Lately I’ve been researching a lot about music videos and thought it might be interesting to post a small and incomplete history of the wonders of this medium. The objective of the post is to briefly outline its evolution and provide visual references to better comprehend where we are today.
This is only an introduction to future posts that will deeper analyse the topics of: music videos before television, the influence of early Russian cinema in what we commonly see nowadays as the norm for music video (and I would love to do a post on each director and their specific characteristics).
I’m very biased towards certain directors that create a personal vision through works that span multiple artists and years. Thus I will only marginally focus on very known directors that mostly developed the mainstream music video aesthetics.
I divided the post in 4 eras to simplify the reading. They are by no means official divisions and do not in any matter convey the complexity of such a rich and diverse history. Feel free to jump to whichever interests you the most. This is how I divided the post:
- Early era
- Sorting out what is what
- Video killed the radio star
- The rise of the directors
- The Youtube Era
With that out of the way, turn up the volume, close all tabs, and let’s board on the history of music video!
The early era (? – 1965)
The first news when music first merged with film was in 1894 when a sheet music publisher hired electrician George Thomas to synchronise a live performance with a magic lantern that would show projected images. This became very popular at the time and if you ever have the chance to see a magic lantern in a museum it will surely blow your mind. The quality of glass plate photography is still far beyond any digital projection available today.
1927 – The Jazz Singer
If you were working in the late 20s and 30s in Hollywood your life was certainly going to change. The silent era of cinema was beginning to fall and a whole industry that was still developing its own language had to renovate itself and start from zero on how sound could integrate the films. At the time lots of film theorists claimed that cinema ended at this transition. For others this was a necessary step to endure through and to try to understand how sound could affect the moving image.
The Jazz Singer was the first film to sync audio and image. This meant that for the first time you could actually see a music performance that wasn’t live! Up until then you could only hear your artists, see a picture of how he looked like or be lucky enough to see them live.
1930 – Crying for Caroline (Spooney Melody)
The Spooney Melodey series were the first to introduce the concept of short-films mixing live-action footage of the performer. It was shown at the movie theaters before the main presentations. So now you didn’t actually need to see a full feature talkie to here music and sound, you could see the performer playing in quick segments of a music! Magic!
1958 – Le poinçonneur des Lilas (Scopitone)
The iPhone of 1958. If you dreamt of watching music videos outside a movie theater the inventor Serge Gainsbourg had the newest gadget for you – the Scopitone! During the 60s these jukeboxes started popping-up all over bars and nightclubs around Europe and in the US.
A jukebox that played 16mm film synced with audio (technology invented for the WWII) was the rage of the 60s. Francis Ford Coppola even lost a small fortune by heavily investing in a Scopitone competitor in the US, and Robert Altman directed a short Scopitone film also.
In questions of film language the Scopitone brought a very interesting dimension to the table and is heavily linked to the the video era and small screens like our iPhones– framing and preparing for a small screen. We see almost no wide angle shots and instead focus on more medium to close-up shots of the artist playing, something that had to be planned since the screen will be crammed in a corner with lots of people around it.
Sorting out what is what (1965-1974)
With film technology and 16mm getting a little bit cheaper and more accessible, the growth of broadcast television and consequently the rise of pop culture the late 60s and early 70s was a time of exploring all these new phenomenons as a way to promote the music artist.
1965 – We Can Work it Out (The Beatles)
Considered to be the first music video to broadcast on television. The Beatles were already making some very popular full feature movies and were looking for a way to promote their record releases without having to make in-person appearances (primarily the USA). The concept is fairly straight forward and was meant to blend in with the television shows that were being made at the time.
1966 – Paperback Writer (The Beatles)
Together with the director Michael Lindsay-Hogg music video starts its baby steps to distance itself from the recording of live-perfomance and start exploring more options in the cinematic language realm.
1966 – Subterranean Homesick Blues (Bob Dylan)
The precursor to the lyric video?
