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A Brief History of the Music Video

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In 1973, David Bowie’s rendition of Starman on the BBC TV chart show Top of the Pops launched the Ziggy Stardust persona into popular consciousness. Strictly speaking, it’s a TV performance not a music video, but watched on a small screen by mass audiences, it serves the same function. In fact, if you search “Starman music video” on YouTube, it’s this clip that comes up.

Music videos are uniquely placed to tell us about the changing shape of mainstream popular culture. From Bowie’s rainbow jumpsuit, to the way he casually puts his arm around guitarist Mick Ronson, the video is a time capsule. It’s a four-minute reminder that in 1970s Britain, a display of queerness this unapologetic, on mainstream television no less, caused shockwaves that began to move cultural fault lines. Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Madonna’s Like a Prayer, Britney Spears’ Oops I Did It Again and Beyoncé’s Lemonade are similar touchstones. All are more instantly transportive, and just as revealing of their respective eras than most art, books and films from 1983, 1989, 2000 and 2016.

Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody is considered one of its earliest examples. Debuting in 1975, it is credited as one of the first singles whose accompanying video was essential to its marketing, though The Beatles had pioneered this strategy 10 years earlier, creating a clip for We Can Work It Out that could be played on Top of the Pops, should the band be too busy touring to perform.

Depending on who you ask, early examples of short films set to song were invented in the 1930s (Warner Brothers’ ‘Spooney Melodies’), the 1940s (‘soundies’) and the 1960s (‘Scopitone’ videos), all variations on performance-based clips used to promote popular music of the day. The mid-1960s also saw musicians collaborating with filmmakers on short art films that used dance, narrative and location to channel the spirit of their songs. In 1966, American underground artist Bruce Conner’s short film Breakaway saw Toni Basil perform a striptease to her single of the same name, while The Beatles worked with Swedish director Peter Goldmann on films that saw the band climbing trees and riding horses in matching red coats for their 1967 double-A side Strawberry Fields Forever / Penny Lane.

And then, in 1981, a 24-hour American cable channel called MTV changed everything. It launched, tongue firmly in cheek, with The Buggles’ Video Killed the Radio Star, the first on a repeating playlist of 250 curated clips hosted by video jockeys. MTV came to symbolise a particular aesthetic, one that music journalist Rob Tannenbaum describes as “aggressive dictatorship, contemporary editing and FX, sexuality, vivid colours, urgent movement, nonsensical juxtaposition, provocation, frolic – all combined for maximum impact on a small screen” in his oral history of the network. Videos like Duran Duran’s Girls on Film featured leery, low-angle shots of scantily clad models playing out porny scenarios (think sexy cowgirl and massage therapist) in the centre of a boxing ring while the band jammed in the background. Music videos were no longer simply a means of promoting an artist; they were selling sex, bling and youth culture itself.

As budgets ballooned over the next decade, so did the form’s creative possibilities.

Innovative examples like a-ha’s sketchbook-inspired Take on Me and Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer, which played with claymation and stop-motion animation designed by Aardman Animations (soon-to-be-of Wallace and Gromit fame) showcased the genre as a valuable art form. However, the high-water mark in 80s music videos is surely Michael Jackson’s Thriller. Directed by Hollywood filmmaker John Landis in 1983, the 13-minute extravaganza was a blockbuster production that cost more than $900,000 to make. The 1950s B-movie aesthetic, synchronised zombie dance and MJ’s candy apple red leather jacket helped to make the video as instantly recognisable as any of the pop star’s earworms. A year later, his sister, Janet Jackson, would also encourage viewers to attempt, from their bedrooms, her now-legendary dance routine from the military-themed, warehouse-set Rhythm Nation.

Thriller also marked something of a turning point in MTV’s attitude towards Black artists, who up until that point were rarely put into the channel’s rotation. MTV executives blamed the whiteness of their programming on the fact that they were first and foremost a ‘rock’ channel, a lacklustre excuse for dismissing 80s pop giants like Jackson and Prince. It took Jackson’s Billie Jean, whose video featured the single white glove and moonwalk dance that would be copied by fans all over the world, to convince the network that Black artists had crossover potential and commercial value.

While Prince’s videos tended towards performance rather than spectacle, the sexuality of their content began to push the boundaries of what might be considered acceptable television viewing. In the video for Prince & The Revolution’s 1984 single When Doves Cry, from his movie musical Purple Rain, he appears fully nude, first in a claw-foot bathtub, then prowling on all fours, all the while smouldering direct-to-camera.

