It’s not an especially straightforward matter to pin down when music videos first emerged. In a sense, the Beatles were already making them back in the late sixties, but then, MTV, where the music video as we know it rapidly took shape, didn’t start broadcasting until 1981. The very first video aired on the channel, “Video Killed the Radio Star” by the Buggles, had actually been made almost two years earlier, in 1979. But that didn’t stop it from doing a good deal to define the form that would, itself, define the popular culture of the eighties. Nor did it stop it from appearing, 40-odd years later, on The AV Club’s list of the 50 greatest music videos of all time. They’re viewable as a Youtube playlist here, or you can stream them all above.
Not that it ranks especially high. In fact, it comes in at number 50, leading into a selection of videos from artists popular in a range of subsequent periods: Talking Heads, George Michael, Nirvana, LL Cool J, Britney Spears, Taylor Swift. As the artistic ambitions of the music video grew, it reflected not just a song’s cultural moment, but put several such moments in play at once.
In Sonic Youth’s “Teen Age Riot,” “a clip of Elvis Presley is followed by space-jazz pioneer Sun Ra; a snatch of underground comic book auteur Harvey Pekar on Late Night with David Letterman flits by.” For the “high water mark for kitschy 1990s irony” that is Weezer’s “Buddy Holly,” “Spike Jonze sets the video in the 1950s… but it’s the ’50s as seen on Happy Days, a sitcom that painted a rosy picture of the Eisenhower years.”
Jonze also draws inspiration from seventies television for the Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage,” a tribute to the cop shows of that era that makes up for an apparent lack of budget with sheer humor and energy (a reminder of the director’s origin in skateboarding videos). I remember my millennial peers getting excited about that video in the 90s, as, in the 200s, they’d get excited about Michel Gondry’s all-LEGO animation of the White Stripes’ “Fell in Love with a Girl.” This was roughly when Britney Spears was breaking through to superstardom, thanks not least to videos like “Baby One More Time,” which combines the slickness of teen pop with the chintz of teen life. “The idea for Britney’s iconic schoolgirl uniform and pigtails came from the singer herself: director Nigel Dick followed her lead, then had wardrobe buy every stitch of clothing in the video from Kmart.”
This was also before Youtube, whose ascent made the music video more viable than it had been in years. The AV Club’s list does include a few videos from the past decade and a half— Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies,” Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” — but on the whole, it underscores that there’s never been another time like the eighties. That decade that went from “Ashes to Ashes” to “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” “Relax,” “Money for Nothing,” “Walk This Way,” “Take on Me,” and “Rhythm Nation” — to say nothing of institutions like Duran Duran, Madonna, and Michael Jackson, all of whom make the list more than once, but none of whom take its top spot. That goes to Peter Gabriel, whose stop-motion fantasia “Sledgehammer” is MTV’s all-time most-played music video. “If anyone wants to try and copy this video, good luck to them,” Gabriel once said. He meant its painstaking production, but he could just as easily have been talking about the place it attained in pop culture.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.