1967 – Strawberry Fields & Penny Lane (The Beatles)
Long live the director Peter Goldman! Finally we start seeing some avant garde and underground techniques that were already being used for decades in cinema in a music film.
1968 – Interstellar Overdrive (Pink Floyd)
With the path being open by Goldman and his films for The Beatles, artists and labels start to finally interact more with experimental filmmakers. As a result music films start consolidating itself as a valid platform for more audacious experimentations in the aesthetic realm. What was previously only relegated to art houses is now being seen by millions of people.
1968 to 1974 – The era of experimentation in film
Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, David Bowie, The Kinks, etc. I’ll leave this whole era to another post since there are so many things happening here to briefly explain. Free from constraints of promotional requirements (thanks Beatles and Goldman again!) and open to experimentations this was one of the most interesting eras to explore how music and film worked together.
Video killed the radio star (1974- 1992)
The endless possibilities of video revolutionises how music video are made and open up a door for endless possibilities. Together with the creative opportunities a whole new platform rises to once and for all kill the radio star.
1974 – Bohemian Rhapsody (Queen)
The music video that practically invented MTV 7 years before its launch. This song is “widely credited as the first global hit single for which an accompanying video was central to the marketing strategy”(Fowles, Paul (2009). A Concise History of Rock Music. Mel Bay Publications, Inc. p. 243.)
1980 – Ashes to Ashes (David Bowie)
The most expensive music video made until then, and also one of the most iconic. Bowie’s interest in exploring a more complex nature turns this film a stepping stone to deeper layers of meaning in music videos.
1981 – MTV LAUNCHES – Video Killed the Radio Star (The Buggles)
The first music video aired on MTV prophesizes the impact that it will have in the music industry. Music videos become one of the main platforms for new artists to gain attention and for consolidated artists to show their latest works. The DIY video approach that initially inundated the MTV in the early 80s soon fade toward huge production budgets and an era where music video cost more than feature films.
1983 – Thriller (Michael Jackson)
Premiered worldwide on MTV, Michael Jackson and John Landis bring back the idea of blending films with music video (remember the Beatles feature films from the 60s?).
The rise of the directors (1992-2004)
Almost 10 years after its launch MTV in November 1992 began listing directors with the artist and song credits reflecting the fact that music videos had increasingly become an auteur’s medium. Directors like David Fincher (that in the 80s were making music videos) focus on directing feature films while a whole new breed of young and talented directors take the scene to express their unique vision.
What I personally love about Spike Jonze is how good he explores the american visual vernacular (TV shows, ad campaigns, B-movies) turning them inside out and also how in his works body movement surpasses choreography to take a life of its own. Both themes come from the director’s natural interest and the dichotomy between his persona Spike Jonze and his real name Adam Spiegel.
Adam Spiegel grew-up in Maryland and is part of the family that runs the catalogue business Spiegel (a multibillion dollar company founded in 1865). Nevertheless this never stopped him from pursuing his passions. He got nicknamed Spike Jonze in a BMX shop where he worked and ended up moving to Los Angeles to work on a skate magazine directing skate videos, and after directing music videos and films.
In his work we can see both Adam Spiegel through his references to the american imaginary and Spike Jonze, the free-spirited skateboarder kid where movement reigns.
*If you’re interested, this article is quite good on who is Spike Jonze.
1994 – Sabotage (Beastie Boys)
Beastie Boys didn’t feel like going through a major production and opted instead for Spike Jonze and his low budget idea of going around LA in a van shooting a music video without any license. The result is one of the most iconic music videos from the 90s in a throwback to the traditional cop American television series.
1994 – Buddy Holly (Weezer)
Weezer in Happy Days (a tv show from the 70s)? My favorite Spike Jonze music video. Mind bending in the 90s and still today.
1997 – ElektroBank (The Chemical Brothers)
If one video clip was to sum-up the intermingling between Jonze’s influences and main themes this would be it–the perfect american imagery boiled-up with the body movement as a form of liberation.