Madonna, another artist synonymous with MTV’s Golden Age also used music videos to provoke viewers with her sexuality (and to influence them into pairing pearls with ripped fishnet tights). 1989’s Like a Prayer remains her most brazenly controversial; she created a cultural water-cooler moment and outraged the Vatican by dancing in front of KKK-style burning crosses in her negligée, kissing a Black saint, and depicting a racist criminal justice system (her character is gang raped by a group of white men, but a Black witness is arrested). Other videos, like Material Girl, a cheeky riff on Marilyn Monroe’s performance of Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friends in the 1953 musical Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the racy, Metropolis-themed Express Yourself, and the black and white Art Deco stylings of Vogue elevated the form and placed the up and coming artist in conversation with the lineage of Classical Hollywood cinema. Meanwhile, she put directors like David Fincher, who directed four of her videos, on the path to becoming fully-fledged Hollywood directors.

As hip-hop began to explode into the mainstream the mid-to-late 90s, music videos provided a vital training ground for Black filmmakers like Hype Williams (Busta Rhymes and Janet Jackson’s What’s It Gonna Be, D’Angelo’s Untitled and many, many more) and Paul Hunter (Public Enemy’s Night of the Living Baseheads, The Notorious B.I.G.’s Hypnotize and my favourite, the Christina-Pink-Lil’ Kim-Mya version of Lady Marmalade), both of whom were signed to production house Classic Concepts.

Williams in particular had a huge influence on the look and feel of popular music videos as the decade edged into the millennium. The shiny, puffy costuming, cartoonish fisheye lensing, sci-fi backdrops, and use of special FX in his videos were a creative, Afrofuturist twist on the period’s new money excess, as seen in videos like Missy Elliot’s The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly) and Sock It to Me, and Biggie’s Mo’ Money, Mo’ Problems featuring Ma$e and Puff Daddy. There’s no doubt that Williams is an auteur, though the director has made just one feature film. A crime film set in Queens and starring DMX, Nas and Method Man, 1998’s Belly was unfairly dismissed by critics for being all style and no substance. But the film’s style is its substance. The sheeny, ultraviolet lighting, polished surfaces, low angles and percussive editing reveal plenty about how the filmmaker helped to pioneer the visual culture of hip-hop that is still referenced today.

For Black filmmakers like Williams, music videos offered more consistent creative opportunities than Hollywood. Filmmakers like Fincher, Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry cut their teeth directing music videos for artists like George Michael, Beastie Boys, Chemical Brothers, Daft Punk and Björk before going on to make their names with Oscar-nominated films. Meanwhile, Black directors like Chris Robinson (ATL) and F. Gary Gray (Set It Off, Straight Outta Compton) are perhaps better known for their music videos than their feature films. Many play like mini movies, including Alicia Keys’ You Don’t Know My Name (romantic comedy), Jay-Z’s Anything (love letter to Black domesticity), TLC’s Waterfalls (a kind of erotic thriller) and Outkast’s Ms. Jackson (a dark comedy with a particularly witty use of household pets). That many Black music video directors of this era weren’t able to transition comfortably into feature filmmaking is testament to the stigma attached to hip-hop and R&B music videos.

No pop artist embodied the new millennium more than Britney Spears. Her vast music videography helped to create her as a new kind of cyborgian sex symbol, a blank slate onto which the public could project their fantasties. A line can be traced from the scandalous schoolgirl stylings of Hit Me Baby One More Time to the skintight red leather one-piece in Oops I Did It Again, the bejewelled nude catsuit in Toxic and the writhing, sweat-drenched I’m A Slave 4 U, each subsequent video amping up the sexuality baked into Britney’s brand. Indeed, her music videos frequently reference one another; the naked steam room scene in Womanizer is a call back to the nudity in Toxic; while 2004’s Everytime, which sees Britney’s paparazzi-hounded character attempt suicide, feels like a spiritual sequel to the loneliness and isolation foregrounded in 2000’s Lucky.

By the mid-00s, as MTV started to focus its programming on reality TV, music videos had begun to migrate to the internet. In 2005, an online video platform named YouTube was launched, shifting the power from TV gatekeepers and into the hands, or rather the fingertips, of the average at home viewer. It took less than a year for Google to acquire it. In 2009, major record labels Sony, Universal and EMI combined forces to create Vevo, a dedicated streaming site for music videos that were syndicated on YouTube. Another feature of YouTube that differentiated it from a channel like MTV? The comments.

