From MTV to YouTube: A Brief History of Music Videos

Christian Cawley 17-05-2015

MTV isn’t keen on playing music videos these days, but when it did, it helped to define eras and careers, and became a phenomenon in its own right.

The music video didn’t simply appear out of nowhere in 1981 when MTV opened. Rather, there were many music videos before this, but few were successful, thanks mainly to only occasional airings on weekly pop shows on TV stations around the world.

While music videos are almost exclusively viewed on YouTube YouTube Music: Easily Discover New Music Videos on YouTube Read More these days, this is only the latest stage in the evolution of a movie sub-genre that can be as elaborate as a feature film and as personal as a family photo.

In order to recount the history of this medium and show how it has evolved over the decades, we have taken a look at 10 of the most iconic music videos of the past 50 years.

“Strawberry Fields Forever” (1967)

The Beatles are, of course, the most important band in pop music history (even if Paul is Dead Paul is Dead: How the Internet Fueled The Beatles Conspiracy Theory Did Paul McCartney, legendary musician and member of The Beatles, actually die in 1966 only to be replaced by a lookalike? Probably not, but the "Paul is Dead" conspiracy theory simply refuses to die. Read More ), whose influence is still felt almost 50 years after they split up. But what about their music videos?

Back in the 1960s, few acts recorded music videos. There was no MTV, and in an age of endless touring, artists couldn’t often make it to TV studios to perform. Having flirted with the idea of promotional films for their songs lifted from the movies, A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, The Beatles later recorded a series of promotional films for their singles after giving up touring in 1966.

While “I Am The Walrus” might be the most well-known Beatles “video” from this time, it’s the “Strawberry Fields Forever” promo film that is most important, featuring reverse, slow motion, fades, camera filters and slow mixes, and a collection of unusual, slightly imposing camera angles.

The Beatles weren’t alone in producing promo films in those days; other international artists such as The Kinks (“Dead End Street”, “Apeman”), The Beach Boys (“Good Vibrations”) and Bob Dylan (“Subterranean Homesick Blues”) employed the idea.

“Bohemian Rhapsody” (1975)

Eight years later, the music video was still nothing more than an occasional promotional film, usually the syndication of a particular TV performance. Some artists like David Bowie recorded promotional films, but on the whole this idea was ignored, with shows in Europe such as Top of the Pops preferring to accompany songs with dancers if artists weren’t available to perform.

When Queen’s epic “Bohemian Rhapsody” made the number one spot in 1975, the band was on tour and unable to make it to the recording of Top of the Pops on BBC One. Instead, they recorded a special video for the occasion, featuring the band performing the beginning and end of the song on stage, and with a collection of stunning visual images using the latest video editing technology accompanying the middle “opera” section.

The reception to this video was considerable, leading it to hold the UK number one spot for nine weeks.

“Thriller” (1983)

By the time Michael Jackson’s solo career hit the stratosphere with his Thriller album, pop videos were more commonplace, with debut solo artists and established acts all spending time recording accompanying films and dedicated video performances to help sell their records.

Directed by John Landis (An American Werewolf in London, The Blues Brothers, one of those movies that can really match your mood Matching Movies To Your Mood: Do These Tools Work? There is something magical about movies. In the space of two hours a whole story is told from beginning to end. With a middle that hopefully leaves you feeling something, anything, for the characters and... Read More ), who co-wrote the screenplay for the video (in reality, the ultimate pop promo film), the 13 minute video enjoyed its worldwide premiere on MTV on December 2nd 1983.

“Thriller” has since been listed by the Guinness Book of Records as the “most successful music video,” and is the first music video added to the National Film Registry. Its impact is wider than this, however, influencing musicians and film directors alike ever since.

Look out for the American Werewolf-style transformation, arguably better executed in “Thriller” than in the original movie. And if you’re still in the mood for some Michael Jackson, why not learn how to Moonwalk Learn To Moonwalk In 5 Simple Steps The moonwalk is easily one of the most iconic dance moves. Read More ?

“Money for Nothing” (1985)

Mixing early computer graphics with rotoscoped animation of Dire Straits playing live, “Money for Nothing” reached the US number one spot in no small part thanks to this video, which lead singer and guitarist Mark Knopfler had been extremely dubious about using.

