The world was an oyster during the 1980s. At the time, music videos were a new thing that people were experiencing and anything was possible. The Cars 1984 video for “Hello Again” took that to new heights. Opening up with a campy talk show featuring teens discussing sex and violence in music videos, the clip goes on to feature tongue wrestling couples. The video was major for being one of the first to utilize computer graphics. Lead singer Ric Ocasek acts as an operator in front of a moving background of a TV control center. He also stands lip-synching in front of kissing couples. This now seems fairly simplistic, but at the time, it was revolutionary.
The advent of music videos is a revolution in itself. Some would argue that music videos began at the turn of the 20th century, when Thomas Edison recorded a violinist playing in front of a phonograph horn as two men dance in a film called, “Dickenson Experimental Song Film.” However, there were various performances recorded on film throughout the 1900s. Vaudeville shows and early forms of movie theaters called nickelodeons were mediums through which people viewed performances. “We have this film, we have this medium, so how do we take it to an audience?” says Jennifer Smith, a University of Georgia telecommunications professor in the Grady School of Journalism and Mass Communication. “A lot of it was, how can we make use of a medium of film to get the audience’s attention?” Edison’s own kinescopes allowed people to look through a peep-hole of the device to watch a motion picture while listening to a phonograph, or sound recording, that came along with it through rubber ear tubes, according to Mary Bellis of about.com. This was something that had not been done before, and the fact that people could view the clips as individuals was something to behold.
Initially, music videos were mini-movies. The earliest form of what we consider a music video technically came to be in the late 1920s. Bessie Smith’s “St. Louis Blues” was released in 1929. The actual performance portion of the clip is simple. The camera pans across a crowd in a bar as they echo her vocals in a choral arrangement. Smoke billows from the ever-present cigarettes resting on the tables. The camera cuts to Bessie, singing at the bar clutching a frothy brew. It’s not the most sophisticated piece, with ample jumps from shot to shot, but it does show the origins of the modern-day music video.
During the 1960s, more progress was made. Music videos were performance based. They served as promotional tools or pieces the band could put together in place of going on TV shows like “The Ed Sullivan Show.” One of the Beatles first music videos is “Strawberry Fields Forever.” With clip, the band, “took feature film medium and the musical and put them together in a way that was targeted to the fans,” says Smith. “It was about the music and the band.” Though performance grounds the video, various visual techniques takes it to a higher level. In an era where widespread drug use prevailed, the visuals are fitting for the time. Color pinholes and warped imagery of the band racing towards the camera in hues of purple and green ground the clip as 1960s artifact. Still, it’s clear that videos have come a long way from “St. Louis Blues”, transitions are more fluent and creative, featuring cross fades between band members.
As time moved further from the 1960s into the1970s, videos continued to be visually alluring. Ryan Larkin’s 1972 video for “Street Musique” is an example of a psychedelic piece. A piece of living animation traces onto the screen, creating a hand and then slowly morphing into a teal, pink and blue pigmented feathery form. This differs from The Beatles clip since there is no live band and no lyrics to sing along to. Just in that short span of time, technology has developed to where video creators we’re able to show animation done without the hand of the creator present.
Even though music videos were being created, people didn’t really have any way to see them except before movies in the theater like in the early half of the century. MTV premiered in 1981 and it was then that music videos began to reach the masses. In the 80s, concert videos and narrative, artistic videos reigned. In 1982, Michael Jackson released “Thriller” and it set the stage for others. Videos weren’t just simply a performance piece. They became miniature movies. The use of make-up and special effect helps take the clip to Hollywood status—close-ups of Michael’s face sprouting hair and whiskers, his hands turning bulky and muscular, claws pushing from his fingertips. “Thriller” had significant attention to detail. “It seems to me that that the artistic quality of the video kind of reaches a peak about 1984” says Stephen Valdez, UGA associate professor in the Huge Hodgson School of Music, “where you’ve got some of the big name directors working with these pieces.” John Landis directed “Thriller” and had previously done work on the 1978 film, “Animal House.”
Aside from prominent Hollywood directors, technology helped these 80s videos be more massive than music videos had ever been before. A-ha’s “Take On Me” from 1984 used rotoscoping to create the now iconic imagery of lead singer Morton Harket adventures through animated and live-action scenarios to get the girl while escaping the enemies. This technique utilizes live actors on film and then traces over them in an animated fashion to capture realistic movements, according to about.com’s Nancy Basile. Peter Gabriel’s 1986 video for “Sledgehammer” used a variety of techniques in stop motion. Train tracks circle around his head as a toy locomotive rides around it. Clay bumper cars bump into the singer’s face and cotton candy crawls over his hair, giving him a clown-like appearance. The video’s technology shows it can me used in a whimsical, fun and even child-like matter, but still be engaging enough for adult viewers.
Music videos didn’t always use such animated techniques to capture audience attention. Run-D.M.C. and Aerosmith teamed up for a new version of the latter band’s “Walk This Way,” which reflected the changing attitudes about music and attitudes towards rock and hip-hop music. As noted by both Valdez and Smith, the song helped the rap group by launching them into mainstream stardom. The rock/hip hop mash up literally broke down barriers—Steven Tyler bursts through a wall once he hears Rev Run and D.M.C. rapping to their track. There are no technological feats to this clip, but the cultural significance is apparent. Ever since then rap and rock and genres have crossed over, continuing to influence one another.
In the 1990s, music videos really helped artists establish themselves and launch their careers. By this time, MTV and VH1 had huge, concentrated audiences. Thanks to their emergence in the 1980s, rap videos became major business. When grunge music became popular, videos leaned towards the lo-fi/DIY look in response to the excess of 80s and early 90s clips, according to Steve Labate, contributor to Paste magazine. This is a time when things were changing and a variety of genres were emerging to become the most popular and the grimy, brooding looks of Kurt Cobain in Nirvana’s 1992 clip, “Come As You Are,” greatly demonstrated the attitude of grunge rock.
In contrast to lo-fi looks of the grunge era, videos in the 21st century have become increasingly sophisticated. Sponsorships have made product placements common in mainstream music video. It’s not uncommon to see an obvious shot of Beats by Dre Pill these days. In the two decades from the 2000s to today, videos have been decentralized. With MTV and VH1 no longer playing music videos, it reflects the change in culture and preferences towards reality TV. Now, videos are mainly accessed online on websites like YouTube, Vimeo and Vevo as well as niche music websites, according to Labte. A 2013 report by comScore Video Metric Service revealed that 183 million Americans viewed over 44 billion videos online during the month of June. Google Sites is the first in online primary content, due to YouTube, with 158.3 million unique views. Facebook followed, with 61.6 million, demonstrating the impact and appeal of social media for musicians and fans alike. The report also found that 85.2% of Internet users in the U.S. viewed music videos, so even though MTV is no longer “music television”, that doesn’t mean that viewership of music videos, is on the decline. On the contrary, it is alive and thriving.
Today, there’s still an air of an anything goes mentality that emerged in the 1980s. More access to resources by novice filmmakers means that everyone has access to creating clips for their respective bands. “In the 70s it would cost you a lot more money; equipment was owned by specific production houses where only certain people knew how to do [post production],” says local videographer Justin Rogers. “Whereas now you can get After Effects where it is more accessible.” Use of these kinds of tools means amateur musicians can feel free to use technology to make their unique visions come alive.
In the life of the music video, technology has been the one of the main elements of its development. Whether sophisticated rotoscoping or whimsical stop motion, videos have continued to transform. Home technology made accessible to newcomers combined with online outlets for release mean there’s plenty of room for music videos to continue their reign. Now, the universe can be an artist’s oyster.