YouTube’s comments function, alongside social media platforms Facebook (2004), Twitter (2006) and Instagram (2010), meant that music videos met social media, transforming the way viewers interacted with them. Suddenly, viewers were able to publicly share their unfiltered thoughts on music videos, as well as quickly distribute images, GIFs and clips from them. Videos that went viral, either by fluke or design, set a precedent that would influence filmmakers trying to create content in a fragmented, oversaturated marketplace. Ok Go’s lo-fi treadmill routine in the video for Here It Goes Again in 2006, Soulja Boy’s Crank That dance in 2007 and Beyoncé’s much-parodied Single Ladies shuffle in 2008 are early examples of the music video as meme genre, perfected in the 2010s with videos like Psy’s Gangnam Style, Miley Cyrus’ Wrecking Ball and Drake’s Hotline Bling. In 2019, Lil Nas X took this digital strategy one step further by harnessing the viral potential of social media app TikTok to promote his song Old Town Road; its official video was made after the song had become internet famous.

Going viral and getting cancelled are two sides of the same coin. While social media meant that fans had the power to make their favourite artists go viral, it also empowered viewers to criticise those same artists directly for a whole laundry list of different reasons. Videos as politically and aesthetically disparate as Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines and M.I.A.’s Born Free were both criticised in the public arena for their attitudes towards sex and violence, women and gingers. Meanwhile white pop artists like Miley Cyrus, Lily Allen and Taylor Swift were charged, correctly, with cultural appropriation, and were forced to release statements in response. The music videos of this era were no more provocative or risqué than their predecessors (MTV had banned Queen’s Body Language for its raunchy locker room footage as early as 1982). What had changed, or rather shrunk, was the gap between the viewer and the video.

Beyoncé’s body of work cuts across music video’s trends, adapting to and even shaping them over the course of her 22 years of working with the form. She bought into the 90s/00s hip-hop aesthetic in videos for Destiny’s Child singles Say My Name and Independent Woman Part 1 (though she wouldn’t actually work with Hype Williams until Check on It in 2005), amplified and capitalised on her sexuality with videos like Crazy In Love, Baby Boy and Deja Vu, was an early instigator of the dance craze-as-meme with Single Ladies, and even played with lo-fi home video-style footage in the bonus track 7/11, which was shot on an iPhone. More so than any artist of her generation, Beyoncé has understood its potential as a direct channel of communication between fan and artist. Famously opaque in her interactions with the press, her music videos are the opposite – ambitious, expressive, and often deeply personal.

In December 2013, after a four-year hiatus, she surprise-released a 14-track visual album called Beyoncé. This digital drop is often cited as a turning point in her career, her interest in marrying music with video was not unprecedented. In fact, Beyoncé had created a dedicated music video anthology for her album B’Day in 2007. What was different about her self-titled album was the way the videos were baked into the music, the entire record designed to be consumed as an audiovisual experience. 2016’s Lemonade was a refinement of that, a 12-track visual album that premiered on the American cable network HBO. Presenting a cohesive, chronological narrative of a woman wronged by her cheating lover, it drew on the work of Black women filmmakers like Julie Dash and Kasi Lemmons to tell a story about identity, lineage and Black liberation. The album’s lead single, Formation, stands out as the purest distillation of the project’s thesis. Directed by frequent collaborator Melina Matsoukas (who has helmed 11 of Beyoncé’s videos to date), it combines antebellum-era costuming and imagery with a critique of contemporary police brutality towards Black people. Set in post-Katrina New Orleans, it culminates with an image of Beyoncé supine on top of a sinking cop car.

It seems no coincidence that instead of working with established Hollywood names, Beyoncé has aligned herself with music video directors like Matsoukas, Kahlil Joseph (Lemonade) and Jenn Nkiru (2nd unit director on Apeshit, and director of Brown Skin Girls from 2020’s visual album Black Is King), tapping them as a kind of new guard of Black filmmaking talent. Videos like Matsoukas’ award-winning clip for Rihanna’s We Found Love, Joseph’s one-shot homage to Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep in Shabazz Palaces’ Belhaven Meridian, and Nkiru’s ingenious, ecstatic nine-minute short for Kamasi Washington’s Hub-Tones all demonstrate a command of fashion, character, movement and world-building that many mainstream feature filmmakers couldn’t dream of, making the case for the music video’s ever-expanding possibilities.

Calling all aspiring directors! Apply for Crack Magazine’s Three Minutes scheme, where five successful applicants will be selected to create a fully-funded music video.

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