Director Steve Barron called upon Ian Pearson and Gavin Blair to create the animation, employing a Bosch FGS-4000 CGI system and a Quantel Paintbox. The latter device was widely used in TV production towards the end of the 1980s through to the mid-1990s, and regularly used by the BBC on Doctor Who (and here are 50 more things every Doctor Who fan should know).

Pearson and Blair went on to Mainframe Entertainment, now Rainmaker Entertainment, producers of a wide selection of toy and comic book cartoon spin-offs as diverse as Transformers and Barbie, with a bit of Spider-Man thrown in for good measure.

“Money for Nothing” is also notable for featuring Sting on vocals.

“Sledgehammer” (1986)

Following his departure from Genesis, Peter Gabriel endured several years without a hit (first solo single “Solsbury Hill” aside) until this influential music video was commissioned by Virgin Records.

With the stunningly imaginative use of stop-motion video techniques (something you’d probably be able to do with a phone these days Create Stop Motion Animations With These 5 Fun Apps [iPhone & Android] In terms of awesome creative things you can do with a lot of free time, stop motion animations rank right up there with the best. For kids and adults alike, being able to take inanimate... Read More ) by Aardman Animations (who would later produce the world-famous Wallace and Gromit series), Gabriel’s head (and later body) is used as a template for a variety of real-world visual effects, from makeup to being turned into fruit.

The result was that the “Sledgehammer” video won a so-far unsurpassed nine MTV Video Music Awards in 1987, and is MTV’s most-played music video (not that they play too many of those these days).

Gabriel’s 1992 hit “Steam” also relied on cutting edge techniques, this time using CGI and other digital effects.

“Buddy Holly” (1994)

Directed by Spike Jonze, Weezer’s biggest hit was accompanied by the visual treat of a Happy Days mashup, with original cast members cleverly edited into the group’s performance in Arnold’s Drive-In diner, the popular eatery from the iconic 1970s TV show.

While interspersing contemporary actors and performers with historical footage is commonplace these days, it was far less common in 1994, having only really been successfully executed in Steve Martin’s modern film noir comedy, Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. “Buddy Holly” won four awards at the 1995 MTV Video Music Awards, and was also bundled on the Windows 95 CD, listed under “Fun Stuff”, which contributed to the song’s success.

The use of tight editing and a body double enabled popular character Fonzie (Henry Winkler) to dance to the climax of the song, and you should also look out for Al Molinaro as the only contemporary presence from the original show, which ended in 1984.

“Virtual Insanity” (1996)

Jamiroquai’s biggest hit featured this awesome combination of dancing and an apparently moving floor, enabling singer Jay Kay to perform the vocals in memorable fashion. While it appears that the video is all one shot, it is in fact several sequences edited together with the subtle use of camera pans. That’s not the only magic at work here…

As you may have guessed, the floor isn’t really moving; rather, the camera is fixed to the set, which is being moved around on a grey, featureless floor.

Unsurprisingly, “Virtual Insanity” won four awards at the 1997 MTV Video Music Awards, where the band gave a memorable performance, with Jay Kay dancing on two moving walkways installed on the stage.

“Baby One More Time” (1998)

Britney Spears’ debut single was released with this slightly cheesy high school-centric video from director Nigel Dick, and immediately tapped into the MTV audience, resulting in almost instant worldwide fame for the former Disney Club stalwart.

Unlike most of the other videos on this list, there is little in the way of special effects in this music promo. It is, instead, an example of the perfect synchronicity between a song and the accompanying video, strong direction, compelling choreography and realistic costuming (standard school uniforms were used).

The school used in the “Baby One More Time” video was Venice High School, which had previously found itself at the center of the cultural behemoth that is Grease.

“Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)” (2008)

Filmed in black and white and featuring nothing more than Beyoncé and two dancers, well, dancing in what seems to be a single take (it isn’t), “Single Ladies” was awarded Video of the Year at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, and its popularity does not seem to have waned since. In fact, quite the opposite is true.

With the arrival of YouTube in 2005, music videos have moved wholesale from MTV to Google’s video-sharing site, where they can be enjoyed on demand, rather than forcing the viewer to wait until the track cycles round again. And so “Single Ladies” lives on.

While iconic, it is interesting to learn that the choreography was inspired by a very similar performance from The Ed Sullivan Show in 1969, choreographed by Bob Fosse, as demonstrated in this mashup.

Jake Nava’s direction, the use of black and white, the development of the 40-year-old choreography, and the fact that the video features an international superstar named Beyoncé, elevates this way beyond a cheap rip-off and into the iconosphere. The number of parodies inspired by this video is testament enough.

