June 20, 2024

An exploration of the evolution of music videos 

Music videos are one of the most prominent forms of expression in the music industry today. The cultural relevance and standard for productions has only grown since the 1981 debut of MTV, a 24-hour Music Television program.

The first video played on MTV was “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles; not long after did artists and performers become sensations after being featured on the station. 

MTV reintroduced the younger generation to veteran performers like Tina Turner. Getting featured on the station meant the music and visual representation of art would be seen by millions, increasing the extreme popularity of artists like Michael Jackson and Madonna. Beyond her music videos, Madonna made history with her unforgettable, dramatic performances at the MTV Awards of “Like a Virgin” in 1984 and “Vogue” in 1990.

Music videos are a cornerstone of today’s culture, with classic and recognizable videos like the monochromatic “Single Ladies” video by Beyoncé, the bubbly “California Gurls” video by Katy Perry and the famed “…Baby One More Time” video by Britney Spears.

Spears has continually been a major influence in pop culture. Her videography also includes sociocultural strongholds “Oops! I Did It Again,” “I’m A Slave 4 U” and “Toxic.” These videos have been revered, parodied and even referenced in other arts and entertainment spheres, like when reality TV star Ariana Madix did a cha-cha rendition of “I’m A Slave 4 U” with the iconic snake and sultry hair on Season 32 of Dancing with the Stars music video night.

Since the dawn of MTV, many other video-sharing platforms have emerged and YouTube has taken over as the main source of music video production. The fastest video to reach 1 billion views was “Hello” by Adele, a sepia storytelling experience that has amassed 18 million likes and over 3 billion views since its release in 2015.

More record-breaking videos include the most-viewed videos on YouTube: on top, “Despacito” (ft. Daddy Yankee) by Luis Fonsi boasts 8.3 billion views as of February 2024, followed by “Shape of You” by Ed Sheeran (6.2B), “See You Again” (ft. Charlie Puth) by Wiz Khalifa (6.1B), “Uptown Funk” (ft. Bruno Mars) by Mark Ronson (5.1B) and “GANGNAM STYLE” by PSY (5.0B). Other popular songs on this list include “Sugar” by Maroon 5 (4.0B), “Counting Stars” by OneRepublic (3.9B) and “Roar” by Katy Perry (3.9B).

Music videos have a variety of purposes for artists: literal storytelling, figurative storytelling, pure artistic expression and social commentary. Examples of these methods can overlap and span over genres and artists. 

Literal storytelling can be seen in videos like Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well: The Short Film,” released in 2021 starring Sadie Sink and Dylan O’Brien. The video followed the highly-anticipated re-recording of Swift’s fourth album, “Red.” Though this was Swift’s short film directorial debut, Swift is well known for her huge budget and highly influential artistic projects like “Blank Space” and “You Belong With Me.” 

However, her music videos are known for their “Easter eggs” and frequently spark discussions and debates amongst fans. Swift often slips in secret references and details to hint at future projects. Some of the best examples of this technique in her videography include her 2017 release of “Look What You Made Me Do” and 2019 video for “You Need to Calm Down.”

Figurative storytelling and pure artistic expression can be seen in videos by Chappell Roan. She showcases over-the-top makeup, outfits and set designs that represent the concepts presented in her music, reminiscent of Lady Gaga’s artistic opulence. Roan’s debut album has campy lyrics and undeniable creativity, which are accompanied by videos such as “Casual” and “Red Wine Supernova.”

Thriller” by Michael Jackson is a long-form video that focuses on telling a story of a song without sticking to the literal story of the lyrics, emphasizing the importance of choreography and aesthetics. “Thriller” is a major contributor to pop culture; the song, concept, and dance are all recognizable even over 40 years later.

Childish Gambino’s 2018 “This is America” video is a prime example of social commentary and has garnered over 10 million views since its release. It features cultural references and critiques of politics, police brutality, violence, life as a Black man in American society and Black culture. This video was hugely popular, but garnered criticism from those who did not like or agree with the content depicted in the video.

Music videos that push boundaries have been caught up in controversies time and time again. “Wrecking Ball” by Miley Cyrus received harsh backlash because Cyrus was pushing against the Disney image she had been assigned since she was barely a teenager. 

More recently, Sabrina Carpenter, another Disney alum, found herself under circling vultures for filming part of her “Feather” music video in a Catholic Church. While many thought it was distasteful and bordering on heresy, to the point the vicar who allowed her to film there was demoted, others thought the drama of the issue was a return to true messy pop stardom form.

Lately, there has been a return to a classic music video group dance style amongst pop musicians, pulling artistic inspiration from dance and specific performances. 

Chicago band OK GO spearheaded this meticulous style back in the early 2000s and 2010s with the creative precision in their music videos that still blow the viewer’s mind. Whether it’s dancing on treadmills in the “Here It Goes Again” video, umbrella art in “I Won’t Let You Down” or a Rube Goldberg mechanism in “This Too Shall Pass,” OK GO is sure to provide excellent audiovisual stimulation.

Troye Sivan’s latest album release, “Something To Give Each Other,” has been praised for its music videos, featuring Ross Lynch, drag art, queer sexuality and dance athleticism. One of the singles, “Got Me Started,” has individual and group dance moments with glittery nightlife scenes.

Houdini” by Dua Lipa is another video that returns to the group dance, with interspersed solo sections featuring Lipa’s improved dance skills similar to Sivan’s video. Perhaps one of the most recent and intensely skilled dance-heavy music videos is “Back on 74” by Jungle, which highlights the prowess and fluidity of the dancers over an addictive jazzy track.

Ariana Grande’s latest single and accompanying video for “yes, and?” emulates Madonna’s “Vogue” music video from 1990, identifiable by the staging, choreography and outfits. Madonna’s original video is an homage to ballroom culture, which emerged from Black and brown queer culture in New York. 

Whether this trend of large group dance numbers will develop further as its popularity resurges remains to be seen. The uniqueness and synchronization of the choreography is admirable. For those interested in music videos as art, it will be interesting to see if anything can match the levels of Madonna and Michael Jackson as this evolution continues as we enter into the mid 2020s.


  • Charlotte Keller

    Charlotte is a third-year English Literature major with a Spanish minor. She is secretary of the Capital Book Club, an AIM Change Advocate, and Capital’s Student Government Parliamentarian. In her free time, she likes to make Spotify playlists and watch rom-coms.

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