1999 – Praise You (Fatboy Slim)
The body movement as the main vehicle of expression! Jonze literally cuts to the basic putting himself in front of the camera together with the invented Torrance Community Dance Group.
2000 – Weapon of Choice (Fatboy Slim)
The same concept as Praise You, just a little bit more elaborated.
The director that turns his dreams into imagery. The master of visual techniques Michel Gondry manages to blend reality with dreamlike imagery and a quirky and unique sense of humor into his music videos. The images created by Gondry resemble an invention where the viewer is invited to peep into its inner workings and see how the mechanism turns.
1996 – Sugar Water (Cibo Matto)
One of the signature styles of Gondry is how he plays camera movement and mise-en-scène to create mind bending concepts.
1997 – Around the World (Daft Punk)
Around the Wold is considered by Gondry as the music video he most likes and we can see why– It packs all the elements that he got famous for, the visualization of the music through choreography, a minimalistic set design and dreamlike imagery that later became his signature.
1999 – Let it Forever Be (The Chemical Brothers)
Now blend great mise-en-scène, analog camera movements with VFX and the choreography that and set design that made the director famous two years before and you have Michel Gondry at his best!
2001 – Star Guitar (The Chemical Brothers)
Everything seems normal until it’s not. Till today the idea of how he came with the idea of transforming the view from a train into an audio waveform surprises the spectators, and is a marvel of modern music video.
2002 – Come Into My World (Kylie Minogue)
One, two, three… Kyle Minogue simple stroll through the plaza turns into an oppressive oversaturation of everyday life.
2002 – Fell in Love With a Girl (The White Stripes)
Gondry goes back to being a kid making lego movies fun again!
The list of brilliant directors goes on for this period. As covering everyone is just impossible I list a few examples of some that distinctively marked the era with their personal style.
Chris Cunningham – Come to Dady (Aphex Twins, 1997) & All is Full of Love (Björk, 1999)
Dark electronic distopic futures was the mark that Cunningham brought to the end of the 90s.
Floria Sigismondi – Little Wonder (David Bowie, 1996) & Beautiful People (Marilyn Manson, 1996)
Her sensibilities and jittery camera movements gave light to dark textured worlds always lurking in a deeper part of our minds.
Hype Williams – Sock It 2 Me (Missy Elliot, 1997) & Gotham City (R. Kelly, 1997)
The director that almost single handedly created a whole aesthetic for the R&B and Hip Hop music videos. Joining ludicrous concepts with a materialistic approach, Hype Williams is one of heaviest influences to the contemporary music videos.
The Youtube Era (2005-?)
Although you could find music videos on the internet since 1997 it was in 2005 when Youtube launched that the whole music industry had to change. Paired with the fact that MTV by mid-2000s largely abandoned showing music videos to air reality tv shows, Youtube became the home for artists and directors to explore new concepts and reach out to a worldwide audience.
The mid-2000s started to feel like when MTV first launched. A focus on new ideas made low budget music videos go viral and unshackled from the censorship of broadcast television. Ideas that weren’t possible to be broadcasted before started appearing in music videos.
Combine all these factors with the prices of digital cameras going down and the quality of the images produced going up, resulted that by the end of the first decade indie filmmakers could produce images similar to high budget blockbuster movies.
All this comes with an explosion of music videos. Thus never so many videos were produced and the sheer mass of new videos released each day made it even more important to figure out narrative and commercial ways to reach the audience.
Below I select only a few of the directors and music videos that best exemplify some key concepts from the times we are now living.
Ok Go – Here it goes again (Ok Go, 2006)
If Youtube had a son and he became a band it would be Ok Go. The band is probably the example of how a group that nobody ever listens to gets famous single-handedly by their music video (I may be exaggerating seeing that they already had a modest career since 2002). Since their first video in 2005 A million Ways turned into a youtube viral the band has been burning their brains out trying to figure the new head turning idea for the next video clip, from treadmills to a single take zero-gravity fall in a Russian plane.
