
By 2005, YouTube had arrived, offering everyone anywhere free uploading and viewing power. People loved their newfound freedom, so by summer ’06, YouTube had become the fastest growing site in the world. The tsunami of content (combined with the fact that MTV had by then expanded to run pop culture programs and reality shows more often than actual music videos) contributed to a blur of video influence during the early noughties, when that golden MTV era nostalgia began. Our love for music videos hadn’t faded, there was just a new world to compete in.
In 2009, after recognizing a surge of music video uploads to YouTube, Universal Music and YouTube invented a modern music powerhouse: Vevo. Within a month, it became the most-viewed site in the US. Vevo’s launch at the turn of the decade chimed with the start of a much bigger, internet-generated MTV era reaching everyone, not just those with cable TV or a record deal. By then, everyone had also become music critics on social media, so production gained a new significance in order for artists to both be noticed in the overcrowded landscape and to avoid cancel culture. Enter, bigger and better production.
Bidding farewell to the same repeat reel of MTV music videos, YouTube had no space for mundanity; if you’re boring, people scroll straight past. So artists got dramatic, exercising their lavish budgets and redefining the boundaries of the format, like Pharrell Williams’ 24-hour-long interactive music video for “Happy” in 2013 and Beyoncé’s glamorous, Grammy-nominated audiovisual album Lemonade in 2016. Others have been political, like Childish Gambino’s cleverly executed, Grammy-award winning “This Is America,” exploring 2018’s severe social issues with nuance and passion. Controversy triggers worldwide conversation, too, like 2013’s X-rated “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke which shot model Emily Ratajkowski to fame, or Kanye West’s “Famous” in 2016, featuring 12 of the world’s most famous people in bed naked together.
Music videos are now a modern movie genre; Ariana Grande took that literally, with a trailer and behind-the-scenes preview promoting her “thank u, next” visual in 2018. The chick-flick collage was full of celeb cameos – even one from momager of the decade Kris Jenner. From the genius promo to the nostalgic pop culture references, Grande’s video was unequivocally crafted to go viral. And it did, setting a record for YouTube’s biggest debut, with 55.4 million views in the first 24 hours.
Not every artist has that kind of dollar though, which puts serious pressure on emerging names. “We can’t be bland or play too safe because everyone’s competing to be heard and seen,” says rising singer-songwriter and Foundation-radio presenter Orchid from London. “But I wouldn’t do music if I couldn’t make music videos,” she continues on their role in molding her artistic vision. Another London-based emerging artist, Master Peace, confirms how significant videos have become since 1981 in curating public perceptions of artists: “My music videos transfer my personality. They give life to what’s already there and manage to explain a whole narrative in the space of three minutes.”
In the visual-oriented 2010s, music videos are crucial to shaping an artist’s public aesthetic. Take Tyler, the Creator, for example, who enhances his provocateur persona with his famously borderline-offensive music videos – both solo and with Odd Future. It all started with that 2011 “Yonkers” visual, where he casually eats a cockroach, then hangs himself.
Cinematographer Donny Johnson has worked with viral TikTok artist Ashnikko (of “Stupid” fame) and South London’s Joy Crookes; he emphasizes, “Music videos used to be about creating an aesthetic world, but now they’re just part of a larger visual world being created and shared on social media.”Johnson says they don’t produce the full effect alone anymore: “Artists need a stream of content for socials. So, budgets have to be spread over a number of visual assets to keep an artist’s Instagram engaging.”
Social media’s influence got real (perhaps frighteningly so) in the 2010s, influencing every last nook and cranny of pop culture. And with that came a wave of music video memes – the most tangible way to measure influence post-MTV. Like when Drake’s yes-no “Hotline Bling” gem flooded our feeds in 2016, and it’s still raking in likes over three years later.
Viral dance moves were another route of measuring music video influence through the 2010s. In 2009, Skepta’s “Rolex Sweep” and K.I.G’s “Head, Shoulders, Kneez & Toez” prepped what would be a dance-filled decade: we got taught to dougie in 2011 by Cali Swag District, then there was Psy’s “Gangnam Style” in 2012 (now the third most-viewed video ever on YouTube), Milly Rock in 2014, Silentó’s “Whip/Nae Nae” the next year, followed swiftly by Migos bringing back the dab. No more failing to finesse Michael Jackson’s moonwalk; in the 2010s, dance moves gained stars global recognition, so artists had to come correct.
In Drake’s case, the process ensued back-to-front. “In My Feelings” was on the charts, and then came the Insta-challenge dance which later infiltrated his official video. The #inmyfeelingschallenge – or #kikichallenge – in 2018 was a viral sensation. Initiated by comedian Shiggy (who posted a dance routine), the rest was Insta-history, with celebs from Ryan Seacrest to Will Smith jumping on the wave, the latter managing it on top of a (really fucking high) bridge in Budapest.
Aside from viral dance moves and vibrant visuals, we have to talk about fashion. As a place of artistic expression, music videos are replete with signature statement looks, which often end up famously characterizing our favorite names, providing endless costume inspo in the form of such instantly iconic looks as Beyoncé and JAY-Z in “APESHIT,” or Normani’s cartoonish ’90s get-up in “Motivation,” which immediately inspired replica outfits.
Artists are the ultimate fashion influencers, so it’s only natural that the YouTube generation looks to them for style-inspo, whether it’s ’90s-esque pop princess Kali Uchis’ tinted shades and tight ‘fits in “Tyrant” or A$AP Rocky’s “Babushka Boi” headscarf. Brands utilize this influence, too; when Drake wore a Moncler Maya jacket in “Hotline Bling,” sales of the $1,150 piece immediately blew up. More recently, West London’s AJ Tracey credited himself for making Palm Angels cool in Europe when he wore the brand for his “Butterflies” video. People believe in the power of the music video. How can we not, when trends flow from them so effortlessly? Like how pirate-chic Rihanna in “Wild Thoughts” established the puffy sleeve trend that still floods female wardrobes in 2019.
Although trends were a lot more tangible without the intricate, eclectic web of the internet, due to today’s overflow of online identity, there’s a new urge for personalization and unique authenticity, so people tend to take what they like rather than replicating a star’s entire aesthetic. During the MTV era, music’s influence on fashion held an air of simplicity, as though you could pinpoint every subculture and sort everyone under 25 into cookie-cutter categories, explaining where their fashion choices derived from. Today, that’s impossible. We’ve got an eclectic web of subcultures; there are e-girls and e-boys, VSCO girls among hypebeasts and Instagram baddies. To explain teen aesthetics through the 2010s is to explain the decade’s music video culture: their level of influence has yet to even be fully realized.
As 2020 approaches, we can only marvel at the music videos of the 2010s; creating icons, trends, viral sensations, and inspiring limitless creativity. Here’s to another decade of curating influential pop culture excellence with all the arts combined. Let’s just say: MTV walked so YouTube could run.