Music and film are entertwined like few other art forms. From the celebrated scores of film composers like Ennio Morricone to world-conquering cultural events like the Thriller video, there is a kinship between these mediums that few other creative outlets share. Our favourite songs will have accompanying music videos, and - for many of us - this video will play an integral role in defining our impression of the composition. Indeed, careers have been shaped and identified by music videos, not to mention the countless dance moves that have been popularised, the fashion statements announced, and the stories told in these short insights into a uniquely musical visual world.
Today, it may seem strange to imagine that in the not-too-distant past, music videos as we now know them did not exist. Prior to the advent of MTV in 1981, the term music video was a loose and varied description. At first, the term was used to describe short animated clips set alongside performance, such as Warner Brothers’ Spooney Melodies which aired in the late ‘20s. However, recorded live performances, or full-length musical films like The Beatles’ A Hard Day’s Night also qualified. It was down to several pioneering efforts - Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues, and Bowie’s Space Oddity - to help define what a music video could and should be. Sure, promotional clips like The Beatles’ effort for Strawberry Fields Forever were surprisingly modern, but they lacked a proper idea of what they could achieve when filming accompaniments to full-length tracks. Artists like Dylan and Bowie were able to conceptualise visual ideas that worked alongside the music in just the right way.
Allegedly due to its impractical-for-touring-to isolation, Australia played host to some of the first music television, with the pioneering 1974 debuts of the shows Sounds and Countdown. The latter show filled the void many Australians felt for the sight of their favourite acts and became a beacon for music video innovation, with Molly Meldrum and the team (including one Russell Mulcahy) developing videos for everyone from AC/DC to Harry Nilsson. It had begun to dawn on the television industry that the music video was a relatively unexplored goldmine for promotion and buzz-building. Countdown started filming promotional stunts, as seen in the iconic video for It’s a Long Way to the Top (If You Wanna Rock ‘n’ Roll), with the drunken band-members travelling down Melbourne’s Swanston Street on the back of a flatbed truck.
Soon, however, Mulcahy relocated to England, where one of his first music video credits was for a song by The Buggles, called Video Killed the Radio Star. Three years later, it would become the first video to be played on MTV in the United States. Music videos would never be the same. The MTV era defined a generation of viewers in terms of style and taste, and a generation of artists in terms of musical and creative direction. Loud, vibrant colours were the mandate of the day, and a slew of artists in the decade to come would owe a large part of their success to the cleverly executed hi-jinks of their video clips.
MTV made music videos mainstream: a bonafide promotional tactic, accessible 24 hours a day and absolutely vital for image-conscious artists like Adam and the Ants, Duran Duran, and Madonna. As video-making equipment became cheaper, more and more artists began to understand the vital importance a good video could have in marketing their music. They became standard for the influential artists of the new wave movement, and before long it was practically impossible to promote your album without a strong video to accompany your lead single. As this happened, the videos themselves became more experimental, more ingenious, and less about the artist standing in a room and playing their song. Stories were beginning to be told - Springsteen’s incredible black and white biographical clip for Atlantic City comes to mind - and by ’82 it was not unusual for a top-of-the-charts pop act like Duran Duran to push boundaries with an arty, censored-nudity clip for their hit The Chauffeur.
Everything changed again in 1983, with the release of Michael Jackson’s Thriller. With a US$800,000 budget, the 14 minute video for the title track was an exercise in all sorts of excess. One of the very first examples of short-film storytelling in music video form, Thriller tells a twisting-and-turning tale of warewolves and zombies coming to life while Jackson tries to entertain his date. With elaborate costumes, dance numbers, and iconic art direction, it was a watershed moment for a medium which had generally been afraid to become too adventurous or take too many risks. Yet Thriller payed in countless dividends, forming an integral part of Jackson’s image, as platinum plaques began to fill every wall. There was no precedent for Thriller, or Jackson’s ensuing success, yet there have been countless imitators in the years since. Practically every big-name pop star since 1983 has attempted to recreate the zeitgeist-capturing success of Thriller and its incredible video.
Soon, MTV had expanded, with MTV Europe and MTV Asia expanding global reach, VH1 catering to older, soft-rock audiences, and Yo! MTV Raps rapidly popularising hip-hop music in the late ‘80s. By ’92, as MTV began to credit the director of each video alongside the song credits, “music video director” had become a viable job description. Spike Jonze, Chris Cunningham, Michel Gondry, Walter Stern, Floria Sigismondi, and Hype Williams all gained prominence around the same time, spearheading a new generation of creative filmmakers who specialised in the creation of excitingly fresh music videos. Even David Fincher got his start directing a huge amount of music videos in the ‘80s and ‘90s, before becoming a highly accomplished feature film director. Everyone from The Cure to The Beastie Boys, Björk, and Busta Rhymes benefited from this group’s assembled talents, and before long, the music video as we know it today was firmly established as a style, a movement, an art form.
