Playlist – Video Saved the Radio Star
In 1981, MTV capitalized on a fairly new and novel idea, music video, and launched a cultural revolution complete with disc jockeys, liters of hair dye, and millions of viewers proudly proclaiming the now infamous slogan, “I want my MTV!” Music videos were not only a way to promote music, but also a means of creative expression that enabled innovators to simultaneously push social boundaries and record sales.
We’ve now entered a stage in pop culture where audiences are more fascinated with reality TV than music video. Tune in to MTV or VH1 and you’ll see what I mean. Shows like The Hills showcase privileged, bronzed youth wallowing in their own romantic disparity with the intelligence factor dialed down to zero. Music videos themselves have suffered to a degree in a time where formula trumps innovation, leaving little room for artistic vision and creative collaboration between artist and director. But once upon a time, music videos were an exciting format that fused music industry icons and ingenious directors with great songs. These ten songs and corresponding videos rank among the most memorable.
1983 “Thriller” Michael Jackson
By 1983, Michael Jackson had already established himself as a force to be reckoned with on the music charts, but no one could have foreseen the magnitude with which his Thriller album would catapult him into mega-stardom. Much of this success can be attributed to the music video for “Thriller,” which is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the “most successful music video” of all time. Directed by John Landis, and shot with a budget of $800,000, this fourteen-minute music video combines a multitude of prosthetics, a former Playboy pin-up, and a voice over from horror legend Vincent Price. And let’s not forget Jackson’s infamous red leather jacket.
1986 “Sledgehammer” Peter Gabriel
Claymation, pixilation, and stop motion were just three of the techniques used to create this farrago of seemingly random imagery ever swirling ‘round Peter Gabriel’s head. Winning a record-making nine MTV Video Music Awards in 1987, this was also Gabriel’s only number one hit in the US, thanks in part, to the success of the music video.
1990 “Justify My Love” Madonna
Madonna and music videos have become synonymous over the past twenty-five years, thanks largely to her knack for working with innovative directors and, let’s face it, never boring us. But “Justify My Love” may go down as Madonna’s most notorious video, which helped the single hit number one on the Billboard charts back in 1990. This Lenny Kravitz’ penned hit was released as a VHS single, a first for Madonna, after MTV banned it due to adult content. It went on to become the highest selling music video of all time. Exercising freedom of expression and breaking down taboos and social stigmas surrounding sex and eroticism, “Justify My Love” unfairly went down as a cheap marketing ploy by Madonna, but its impact on the role of sex in media has been long lasting.
2000 “Untitled (How Does it Feel)” D’Angelo
D’Angelo’s 2000 single “Untitled (How Does it Feel)” is a top notch, soul-drenched ode to pleasuring a woman. But it was the music video that will forever go down in infamy. Featuring a presumably nude (and incredibly toned) D’Angelo, the camera doesn’t stray much from the singer’ s face, chiseled torso, and pelvic area, a move that generated enough buzz to aid the track in becoming a top twenty-five hit.
1985 “Take On Me” A-Ha
When Swedish hit makers A-Ha initially released their breakthrough track “Take On Me” in 1984, it failed to catch on with audiences worldwide. But after producer Alan Tarney stepped in and remixed the track as we know it now, sales went through the roof with over 1.5 million sales of the single alone. However, it wasn’t until the release of the music video, which combined pencil-sketch animation with live action, that the sales for “Take On Me” jumped up to roughly 9 million.
1979 “Another Brick in the Wall Part II” Pink Floyd
One of the most innovative and widely respected bands to emerge in the history of rock, Pink Floyd, outdid themselves with the concept-heavy double disc 1979 album, The Wall, which centered around lead character Pink, whose wall was a symbol for isolation and misanthropy. The lead single, “Another Brick in the Wall,” shot straight to number one in the US upon its release, but the song is equally remembered for its corresponding video in Alan Parker’s 1982 film The Wall, set to the music of the same album. In it we find putty-faced school children on assembly lines stumbling into meat grinders and then revolting and burning down their schoolhouse.
1991 “Give it Away” Red Hot Chili Peppers
Initially deemed too weird by MTV upon its release, it wasn’t until fans sent in hundreds of letters a day that the network gave “Give it Away” any rotation. Featuring the band members painted in gold thrashing wildly in the desert, the video was distinctive enough to now be remembered as one of the most extreme videos ever made. It also enabled the single to get radio play and has since become a concert staple for the band, one they often close the shows with.
1994 “Sabotage” Beastie Boys
Perhaps the most notable in a series of unforgettable videos by Beastie Boys, this Spike Jonze directed video parodies 70’s crime dramas where glorified cops like Starsky and Hutch once ruled the streets. Its extensive airplay on MTV helped it become a fan favorite and modern rock hit for the Brooklyn-based group.
1985 “We Are the World” Various Artists
“Cheese” is one of the words that may spring to mind when remembering this mammoth collaborative Ethiopian famine-relief effort “USA for Africa”, but “We are the World”’s social impact is undeniable. The song (and music video) features an astounding thirty-seven vocalists as diverse as Bob Dylan, Cyndi Lauper, Harry Belafonte, Stevie Wonder, and The Pointer Sisters, and hit number one in over fourteen countries.
1991 “Losing my Religion” REM
Operating like a series of moving paintings all relating to the darker themes of religion, REM not only scored their biggest hit with “Losing my Religion,” but also turned in their most successful music video to date. Heavy rotation at MTV helped keep this blistering ode to romantic obsession number one on the Modern Rock charts for nearly two months.
By Bruce Scott – Design by Johnny Cheuk