I sat down to write an article about music videos about 3 hours ago. In that time I’ve watched about 25 music videos, all of which were the catalyst for the feeling I’ll try and describe here. In that time I’ve written zero words too, so at least we can start what is surely bound to be the most eloquent and worthwhile set of words you’ll read over the next 5 minutes at least with the following truth; watching music videos decreases productivity.
Partly inspired by the way James talked about growing up with NME, inspired here meaning ‘have ripped off his idea entirely’, I owe much of my music taste and exposure to music to Pop Music Videos. The videos that you could watch on the CD-Rom versions of Singles would be seen over and over again . As a very young kid, the idea of a TV channel that only played music videos was the ultimate example of luxury. We weren’t a sports family, so never bothered with getting Sky or any other paid-for TV service so I’d hear stories from my brother about his friends who would watch MTV, The Box, Kiss TV and VH1 and wonder if I’d ever be able to spend all day every day watching music videos.
Freeview was MASSIVE for me at the time it arrived in 2002, bringing with it two music channels I could actually watch at home; The Hits and TMF. Between the hours of 4pm and 7pm I could do nothing else but watch music videos, rushing back from school to sit and hope that specific videos would come on.
For a while this was the only way I’d be able to hear a new song, so I would wait and wait through video after video hoping that the next would be THAT video. I’d see videos like ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’, ‘Seven Nation Army’, ‘Hey Ya’ and ‘Take Me Out’ hundreds of times while I waited for ‘Toxic’ by Britney Spears to play. As soon as I saw those CGI birds fly in the rush of excitement was immeasurable.
I remember a specific few months where I’d be dying to see the seemingly random ‘Hey Mama’ by Black Eyed Peas that would get about 2 plays a week. Or ‘Dip It Low’ by Christina Milian, an artist I became – some would say weirdly- obsessed with at the age of 13. ‘1 Thing’ by Amerie was the same, along with ‘Goodies’ by Ciara, or ‘Gold Digger’ by Kanye West. Before being able to watch these music videos whenever I wanted it became most of my life just waiting for them to turn up.
Perhaps that’s why in a post YouTube world I actually rarely think of the video when I’m listening to a song. Go back and listen to ‘Crazy In Love’ and I can vividly see Beyoncé walking down that street, or the fact that every Eminem song of that era was more like the soundtrack to the elaborate music video than a song itself. The death of music TV was inevitable when YouTube and Vevo specifically gave artists a new place to ‘debut’ a video.
Over the last 2 decades music videos have actually become watched so much more than they ever were before. A significant portion of the revenue a song generates now comes from these music videos, but it also forgoes the need for the preamble that surrounded many of the massive video releases of the late 90s to early 00s. When a new Michael Jackson video would be unveiled there’d be a 10 minute slot given to it on Channel 4, now the song/video/experience is all hosted on that YouTube page, where it’s now rush to have the most views in a single day.
In the early stages of YouTube it was Lady Gaga who paved the way for these massive pop video moments, Telephone feeling like a whole pop culture moment in itself. Artists like Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande and most notably the K-Pop groups who have emerged recently see their videos viewed in such ridiculous numbers that to any pop fans who feel like no one watches music videos anymore they couldn’t be more wrong. BTS and Halsey’s ‘Boy With Luv’ had 74.6 million views in a single day, figures you never could have achieved on MTV.
That’s all well and good, but does it mean anything if the videos themselves are shit? ‘Gangnam Style’ is one of the biggest music videos of all time, but is it technically ‘good’? I think there’s enough examples of acts at the top of Pop Culture that are making huge statements using music videos that they have to be relevant. ‘Alright’ by Kendrick Lamar and ‘Formation’ by Beyoncé are two sides of the same coin and both are incredible pieces of film that work alongside the song itself to confront racism at the source.
M.I.A. hasn’t released a bad video her entire career, most notably ‘Bad Girls’, ‘Borders’ and the unflinching violence of Born Free really standing out for me. The 1975 manage to make a video that hits on every cultural nerve one week, then the next release a self deprecating ‘pop video’. Rosalia and Billie Eilish are subverting the ‘big pop video’ tone entirely, with short form thrillers full of storytelling and emotion. Watch Eilish’s ‘When The Party’s Over’ for the best example of this. Lil Nas X and Lizzo have delivered hilarious videos too, the clip for Old Town Road winning the Grammy for Best Music Video just a few weeks ago.
Of course the best example of the power of a music video and the impact it can make on an artists career, on a song, on the industry and on culture itself is ‘This Is America’. Undoubtedly the best music video of the last decade it’s brilliant because it doesn’t hold back at all. It holds a mirror up to America, using every tool at the creator’s disposal. A music video that’s truly saying something that created the sort of ‘moment’ that rarely comes along. Seriously just watch it now and it’ll make sense why Music Videos are still such an essential part of the culture.
Words by Sam Atkins