Michael Martinez shooting a music video in green screen

Video killed the radio star? The history of the music video


The humble music video is an integral part of the entertainment industry today. Whether it’s watching ‘OK Go’ dancing on treadmills, or a-ha performing in a comic-book world, it’s fair to say that they’ll be around for a while yet. But given the amount of people involved in the production, from directors to makeup and costume, are they taking away valuable resources that could be better spent on making new films or television program. Here, we’ll explore the history of the music video, and why it deserves to stay.

Nowadays a music video is par for the course, but of course there was once a time where you could only listen to music, and not even experience it with your eyes. The earliest form of the music video was the illustrated song, where images were projected using slides to accompany the music sung in music halls, beginning with The Little Lost Child in 1894. As filmmaking techniques developed, short films could be made, such as 1929’s St. Louis Blues starring Bessie Smith. It was only in the following decades that the modern definition of what can be called a music video was developed, with the 1950s seeing Strangers in Paradise publicised with a clip of the singer, Tony Bennet, walking through Hyde Park.

…the ability to design figures on a computer, then animate them, was at the forefront of technological innovation in the 1980s.

Then, in 1975, Queen’s iconic video for Bohemian Rhapsody was produced. While in effect just a video of the band performing the song live, accompanied by live reproductions of the album cover of Queen II, it was the most high-profile video produced up to that point, and from then on music videos began to enter the public psyche. Many bands and artists soon had their own music videos, and in the 1980s this culminated in David Bowie’s Ashes to Ashes video, which cost around £1.25 million to produce, which covered the costs of everything from a variety of costumes, sets, and hiring a bulldozer. Of course, with so many videos being produced, there had to be a way of setting them apart.

One way of doing such was by pioneering new techniques, the epitome of which is probably Dire Straits’ Money for Nothing.  Its music video is pioneering for its extended use of computer generated graphics, interspersed with video of the band performing. While such a development would have been much more expensive and potentially risky in film or TV (Tron is a notable exception), it can be a proving ground for these technologies before they become widespread. It may not look like much today, with the human characters and dog composed of various blocks stuck together, but the ability to design figures on a computer, then animate them, was at the forefront of technological innovation in the 1980s.

Indeed, part of the reason for this was to stand out on MTV, that the song directly references, which had been founded in 1981. MTV itself was pioneering at the time, before it got into the reality TV business. While not the first channel to exclusively show music videos, its key innovation was that it broadcast for twenty four hours a day. Starting with this article’s titular song by The Buggles, it led to the increased uptake of the music video by American artists as MTV became a prime marketing route to the teenage and young adult market. Indeed, the teenagers of the 1980s, often called Generation X, are also referred to as the MTV generation, such was its impact on their formative years.

Credit: Casta03

Another impact of this uptick in music videos, and a way to differentiate them, is to get a director in. As videos developed, increasingly new and elaborate ways of attracting attention required more experienced directors, some of whom would go on to other forms of media, like TV and film. For example, anyone watching the music video for Mint Royale’s Blue Song may notice a striking similarity to the opening scene of Baby Driver. You may not be surprised to hear that they share a director, Edgar Wright, in the days before Hollywood stardom. Another example is Weezer’s Buddy Holly, directed by Spike Jonze of Being John Malkovitch fame, which works together clips of the TV show Happy Days with the band. Music videos can also draw in established directors, such as David Fincher, normally a director of darker fare such as Seven and Fight Club, who is behind the video for Madonna’s Vogue among others.

With the movement of directors between music videos, film and TV, it’s no surprise that there is a degree of crossover between them. For example, sometimes the music video becomes a film that defines an era. It’s almost impossible to talk about the 1960s without talking about ‘Beatlemania’, and in this case, A Hard Day’s Night is the first of the Beatles’ films. Directed by Richard Lester, who would later work on Superman II and III, among others, it would probably be described as a mockumentary today. The film featured a supposed day in the Beatles’ Tour, complete with comic hijinks and performances of various songs including If I Fell and Can’t Buy Me Love, as well as the titular song and others.

Music videos also provide an opportunity for fledgling studios to showcase their work, such as Aardman Animations, who produced the video to Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer. Blending the live action performance of Gabriel with stop-motion animation gives a video that is still impressive today, ageing little compared to Money For Nothing. Aardman had previously had success with Morph, and would only three years later release A Grand Day Out, the first of the Wallace and Gromit Series. Television shows such as Doctor Who would also be inspired by such videos, with the set design of episodes like Warrior’s Gate clearly taking them as an influence.

…MTV was at its most influential during the 1980s and 1990s, and so whatever was played was sure to have a leap in popularity.

From the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, music videos also have the opportunity to make a political statement. A recent example is Childish Gambino’s This is America, whose music video is a telling social commentary on the state of race relations in the USA today. Last week’s OxStu has a much more in-depth discussion than I can go into here, so instead we’ll discuss the impact of Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean. As has been discussed, MTV was at its most influential during the 1980s and 1990s, and so whatever was played was sure to have a leap in popularity. In the first couple of years, there was a dearth of back artists featuring on MTV, which they claimed was due to the fact they were rock-oriented. This argument didn’t cut the mustard, especially as they expanded into other genres but this disparity remained. Pressure mounted, both from other artists like David Bowie, and also eventually the record labels, with CBS records apparently threatening to pull all their artists from the channel. Billie Jean would eventually be played on MTV. While the video itself isn’t particularly groundbreaking in terms of production, it had two major impacts, firstly opening the door to an increasing range of musical styles and artists of various backgrounds, and also making record labels invest in music videos for non-white artists, as Michael Jackson proved just how powerful they could be.

A further way that something can be seen to have become part of the popular consciousness is when the parodies emerge. For the music video, the undisputed king of this genre must surely be ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic. Starting out in the late 1970s, he is still going today, and is also one of only three artists to have a Billboard Top 40 song in every decade since the 1980s, behind Madonna and Michael Jackson. One of the reasons for his popularity is the painstaking recreations of music videos, beginning with his food-based remake of Beat It (Eat It) in 1984. Indeed, these recreations sometimes bring in the actors from the original, as in Smells Like Nirvana, or even getting the band in to help, with Mark Knopfler and Guy Fletcher of Dire Straits, performing on Beverly Hillbillies/Money for Nothing. These parodies sometime transcend music alone and take on other targets, such as Yankovic’s reworking of American Pie into The Saga Begins, a musical retelling of The Phantom Menace.

In all, the music video certainly deserves its own area of artistic expression within the entertainment industry. While it does suffer somewhat from the constraints imposed upon it, such as its often short length and need to focus upon the band, they still have the potential to do things that other industries find it difficult to do, leading the way before others catch up. As Bachman Turner Overdrive said, ‘You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet’.

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