Let’s start with a fact: Music videos, no matter how impressive or enchanting, were designed to be marketing tools. But they soon took on a life of their own. So, let’s not talk about what came first, medium, message or music, but delve right into some of the most iconic examples of the genre
The birth of music videos? Pinning down a point in time would be an educated guess – after all, ever since silent movies gave way to the “talkies” in 1926, the public has enjoyed audio-visual recordings of musical performances: from all-singing, all-dancing Vitaphone shorts to sing-along cartoons replete with karaoke-style “follow the bouncing ball” routines. Post war, song-heavy films, bona fide musicals or thinly veiled – and often just as thinly scripted – star vehicles like the Beatles’ Hard Days Night or pretty much anything by Elvis in his Hawaiian period proved sure-fire cinema crowd pullers, while TV sets entertained couch potatoes with revue-like ”live” shows of decidedly demure and non-rock’n’roll performers decked out in their Sunday’s best.
So, while the jury is still out on the genre’s “official” origin, many point towards Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody (1975) as the first truly modern music video, combining a stunning set-up, visionary references to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and singer Freddie Mercury’s sheer irrepressible flamboyance in one vertigo-inducing tour de force of sight and sound.
Yet the dam truly burst with the global deregulation of television licences and the ascent of commercial channels – most notably MTV. A veritable caesura and turbo charger for the music video movement, the channel’s first ever clip, Video Killed The Radio Star by ironic intellectual synth pop duo The Buggles, ushered in this new and prolific era at 12:01am on 1 August 1981 (US time).
Packed with cheap and cheesy effects, the video was a prime example of its age: Launched into a decade flush with cash and a strong penchant for both garish clothes and irrepressible hedonism, record companies soon expanded their video divisions and would not even blink at $100,000+ budgets for medium-sized hopefuls. But the results of this glut rarely impressed: Replacing storylines and ideas with exotic locations and attractive background fodder (we’re looking at you, Duran Duran!), these haphazard collages were prime exercises in lip synching – and not much else.
Luckily, a few examples stood out from the crowd: Think Grace Jones’ surreal on-screen escapades, Madonna’s shockingly saucy and subversive portrayal of knowing innocence (Like A Virgin, 1984) or the era’s most striking example – and enduring benchmark: Michael Jackson’s Thriller (1983), masterminded by director John Landis.
Clocking in at almost 14-minutes, this ambitious piece of storytelling featured actual actors, spoken passages and a guest stint by Dracula Vincent Price in an elaborately choreographed story-in-a-story zombie fest that not only merged film-making and music in a previously unprecedented way, but even joined the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress as the first music video ever to receive this honour.
Itself a homage to the choreographies of 1930s to 1950s Hollywood musicals, Thriller as well as the feature-length Ghost inspired a wave of tongue-in-cheek TV/film/music amalgamates. Along these lines, The Roots “Rap video manual” for What They Do (1996), an astute parody of hip hop video clichés, pinpoints all the must-have accessories – large estate, bikini-clad ladies gyrating at the pool, champagne, bed-in, big entourage, even bigger car, while 1994 Beastie Boys' Sabotage sees the three hapless rappers work their way through a brilliantly silly and amateurish take on clichéd 1970s cop shows like Starsky and Hutch.
At the same time, music videos often served as an innovative proving ground for new techniques and technologies. Ahead of their contemporaries not only in teenage heartthrob looks, but also production acumen, Norwegian trio A-ha decided to switch between the dimensions in their seminal Take On Me video (1985), a sketched out chase that slips in and out of reality as we know it. Under the capable direction of Steve Barron, the video’s pencil-sketch animation / live-action combo (rotoscoping) allowed singer Morten Harket to spring from the pages of his heroine’s comic book. Extremely labour-intensive, A-ha’s clip helped to pave the way for future box office hits like Who Framed Roger Rabbit, The Mask or Wallace and Gromit in terms of real-life / comic crossover appeal.
Fast-forward a few years, and the turn of the millennium marked a slow, but seismic shift in music video making: With the days of seemingly unlimited budgets drawing to a close, flimsy effects and glossy gestures no longer cut it. Thriving on new technologies, two distinct trends emerged: cool, ambitious CGI endeavours packed with thrilling tricks, 3D renders and life-like animations vs. low budget, DIY videos shot on a shoestring and edited by enthusiastic fans or friends of the band. With digital technologies, and internet bandwidth, evolving in leaps and bounds, the genre experienced both an “everyone can do it” liberation of indie vids and YouTube homages – and the wonderfully weird creations of e.g. Chris Cunningham, who followed the eerie masterpiece of Aphex Twin’s Come To Daddy (1997) with the full-on glory of Björk’s All is Full of Love (1998), causing a stir and small scandal with its depiction of clean room robots engaged in decidedly human emotions and sensuality.
Diving all the way down to technology’s core, to the level of binary code, processing and programming tweaks, the video accompanying Radiohead’s House of Cards (2008) stuck all visuals through an algorithmic spin cycle. Made with so-called lidar technology, everything was recorded via proximity sensors, not visual input, further distorted by mirrors and acrylic glass.
On a similar note, Chris Milk’s project The Wilderness Downtown (2010) relegates Arcade Fire’s stirring soundtrack all the way to the sidelines. No longer a vehicle for the song or band, this interactive multimedia project takes over the user’s computer: If Google Maps has enough footage of your home sweet home, you’ll be pulled into a multi-browser movie of your own making!
Meanwhile, out in the real world, the boundaries between finished, polished promo clip and spontaneous, non-linear interaction have started to fray at the edges. With more and more performers taking to the stage to recoup their recording expenses, budgets are starting to shift from straightforward videos to live visuals for the actual show. And more often than not, we are not talking mere background projections, but tailored scenes programmed to mesh with the live action on stage, or even triggered and directed in real time by the sound, beat or performer’s gestures.
This trend’s latest culmination: The holographic resurrection of rapper Tupac Shakur performing “live” at last year’s Coachella festival with Snoop Dogg – and even interacting with the audience. Anyone ready for a new Elvis, Amy Winehouse or, indeed, Michael Jackson in Thriller?