In a more or less unchanged fashion, music videos carried on through the ‘90s, as budgets ballooned and the medium became as ubiquitous as the album cover or the Bond song. (Interestingly, the visual accompaniments to Bond opening-credit songs were early examples of cleverly-visualised sound). And as time went on, it became evident how often the quality of a video reflected the extremes of the music itself. As much as clever, original artists like Massive Attack sought out the most like-minded video artists of their time, bands like Nickelback defaulted en masse to music videos that seldom featured more than slow-motion clips of the band playing their song melodramatically, usually in a dark industrial landscape with plenty of artificial rain.
Even as the majority of pop videos stagnated in the ‘90s and early 2000s, some music videos managed to transcend their time and place and become iconic. Videos like Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Californication, The White Stripes’ The Hardest to Button, and Eminem’s The Real Slim Shady became inalienable from the songs themselves, wonderfully representative of the music, and each an enduring snapshot of an important moment in the career of the artist. However, by that time, MTV had begun to shift its focus toward reality television, and away from its namesake purpose. It was left to the nascent popularity of the Internet to keep the love of music videos alive, and it did so in spectacular fashion.
YouTube debuted in 2005, and quickly became the premier place for music videos to be consumed, admired, and commented upon. Clever bands utilised early viral marketing intuition to harness the power of the web in their favour; who could forget OK Go’s pioneering DIY clips for A Million Ways in 2005 and the following year’s Here It Goes Again? The latter video currently stands at 30.5 million views, and is a prime example of how the advent of YouTube was able to instantly democratise the promotional landscape for music through enabling artists to share clever film clips alongside their singles. Weezer played upon the phenomenon of viral video with their incredible clip for 2008’s single Pork and Beans, and - ironically - the video’s tongue-in-cheek success led the song to become the band’s biggest hit to date. Yet YouTube was never pigeonholed into a place for niche video gimmickry; instead, dramatic storytelling and wildly original ideas have flourished on the platform over the past decade.
As artists like Lady Gaga pushed the Thriller envelope farther and farther, gaining notoriety for high-concept, long-running videos, the statistics for viewership soared over the first years of this decade. It rapidly became run-of-the-mill for pop hits to reach 100,000,000 views in the first year of their release, and even as MTV officially dropped the Music Television tagline from their logo in 2010, artists like Gaga, Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, and eventually Psy, became the first to approach and then shatter the landmark of one billion views for a single music video. It has become commonplace for a video’s notoriety to drive its success, a phenomenon that perhaps began with Thriller. Look at the massive success Beyoncé has enjoyed with the release of her controversial Formation single this year; a topical, radical video that summed up the opinions of many disaffected African Americans in the current cultural climate of the United States. The song was powerful, and the video moreso, capturing the essence of the argument for a wide-ranging discussion about police brutality and cultural appropriation in today’s world.
Clever pop artists have been able to harness this power for over 30 years, using iconography and visual imagery to convey meaning and elicit emotion. The medium of the music video has never been bigger, more accepted, or more powerful. We as viewers have never been as inundated with music videos as we are today, and yet the medium has never been bolder or more exciting. It is rare that as a creative device becomes commercially necessary and bigger budget it also becomes more experimental and original, yet we are at that very point in the exciting trajectory of musical film. After all, a good, conversation-sparking music video is utterly vital to the success of any modern pop song, while for alternative artists, a strongly-directed and fully-conceptualised piece of visual art can establish real credibility to connect with listeners and viewers.
Just last year, we saw Drake’s single Hotline Bling transformed from a throwaway free online single to a worldwide smash hit on the back of a stunningly directed and smartly conceived viral video. At the same time, David Bowie’s parting gift Black Star saw one of the pioneers of music video-making leave us with a sprawling, sad, terrifying, beautiful 10 minute opus; an artistic statement from his deathbed, and the final piece in the puzzle of music’s most visual artist. The title track’s video, alongside the clip for second single Lazarus, gave us some of the most beautifully designed and fully-realised conceptual art in the history of music. No one knew the power of visual art as it relates to music quite like David Bowie did.
The best music videos of all time have combined the finest elements of feature-length film-making with great music, and in doing so have elevated both mediums to a higher plane through amalgamation. We can never forget great music videos, much as we cannot forget great songs. When done just right, there can be no finer distillation of a song’s purpose and worth than its accompanying video clip. They say a picture paints a thousand words, and perhaps that’s true, but a video can be a novel, a doctrine, a summation of everything that is special about an artist and the moment in which their music comes to life.
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