The story behind music videos – film art or sophisticated commercials?

03/10/2010 12:37

Have you ever been stuck in a Youtube-loop? It happens to me quite often. A friend on Facebook shares a music video and when I regain conscience after watching two dozens of music videos I realize that I have spent a couple of hours stuck on Youtube.

Although you can watch short films, up-to-date accounts of events or tutorials on Youtube, I particularly mention music videos in my “Youtube-loop story“ because in order to answer the question in the heading of this article, it is necessary to have a look at the development of music videos, their origins, specific features and other issues. I will get back to Youtube and its role in this development briefly at the end of this article.

The impulse to write an article about the development of music videos was an event which I attended some time ago in A4-Zero Space. This event named “Music videos as film art” was hosted by Peter Konecny, the editor-in chief of website, film critic and co-organizer of film festival Cinematik. He regularly delivers speeches and presentations on a variety of topics concerning cinema and films. Last year he gave about a dozen presentations on best movie scenes, forbidden movies, worst movies ever, film trailers, etc.

On this particular occasion he presented and commented on about two dozens of music videos. His choice of music videos was, as usual, of high quality. Some of the music videos presented that evening belong to my all-time favourites – such as those directed by Jonathan Glazer or Michael Gondry. He also mentioned some famous music video directors who became popular particularly by directing music videos, e.g. Spike Jonze, Chris Cunnigham, Jonas Ackerlund, Michael Gondry and others. That night my hunger for visual and musical inspiration was highly satisfied. Nevertheless, I began to wonder – are music videos really a form of film art (or art in general) as it was stated in the title of this event? Can we find “the artistic” in music videos or are music videos just a sophisticated form of commercials? To answer these questions, we need to look back to history.


How it all began – the origins of music videos

The production of music videos goes hand in hand with the launch of MTV in the early 1980s. When MTV started to broadcast in 1981, music videos became more and more popular and important. In economic terms, the supply had to meet the demand. In fact, the launch of MTV marked a new era in the music industry. Is it bold to say that some artists made their careers on provocative, flashy and ostentatious music videos?

The first music video ever played on MTV was “Video killed the Radio star” by the British band The Buggles. Of course, music videos were produced before MTV even came to existence. With the end of silent movies era, many musical short films were created. Over the course of the years, music videos grew in importance, especially in the 1960s and 1970s. The Beatles gained international fame with the release of their first feature film A Hard Day’s Night which consisted of short musical sequences that vaguely resembled contemporary music videos.

The transition from feature films interspersed with musical sequences to shorter, condensed versions in which picture material accompanies a full-length song was quick. Musicians realized that it is a good way of promoting their music among their fans. Back then, music videos were called promotional films or promotional clips. So, besides releasing records and playing at concerts, making promo videos was (and still is) just another way to promote a band and make their music accessible to masses. To put it differently, music videos are products designed specifically to sell a song, make money and make a band more popular. However, there are bands who tried to prove the opposite. For instance, Pearl Jam is a band which has for a long time refused to make music videos to their songs. Pearl Jam’s frontman Eddie Vedder stated, “Before music videos first came out, you’d listen to a song with headphones on, sitting in a beanbag chair with your eyes closed, and you’d come up with your own visions, these things that came from within. Then all of a sudden, sometimes even the very first time you heard a song, it was with these visual images attached, and it robbed you of any form of self-expression.” Despite their reluctance to make music videos, Pearl Jam remains a successful and profitable band although the era of grunge rock has been long over.

The above example shows that it is possible to remain successful and popular if a band refuses to make music videos. Nevertheless, it is an undeniable fact that music videos help increase sales for music recordings. Just remember Madonna’s music videos in the 1980s and early 1990s. Many of her music videos such as “Erotica” or “Like a prayer” stirred up public opinion and were banned. Although many denounced her videos for being too controversial and disputable, she remains one of the best selling music artists of all time.

Furthermore, it is scientifically proven that we perceive most information through visual rather than audible stimulation. And if the visual content of a music video is somehow controversial, there is even a better chance that you will remember the song by its video. Moreover, music videos are not only seen as promotional material but their visual element also helps create and promote the image of the artist.


Just dance?

Obviously, a music video combines musical and visual elements and usually but not necessarily features a band or a singer playing musical instruments. Most music videos fall into the category of dancing videos – artists usually perform dance choreography matched to music. Although dance videos constitute a majority, they are not nearly as interesting and intriguing as narrative videos. Do not get me wrong – many musicians are indeed great dancers, such as the late Michael Jackson (I bet many of you tried to imitate his famous moonwalk:-)).

However, narrative videos tell mini-stories which often relate to the lyrics of a song. Other non-narrative videos are technically very innovative and demanding with regards to new filming techniques. Sometimes, artists do not make appearances in their music videos at all. They rely on the skills of a good director who can make an impressive and interesting music video without their appearance and capture the essence of their music with matching visual material. Some music videos indeed strive to demonstrate some artistic qualities and go further than just showing artists dancing.