Ace Norton – Hustler (Simian Mobile Disco, 2007)
Ace Norton have been routinely applauded for their combination of curious imagery and bizarre optical illusions, all of which are likely to elicit more than the occasional double-take. And while an affinity for practical effects, analogue formats, and a largely handmade aesthetic have helped characterize Norton’s output in the past, recently his work has taken on a more narrative quality as can be seen in his recent fashion films.
Romain Gavras – Born Free (MIA, 2010)
Romain Gavras was directing music videos and films since 2001, and got on the map with his music video for Justice. It was Born Free that established his directorial style– the roughness of street and ghetto life with high energy images and a handheld documentary style camera (maybe it’s the influence of his father Costa Gavras and his political movies like Z?). A 9 minute long film that would be hard to pass on any television and stirred the media when it was first launched on Vimeo due to Youtube restrictions at the time.
Although Gavras has now risen to international fame his directorial style is clearly visible through his new films.
DANIELS – Houdini (Foster the People, 2012)
DANIELS is the collective name of directing duo Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert. They’ve established themselves with an incredible body of work that combines very physical comedy, bizarre choreography, and an irrepressibly immature charm. Taking a crazy idea to its extreme and making it cohesive during the whole music video isn’t a easy task, and that’s one that DANIELS have mastered to the point of making a whole feature film with the same key concepts that they have worked on their music videos.
Emily Kai Bock – Yet Again (Grizzly Bear, 2012)
Bock developed a style centered very much on powerful emotional character studies, such as the struggling figure skater in her video for Grizzly Bear (above). With a storytelling ability that allows her to switch between music video and documentary seamlessly, her style has taken her from strength to strength as she delves more into narrative with each video. Her recent work for Arcade Fire on “Afterlife” saw her team up again with cinematographer Evan Prosofsky to create a moving portrait of a father struggling to raise his children.
Hiro Murai – Never Catch me Flying (Flying Lotus, 2014)
Hiro Murai’s background in illustration and visual effects means his videos are full of incredibly subtle tricks and motifs, forcing your eyes into every inch of the screen just to make sure you’ve taken it all in. While this alone is enough to make a strong impression, when combined with such compelling visual concepts as he is known for, the results are nothing short of mesmerizing.
Nabil – Hunger of the Pines (Alt-J, 2014)
Nabil Elderkin came to notoriety as a director through his frequent collaborations with Kanye West. Since then, Nabil has become one of the most exciting music video directors of his generation, evolving from still to moving images, creating memorable videos for artists such as Frank Ocean, John Legend, Antony and the Johnsons, Bon Iver, The Foals, and The Arctic Monkeys. With a gorgeous cinematic aesthetic, a strong narrative voice, and more than just a dose of magical realism that binds his work together, his videos never fail to captivate.
Since 2005 there wasn’t any groundbreaking revolution that significantly changed the way artists distribute music videos so it’s quite hard to predict the future. Last year and mainly in 2006 Virtual Reality technology started reaching consumers around the world. Nevertheless it’s still hard to quantificate its impact since the prices are so high and many are worried that it will be only a fad, and will quickly go away or stay in limited enthusiast circles.
Now more than ever it’s harder and harder to sort through all the crap that is constantly published and find those precious gems that really engage you in a more profound way. Services like Vimeo Staff Picks have gained lots of popularity, and being selected may define the success of your video gaining a wider audience since on Youtube it’s harder to find good quality content.
Thus maybe the future is creating better curation tools to bring to light and to the public music videos that otherwise would be lost. Maybe it’s VR, HDR technology, argumented reality or maybe it’s just something that hasn’t come up yet. The only way to know is now waiting a couple of years while checking out the latest music videos being released 🙂
Obs.: Since it’s impossible to write about every important music video and director please leave on the comments anything that I might have missed.