How Have Music Videos Changed in the Past 20 Years?

Ever since I graduated from university, my music video consumption has been in slow decline. This is due to two factors:

  • My taste in music doesn’t accurately reflect those videos in high rotation.
  • Music has become so balkanized that it’s difficult to reflect anybody’s taste with the limited number of videos available.

Also, of course, the VJs were complete nitwits. And videos are just advertisements for the songs, which I managed to wise up about.

I feel back into watching more videos when we lived in Ireland because we only had, like, nine channels and there was a certain Australian songstress in high rotation. What can I say? I couldn’t get her out of my head.

While recuperating from the aforementioned plague, I spotted the music video by Cute Is What We Aim For for “The Curse of Curves”. It’s shot mostly in blacks and whites, and tells some fractional story in four minutes, about a cute girl and the lead singer at a dinner party. It is, to my thinking, a very average music video.

The colour palette and dinner party theme reminded me of another video, an old favourite from way, way back in the day (1985, when I was eleven). I speak, of course, of the wacky and somewhat controversial “Don’t Come Around Here No More” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

Obviously, uh, Cute’s video looks better than Tom’s, but it hasn’t been kicking around for 20-odd years. Aside from that, they seem fundamentally similar. I don’t watch enough videos to no know whether this is typical or not.

So, over to you: how has the music video genre changed in the past 20 years? Like all new formats, they ought to be evolving much more quickly than, say, the novel. Are they?


  1. My alltime fave video was Aha “Take on Me.” The look of the drawings in the video was fluid and beautiful. Not too many music videos are that interesting now.

    The next big thing are slam poetry videos. I love them. Lots of imagery and original verbal expression. I’ve been watching them lately on Bravo TV.

  2. My favourite music video these days is probably Johnny Cash’s “Hurt”. Simple, yet brilliant! Another video that pops into my head is Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy”.

    I rarely watch music videos these days though, partly because MTV stopped being about music some years ago, partly because my taste of music somehow seem to be out of date…

  3. i agree, i think since the early 90’s, music videos have largely stagnated.

    they usually just recycle the same shots (rock video with band playing instruments; pop video with groups of dancers; rap video with excessive wrist pumping). of course, there’s standouts now and then (matthew good, kanye west, sigur ros).

    interestingly enough, the most memorable videos generally lose the band/singer playing instruments at all, and focus more on a video that could stand on it’s own, rather than the other way around, which is the video as advertisment for song.

  4. There’s a truism that states your music collection freezes at about age 29. I think there’s a grain of truth in that, though it varies from person to person. But I too have found Muchmusic offers me less and less in the way of music video entertainment (except maybe the Wedge), partly because I couldn’t care less about 90 percent of the mainstream bands out today and partly because music videos aren’t the dominant force they once were.

    Videos ARE ads for the album, and both the album and the record stores selling said media are on the way out. So it doesn’t make a lot of sense to throw a pile of music videos on the air when the kids want reality tv, and the advertisers want the kids eyeballs.

    Having said that….favorite videos of mine would be “Sledgehammer” by Perter Gabriel, which is still a mindblower, and “Sabotage” by the Beastie Boys, which is lo-fi cheese gold.

  5. There is academic research (not to mention personal anecdotal evidence) indicating that “if a new genre is introduced after age 35, there is an astounding 95 percent chance that you will never choose to listen to it. The window has closed.”

    Once in awhile, when I happen to skim by some music videos, I see something that is unusual and engaging, but I think the sheer quantity of videos that have appeared in the past 25 years means that most ideas have been tried, improved, milked, overused, and discarded several times over. Plus there seems little disincentive, for instance, for hip-top videos to be anything other than guys with lots of bling hanging around backyards full of skimpy-dressed hotties shaking their booties.

    What are the real ads for music these days? TV commercials like car ads, iPod ads, and so on. Features in TV shows and movies. Music videos aren’t the force they once were. TV killed the video star.

  6. I’m kinda with Hans in that I stopped watching MTV a while ago, especially after they got rid of 120 Minutes. Two hours straight of lesser known artists, some indie and some not. Smash Mouth even started out there, and I remember it being so strange to everyone. Then they exploded.

    Anyhow, Rebecca flips to Much occasionally now, and it always strikes me as amazing. They actually show music content. Well, at least when we’re paying attention. The Wedge? That’s good stuff for my tastes.

    One thing I hate about music videos is the formulaic, set driven video. That and bands playing instruments but singing with no mics. Sometimes is works, sometimes it doesn’t.

    To say they’re changing is probably less true in terms of creativity than it is in terms of the ungodly amounts of money being spent on them. At least as a fan, that’s how I feel.

    I can’t throw out examples to my favorites of all time, but I can toss out some I like simply because they speak volumes in terms of being creative and as complementary art to the music. Ala YouTube: The Von Bondies – c’mon, c’cmon, Wintersleep – fog, The Black Keys – your touch, Jurassic 5 – the influence, LCD Soundsystem – disco infiltrator

  7. I think the music video genre has evolved quite a bit in the last year or two.

    For example:

    The Ok Go videos

    Muse: Knights of Cydonia (so awesome)

    The Barenaked Ladies YouTube ‘celebs’ video

    To name a few…

    I try to post many of the interesting music videos I see over here.

  8. I just wait for the latest release of Guitar Hero to break new artists for me.

    Be wary of generalizing from an admittedly narrow view of the genre. It appears to me that movies have hardly evolved in fifty years, much less 20: show me the difference between The Philadelphia Story and When Harry Met Sally, or perhaps more aptly The Shop Around the Corner and You’ve Got Mail.

  9. Ryan: I’m pretty sick, but here goes nothing:

    * Films are shorter, on average.
    * Scenes are shorter, and the editing is more rapid
    * The acting is far more naturalistic
    * The camera work is more creative, even in your average romantic comedy
    * The scores and soundtracks are more diverse, sophisticated and more closely tied to the plot, characters and themes.

    I don’t have the energy to debate this, so if you reply, you win by default.

  10. One could argue that music has, in general, become less creative. I hardly watch Much Music anymore, and usually when I turn it on, it’s not videos, it’s either some show, or a smaller video screen with some other junk on it, resembling a shopping channel. I just find that music videos are not equivalent to art, for the most part, but there are many exceptions. Maybe big budgets come with small brains. I think the more creative the music, the more creative the video.

    The band Incubus recently held a contest for fans to submit a video (not a new concept), but the band offered some green-screen video. The one I wanted to win, but didn’t, was an amazing animation based on the album art, and didn’t feature the band at all.

    I was recently told that film and TV have changed because of technology: we can watch films and TV shows as many times as we please, so they’re often (like 24 or The Sixth Sense) more complex, requiring us to watch it numerous times to see small nuances and figure things out. I agree about things being shorter and more rapid, as our attention spans have gotten shorter.

    As for our tastes, Alan Cross (Ongoing History of New Music) said that our 20s establish our music taste for the rest of our lives, so I can agree on those points.

  11. My favorite video is “Ray of Light” by Madonna. The visuals are mindblowingly incredible.

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