Let me mention just two noteworthy examples and then watch these videos online because one picture is worth ten thousand words:

The music video for “Starguitar” by The Chemical Brothers was directed by Michael Gondry and it is an example of non-narrative music video. It features a long shot of train ride and we watch a countryside passing behind the window of the train. What is special about this video is the way music is synchronized with the picture. Various objects in the countryside appear at the same time as we hear different beats, claps and other musical components. Precise musical and visual synchronization and subtle editing make this music video truly remarkable and inventive.

The music video “Rabbit in your Headlights” by UNKLE was directed by Jonathan Glazer and it is probably the most obscure video I have ever seen. It shows a man walking through a car tunnel. He mumbles inaudible or inarticulate words to himself. Some cars pass him by, some cars swerve out of his way. Suddenly he is hit by a car and stays lying on the ground. Then he gets up and goes on walking as if nothing happened. One car drives past him and the driver tries to talk to him but the man remains unresponsive. Another car knocks him over again and the man gets up; some cars swerve off the road and this repeats several times. The man seems mentally deranged. In the end, the man stops walking and a car is driving closer to him but this time the man remains standing with his arms open and the car is destroyed on impact. The video can is interpreted in many ways; some interpret it in religious terms and believe that the man is a Christ-like figure talking to God who in the end enters his body and mind and thus the man becomes indestructible. Others believe that cars represent problems, obstacles and pain we encounter in life; some obstacles just pass you by, some hit you hard but you manage to get up and go on despite the scars and bruises which remind you of tough times you have been through. When the man destroys the car, which defies all laws of physics, his indestructibility then represents finding the innermost personal strength which can help you overcome even the toughest problems.


Cash and controversy

Some artists make sure they appear a lot in their music videos making “important” gestures or showing off expensive cars or clothes. Others strive to make their music videos visually impressive and shocking. A list of videos which try to shock or outrage viewers is endless. Do not forget – the more controversy and ostentation, the more recordings the artist sells.

Speaking of ostentation and opulence, according to Wikipedia, Michal and Janet Jackson’s video “Scream” is listed as the most expensive video ever made, costing approx. $7,000,000. This video won several MTV music video awards and the Grammy award for the best music video in 1996. This highly successful video is said to be Jackson’s personal response to tabloid media which heaped accusations of child molestation on him. Madonna’s videos “Die another day” and “Express Yourself” rank as the second and third most expensive music videos ever made, costing approx. $6,100,000 and $5,000,000 respectively.

Due to sexually suggestive content, violence, nudity or drug use, music videos often fall victim to censors and are declared unsuitable for public viewing. Sometimes music videos get completely banned or artists release an edited, censored version of their music video. Madonna’s music videos are banned or censored more often than music videos of any other artist.

The amount of money spent on producing music videos has dramatically increased since the era of black-and-white promo clips. Music videos help create the image of artists and become, so to say, their own trademark. As it has been mentioned elsewhere in this article, artists and their songs are more likely to be remembered by their music videos. As a result, music videos, or in other words, the visual element of their music, have become a part and parcel of the artist’s image and marketing strategies. Just look around yourself how many teenagers try to imitate Rihanna or Eminem in their looks.


Youtube and its role in the recent development of music videos

Although this article is not specifically about Youtube, it is necessary to outline the role of this video hosting service in the recent development of music videos. There is a number of music video stations available, however, with the rise of the Internet culture, watching and sharing music videos online has become immensely popular. Youtube is currently the most popular video-sharing website where you can watch, upload and share videos. Youtube prides itself on “being the leader in online video, and the premier destination to watch and share original videos worldwide through a Web experience.” Although Youtube is the largest video-sharing website to date, some music videos cannot be found on the website due to copyright rights claim or censorship issues. Therefore, if you want to view a video which the Youtube community has removed or labeled as inappropriate, it is good to use an alternative video-sharing website such as or Or simply type the name of the music video into Google to watch a full, uncensored version.

The impact of Youtube on the Internet and popular culture is undeniable. Wikipedia even features an article on its social impact. Some previously unknown artists who uploaded their music videos on Youtube have been offered a contract from recording companies. According to statistics from, from February 2009 nearly 3.5 million people visit the website every single day and the website reaches 300 million visitors per month. I could not find any statistics which would show the share of music videos on Youtube. Nevertheless, since the launch of Youtube in 2005, watching and sharing videos has never been easier. On the other hand, the downside is that you can easily get stuck in the Youtube-loop and waste your time watching (music) videos.

The Internet is full of lists of the all-time best music videos or the most influential videos of all times. If you are more into mainstream music, you can go through the list of MTV video music awards since 1984. I bet each of you has a two or three favourite music videos, so why don’t you share them with us? We are also interested in your opinion: do you think that music videos are a form of art or just sophisticated commercials?

Martina Zajacová



Note: Statistical data and lists can be best found on Wikipedia, other websites just take over these from Wikipedia.



The story behind music videos – film art or sophisticated commercials?

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