“Born This Way” (2011)

Lady Gaga has made music videos the focus of her pop single career more than any artist since Michael Jackson, so it should come as no surprise to find her stunning seven-minute-long “Born This Way” video concluding this list (and believe me, it was tough to choose just 10).

Directed by fashion photographer Nick Knight, the video features Lady Gaga in a number of guises, with scary-looking facial protrusions (in reality prosthetic makeup rather than sub-dermal implants) and various references to Greek and Roman mythology. Oh, and a Michael Jackson impression, appropriately enough.

It is, quite frankly, brilliant.

Speaking of parodies, it is actually a law of the Internet that we cannot talk about the amazing video for “Born This Way” without mentioning the other amazing video, for Weird Al Yankovich’s “Perform This Way”…

From MTV to YouTube… and Beyond?

Right now, I can unlock my phone, launch the YouTube app and enjoy virtually any pop video that has ever been made, wherever I am. It is a far cry from the experimental times of the 1960s, where adding some film to your latest hit record was considered avant garde.

Queen’s revolution of the music video, an experiment that the band repeated again and again with some fascinating results (such as “Radio Gaga” and “Innuendo”) kick-started a new aspect to the music industry, one that spawned the world’s most famous TV channel and the most famous video of all, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”.

Although MTV now shies away from its former role – partly out of pretensions of legitimacy as a producer of TV shows, and partly because its owners fear the competition of YouTube – it will forever be synonymous with the pop music scene of the 1980s and 1990s.

But where might YouTube take music videos? Are the astonishing videos of Lady Gaga taking advantage of the medium, or merely exploiting it? Could YouTube – or another service entirely – offer a brand new way of hosting, playing, and distributing music videos in the future?

What do you think? What would you include in your own list of iconic music videos? Please tell us your thoughts on music videos, and how they have evolved over the years, in the comments section below!

Related topics: Online Video, Television, YouTube.

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  1. Damon
    July 29, 2019 at 3:56 am

    I am a HUGE fan of music videos, having watched the emergence of the art form watching Countdown (Australian) in the 70s. I even like to make my own music videos for all those poor orphaned songs that are lacking the spotlight!

    Visage - Fade to Grey
    Lady Gaga - Bad Romance
    KISS - I Was Made For Loving You
    Army of Lovers - Crucified
    Pet Shop Boys - So Hard
    Anything by DEVO
    and Olivia Newtown-John - Make a Move On Me!

  2. Brian Gray
    May 19, 2015 at 3:56 am

    You seriously left out the first ever video run on MTV, The Buggles "Video Killed the Radio Star" and the very video that actually did kill the radio mega-star, Billy Squier's "Rock me Tonight"? From http://dangerousminds.net/comments/the_video_that_killed_the_rock_n_roll_star: "In a poll of over 400 music industry mover and shakers, Squier’s video for “Rock Me Tonite” (terribly mis-directed by choreographer Kenny Ortega) is considered to be the worst video ever made by a major artist and record label. "

    Still, he gets the last laugh; from [Broken URL Removed] "It’s reckoned that he earns a seven-figure sum in royalties every year from this track alone."

  3. gent
    May 18, 2015 at 5:06 pm

    Definitely missing AHA s Take on me, I was stunned when I first saw it. Surely a groundbreaking iconic video

  4. kt
    May 18, 2015 at 2:34 pm

    Headbanger's Ball fueled my teen years!

    Land of confusion by Genesis was a great video.

    Don't forget about A-Ha, Take on me. Not a good song, but a great video.

    All GWAR videos are great too, though live is better.

    A great one for perspective on how far CGI has come is: Rush, Big Money.

  5. Dinahmoe
    May 17, 2015 at 2:34 pm

    Actually, videos, as we know them now, were filler on hbo and cinemax long before mtv.

    • Christian Cawley
      May 17, 2015 at 5:43 pm

      how did this work, Dinahmoe? Were they used on mornings/late evenings? Tell us more!

    • mcsey
      May 18, 2015 at 4:40 pm

      HBO used to stick to the hour. If a 1:40 started at 7 o'clock, then from 8:40 to 9:00 they'd play a couple of videos and a couple of ads for upcoming movies to fill the 20 minutes.

  6. Terry
    May 17, 2015 at 1:27 pm

    Pink Floyd and their many early videos!