The Evolution of Music Videos

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We’ve all been on YouTube and suddenly had a song come into our heads. So you search it up, and boom, there’s the song, with accompanying video. However, the phenomenon of putting film to music took a lot longer to develop than putting music to film did. The modern music video is a result of decades of experimenting, splicing, and sometimes even stealing. So, let’s have a look at the music video, in its transition from an outside idea, to an almost necessity in any single release.

Queen are credited by many for making the first music video in 1975, as a promotion for ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’, to be played on TV music show Top of the Pops. It was a landmark event, but not many bands caught on, given the astronomical cost of making one at this point. It was a privilege for superstars. Indeed, David Bowie’s video for ‘Ashes to Ashes’ cost $582,000 in 1980. When you adjust that to compensate for inflation, that’s over a million dollars in today’s money. These early videos didn’t show the band with their instruments. Instead, the musicians were mocked up, as Gods and aliens (or in Bowie’s case, a ballet dancer dressed as a baby bottle with tinfoil stuck to him)

This would all change very quickly. In 1981, MTV was launched, the first channel devoted purely to music (how times have changed, eh?). The large viewership of MTV meant that bands needed music videos to promote, or they would be left in the dust. However, videos on the scale of Bowie and Queen were still too expensive for most bands. In the early days, it was just the band playing the song, with maybe one or two nauseating filters being put on for a few shots.

Then came ‘Thriller’. The 14 minute long smash hit from Michael Jackson became the most expensive music video ever for a while, costing a cool $800,000 in 1982. This revolutionised the way music videos were shot and presented. You could have dancing, themes, even a plotline of sorts. Artists capitalised on this, such as David Bowie making the video to his song ‘Let’s Dance’ ¬†about the plight of Australia’s native Aboriginal people, rather than just another pop video.

However by the mid 80’s, such noble intentions (or pretensions) had been replaced. Big stars like Duran Duran and Dire Straits were more focused on showing how much money they could spend on a video than the actual quality or lifespan of the video. Prime examples are Duran Duran’s ‘Rio’, where the band dress as members of the Young Conservatives and perv over a model, and Dire Straits’ ‘Money For Nothing’ featuring animation that was cutting edge at the time but looks extremely dated today.

Less mainstream bands had also discovered how to make thematic videos cheaply. Celt-punk band The Pogues’ video for ‘A Pair of Brown Eyes’ used band members as extras, dressed band members in long “hobo” overcoats, used producer Elvis Costello as an actor, and had the band defacing real Margaret Thatcher posters in place of creating their own faux-propaganda for an authoritarian dictator. This was all directed by a proper director, Alex Cox, which was unusual at the time, but would soon become the norm.

By the early 90’s, some music videos were becoming bloated and navel gazing, particularly from megastars. Michael Jackson was the worst sinner in this respect, with a self-indulgent video for ‘Black or White’ starring Macauley Culkin and his video for ‘The Scream’ costing $7,000,000 to produce. However, the rise of Britpop brought a new trend in videos. Just as Nirvana had stripped away all the pretension around popular music with ‘Nevermind’, so too did bands scale down their videos. Only pop bands like Blur and Oasis bothered with sets anymore. Now we were back to the band playing their instruments wearing jeans and a t-shirt intercut with a few shots of whatever the hell fitted with the theme of the video. Some bands chose to use black and white filters for purely aesthetic reasons. It was minimalism at its finest when Massive Attack’s video for ‘Unfinished Symphony’ was just singer Shara Nelson walking down the street; a concept which was rather crudely “borrowed” by The Verve for their video for ‘Bittersweet Symphony’.

As the 90’s advanced and bands like Blur, Radiohead, and the Manic Street Preachers “grew up” the music videos also became more complex. Radiohead put Thom Yorke’s head in a tank full of water in the video for ‘No Surprises’. Blur dropped the cheeky sets and characters, and started used choirs as backing vocals, with videos filmed in the studio. The Manics put themselves in a strange, sanitised blue-room thing with all sorts of tubes and wires – rather disconcerting for a number one hit about fighting fascism and the Spanish civil war. Videos were more po-faced than before. Nobody smiled or laughed, the video was more about conveying how tired/sad/despairing the singer was. Of course this would only last a few years. In the 21st century, Radiohead ditched stardom, Blur broke up, and the Manics went mediocre. Britpop was truly dead, and America re-entered the scene.

In the early 200’s the phenomenon of pop-punk was king. Bands like Green Day, Sum 41 and Papa Roach became some of the biggest bands in the world. They returned to using sets, but most were meant to show urban realism, such as the band playing in the street to a rapturous audience of “the kids”. The videos were formulaic at best, really. Introduce storyline involving singer in some way, open with shot of band playing throw in a few weird camera angles and boom, you have your early 2000’s mainstream music video. However, a few bands tried to be a little more sophisticated. The White Stripes’ videos for ‘Seven Nation Army’ and ‘The Hardest Button to Button’ are both extremely well done and innovative. The latter video was even given a nod by the Simpsons when Jack and Meg White made a guest appearance on the show

So that brings us up to the modern music video. How things have changed! Solo stars have again taking over the pop landscape, and videos aren’t becoming any less extravagant. Some are trying to show off how sexy the singer is, others show the opulent lifestyle and wealth of pop stars. Nothing new, but most videos are much more cinematic now than they were before. They’re professionally edited, shot and directed, sanitised and safe, seeming a world away from their predecessors.

The biggest booster of music videos has been YouTube. Now anybody can get a camera, put a band together, write a few songs, make a few videos and be an internet sensation. Granted, most of these success stories aren’t really long-lasting or noteworthy (we won’t be making Jacob Sartorius jokes 10 years from now), and most of these stars are upper-middle-class American 13-year-olds whose parents can afford to splurge the money on a professional video. However, advances in this art form have brought many really good, innovative videos. Adele’s ‘Rolling in the Deep’ video with all the smashed glass flying around her is amazing. The animation in all of Gorillaz’s videos is fantastic.

Some people complain that videos are too sexualised or too violent in the 21st century era. Well, they forget that the past wasn’t exactly clean either. Queen videos such as ‘Body Language’ and ‘Bicycle Race’ featured lots of nudity and sex references, while ‘I Want to Break Free’ had the male members of Queen dressed up as women, sparking controversy. Duran Duran’s 1982 video for ‘Girls on Film’ is just a catalogue of fetishes and nudity. As soon as the Sex Pistols made a video of the band playing ‘God Save the Queen’, it was immediately banned by the BBC. Most Madonna videos have been banned at some point, and The Prodigy had the videos for ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ (which was surprisingly more wry commentary than full-blown misogyny like the title would suggest) and ‘Firestarter’ banned. The latter was banned by the BBC for glorifying arson, and will forever be associated with the sheltered child watching the TV crying out “Mummy, there’s a scary man on the telly!”

So, that’s the history of the music video. 40 years of evolution and technological advances have brought us up to the point we’re at. But while on the surface a lot has changed, underneath, everything is the same. Most videos are pretty much just used for the purpose of marketing, as it’s pretty much always been. But there are some artists who try to tie the video and the song together, or to make a political or cultural point. And really, it’s just like every other art form and will probably continue to be so. Some do it for profit alone , and some do it for ethics alone.

Words by Gabriel Rutherford

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