A Brief History of Music Videos and How we Watch Them

Me and music videos have always been pretty good mates. One of my earliest memories is watching Whenever, Wherever by Shakira on TV for the very first time and thinking “maaaan, this is the greatest moment of my life” – ok my 5 year old brain probably wasn’t thinking those exact words but it was super overwhelmed and excited for what it was witnessing. It was from that moment forth that I dedicated every Saturday and Sunday morning to watching the latest and greatest music videos instead of playing team sports like all my mates. This is the first of a three-part series that delves into the magic of music videos.

Music videos have now become a therapeutic and essential part of my day. This is largely due to their ability to “connect” me with the artist and song in a way that isn’t achievable purely through audio. Matilda Bonde Korsgaard puts it best in her in-depth study of music videos after MTV “The music has been visualized by adding images to it. This affects the way that we experience the music—the images give meaning to the music and make us listen differently to the music”. For me, this means that my need to dance when I listen to a Britney Spears song is amplified when I watch one of her music videos. Listening to Oops I did it Again = 40% chance of me bopping, watching Oops I did it Again = 99% chance of me bopping and attempting to mimic the choreography – probably leading to a far more sexualised interpretation of the media. Media convergence has had a large effect on the distribution of music videos, and the overall culture and economics of music. This means that I can now watch Oops I did it Again, anywhere at any time without having to wake up at 6am to record it on a VCR. It also means that I can now see visuals of the sexual, violent, grunge, mystical themes and meanings that have been in songs for decades.

YouTube has had a phenomenal impact on the way we share, experience and distribute music but there was a time before YouTube where music videos were not the norm, with many artists not wanting anything to do with them. Little research and documenting has been done of pre-televisual “music videos” so this article will focus on the televisual phase and current post-televisual phase of music videos.

Pre-MTV: From the Ed Sullivan Theatre on Broadway – it’s The Ed Sullivan Show!
It is hard to pinpoint the exact beginning of music videos as it has become clear that it was a rather poorly documented part of media history. American TV variety shows like The Ed Sullivan Show were some of the first to give artists exposure on the television format. Each episode would feature a short performance (1 – 2 songs) by a popular artist at the time – similar to today’s Jimmy Fallon or James Corden. American Bandstand was another key visual influencer of what people were listening to. The show would have a group of kids dance along to the Top 40, occasionally getting artists to lip sync their singles. However, none of these compared to what Australia had installed for the music world.


Countdown first aired in 1974 on ABC as a music television show hosted by Molly Meldrum. It led a cultural shift in how we had previously experienced and understood music in Australia. It’s host Molly Meldrum has since been praised for helping boost the careers of many international and Australian acts. It’s loose style, poorly organised arrangements and live nature provided for an abundance of memorable television and music moments. Countdown stayed on televisions well into MTV’s birth as “paid tv” didn’t launch in Australia until the 90’s.



At some point in the early 80’s, live music performances transitioned into heavily curated live performances, eventually becoming what we now know and love today as a typical music video. The Swingers performance of Counting The Beat on Countdown in 1981 is a prime example of an edited performance that has a music-video-like feel.



I want my MTV

MTV was the true beginning of music videos becoming a norm for single releases. It was created in the 70’s during what was a music drought and a questionable time for pop and rock acts. This new form of media entertainment didn’t come without its fair share of controversy. In 2001 VH1 (MTVs sister channel) released a documentary on 80s pop and the impact of MTV and music videos. It highlights that the initial reaction from a lot of rock bands was that it’s not in their job description to have to dance and act. Some musicians were purely musicians and didn’t want any part in the acting and dancing that had become a standard aspect of any good music video. John Oates of Hall & Oates stated his opinion of music videos in a press conference.  “I resent the fact that a kid grows up, dreams about playing the guitar and all of a sudden has to be an actor – to me that makes absolutely no sense at all.”

Another large criticism of music videos was that it destroyed an individual’s interpretation and understanding of the song prior to them being exposed to the visuals. This means that the audiences understanding of the meanings and themes behind a song was directed towards its literal meaning rather than an interpretation of what they felt it meant. Previously, the way we listened and interpreted music, particularly lyrically was purely up to our own imaginations.

MTV was a pioneer in introducing racially and sexually diverse content in the homes of people all over the US. Acts like Boy George and Annie Lennox from The Eurhythmics led a social shift by showing people the gender bending minority groups of the time using music videos as their medium. MTV was somewhat criticised in its early days for not showing enough black artists, however this later changed when Michael Jackson hit the scene. Along with helping the rise of black artists getting exposure on television, Michael Jackson also introduced the concept of a music video telling a story. Thriller was 14 minutes long, jam packed with horror, romance and dancing, all directed by revolutionary film John Landis. Nile Rodgers stated in an interview with VH1 that there is “the Music biz before Thriller and the Music biz after Thriller” highlighting the impact that the clip had on the industry in setting the standards. In part three of this series we will further discuss the cinematic nature of music videos.

Post-MTV: The Soulja Boy Effect
Myspace and YouTube helped start what we now know and love as viral content. Both platforms were perfect for hosting artist’s music and video content, helping to start the careers of many. One of the first music videos to fully feel the effects of Myspace and YouTube was Here it Goes Again by OK GO. Maura Edmond states in her book that the video “..confirmed, for anyone who might not yet have realised it, that the natural home for music videos had moved from television to the Internet.”



The trend toward “viral” music videos was recently acknowledged by MTV with the introduction of a new category in the 2012 Video Music Awards for the “Most Share-Worthy Video”. Viral hits such as Soulja Boy, What did the Fox Say, Friday and Gangnam Style all showed the world just how quickly a music video can reach the masses regardless of quality. Comedic themes and catchy tunes have proven popular on the internet thanks to their ability to provide entertainment to a large range of demographics. For this same reason, parodies of music videos have also become a popular trend. Viral music videos are highly recontextualizable because they are catchy and memorable in nature.

Where to now?

The distribution of all forms of media in 2017 is being heavily questioned as to whether they’ll dare to enter the worlds of AR (augmented reality) and VR (virtual reality). OK Go have continued to stay on top of online trends and producing effective 360 content, along with Bjork who is known for stepping outside of the box with the distribution and production of her art. We’re also entering a world where it has become far cheaper for artists to create and share effective visual content to go along with the music. Musical.ly now means that fans can create their own music videos.




I’ve made a playlist over on YouTube of the videos mentioned as well as some of my personal faves: https://goo.gl/8v1Jqi

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