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  • Shreya Gulati

From The Beatles to BTS - The Evolution of Music Videos

Music videos create a multi-dimensional world, gifting us a window with which we get the chance to see what the artist sees when listening to their music and maybe that’s why seconds into it we forget that there exists a screen between us and them. Be it Micheal Jackson’s Thriller or Psy’s Gangnam Style, even decades later, what remains constant between iconic music videos is how they got entire generations obsessing over them. Starting the buzz with musicals, redefining music with MTV, to now dominating the world with Youtube, the evolution of this phenomenon of music videos has been sensational. Some of the biggest celebrities of the twenty-first century, Gen-Z icons and artists with a fan base spread across the world, still belong to the music video industry. But where did it all begin? When and how did a genius come up with the idea of combining visual storytelling along with melodies and blessed the world with a crazy mix of sensations that we can’t imagine a single day without? Let’s trace this together!


Initially, films were silent and the idea of merging video and audio remained alien until the launch of talkies. Talkies were nothing but a sound film – sound technologically coupled to an image as opposed to a silent movie. With their introduction, the number of musical short films being produced increased extensively. For anyone working in Hollywood in the late 20s and 30s, their life transformed with this innovation. 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 in 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.

Well, obviously, the latter were onto something. When the term ‘music videos’ in particular came into existence is a long route to track owing to all such compositions that existed as its precursors before - like talkies, sheet music, soundies and musical short films that existed between the early 1890s and late 1950s. So, let’s try to decode this, one new addition at a time!

In the late nineteenth century, Vitaphone shorts produced by Warner Bros featured many bands, vocalists, and dancers. Soon a series of sing-along short cartoons called Screen Songs was introduced and then many Cartoons featured popular musicians performing their hit songs on camera in live-action segments during the cartoons. Walt Disney also built several interpretations of classical pieces around music, which increased the popularity of music being incorporated in films.

This was also the era where singers began featuring in movies for a dramatized performance of their song. In 1929, Bessie Smith revolutionised music entertainment with one of the earliest music videos in history. Her song, St. Louis Blues, was featured in the film by the same name starring Bessie Smith herself. It was shown in theatres across America, changing the way we experience music. Similarly, Soundies – musical films that included short dance sequences, similar to our current music videos also began gathering attention. However, until now all of these were either short films that had music or live performance incorporations; the stand alone ‘music video’ was yet to make an entrance.


In 1956, Tony Bennett’s Stranger in Paradise was filmed in Hyde Park, and played across U.K and American television. In his biography, Bennett claims to have created the first music video, well since this was indeed the first music video to be played on television he wasn’t all wrong. However, what really marked a critical moment in the development of music video was when The Beatles featured in A hard day’s night in 1964. This influenced the style of music video we see used by contemporary artists. In 1967 the Beatles took it one step further with their video Penny Lane, they started using the conventions and codes modern producers know today, such as dramatic lighting, rhythmic editing and unusual camera angles.

The Beatles

Another sensational composition in 1970 was the Jackson 5 song – I want you back. For the first time, a song was accompanied by full co-ordinated performance music video that focused solely on the artist performance that features conventions of modern performance music videos. The entire period from 1968 to 1974 was an era of experimentation where musicians were exploring music video choices. Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, David Bowie, The Kinks, you simply name the legend and they were right here, experimenting of course! This era witnessed the most celebrated names free from constraints of promotional requirements and open to experimentations.

Jackson 5, I want you back

Skip to 1980, Queen released the incredible cluster bomb that is Bohemian Rhapsody, their music video started a new era for music video, it features live performance presented in a new style, including illustrative shots relating to the lyrics of the video, and lighting and camera techniques we might associate with top of the pops. According to Rolling Stone, it was the success of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody that compelled record companies to pay attention to videos as a way to market new releases and increase sales. Whether it was the talkies, Bennett or Queen, the fact of the matter is that each of these milestones played a crucial role in preparing the world for - The MTV era.


In 1981, in the U.S, MTV was officially launched with the words “Ladies and gentlemen, rock and roll,” and well that’s what an entire generation did! MTV completely redefined the way we discovered music, thanks to a new medium: the officially termed ‘music video’. With high production values - singers became performers and entertainers. Synchronized one-dimensional dancing videos turned into high-production value short movies. Music videos gave up-and-coming artists a defining visual aesthetic that cemented their status as icons. Now music videos were more available and spread worldwide. It gave all artists a platform and all listeners a new gateway to be both immersed and inspired.

The first video they aired was - Video Killed the Radio Star by the Buggles, ironic as with this, also began an era of 24-hour-a-day music on television. This was the start of a massive boom in music video production, as artists now had a new way of getting their content heard, or seen.Music videos also began to discover political and social themes for instance, David Bowsie’s China Girl and Let’s Dance both discussed race issues as he believed music videos should be used a platform for social change.

In 1983, one of the most successful, influential and iconic music video of all time was released: the nearly 14-minute-long video for Michael Jackson’s song Thriller directed by John Landis. The video set new standards for production, having cost US $800,000 to film and brought songs by African-Americans to be played on MTV, which wasn’t a norm before this. Thriller also put him on charts and defined an entire generation all thanks to MTV. This sealed MTV's reputation as a new cultural force; dissolved racial barriers in the station's treatment of music, revolutionised music video production; spawned the "making of" genre of documentary - "The Making of Thriller,"; helped create a market for VHS rentals and sales, because fans were desperate to see it when they wanted, rather than at the will of TV stations.

Thriller - Music Video

This era witnessed the creation of not just singers but now sensations including Michael Jackson a cultural juggernaut of unparalleled proportion, Prince who went on to create the classic album Purple Rain (1984 that grossed almost $70 million at the U.S. box office), Madonna – regarded as the Queen of Pop and an inspiring music sensation till date and many more artists and bands. Older musicals also served as inspirations from where artists like Madonna and Jackson were extremely inspired and this reflected in their videos.

In 1984, MTV also launched MTV Video Music Awards – VMAs. The inaugural event rewarded The Beatles and David Bowie for their work in pioneering the Music Video. Following years also saw the launch of VHI1, MTV Europe and MTV Asia, MTV India and so on. Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer was also awarded for its use of special effects and animation techniques. But over time, MTV and VH1 became more popular for reality shows than for the iconic videos they launched. But here's the funny thing: Music videos didn’t lose their popularity at all. In fact, they're 95 percent of the most popular on – drumroll - YouTube!


People were skeptical about whether music videos would continue to be as popular ever since their replacement with reality TV but in fact the billions of views that artists generate today are way more than what even MTV got in its heyday. When American video-sharing website, YouTube made its debut in 2005, things changed. The music video industry was revived in that year, and since then it has grown from strength to strength. Increase in accessibility played an important role in this but so did the incorporation of brands and marketing. YouTube made music videos not only an extremely popular medium, but also an industry that’s worth billions of dollars.

To elaborate - Lady Gaga’s 9-and-a-half-minute video ‘Telephone’ has not one but 12 brand placements, with Diet Coke, Virgin Mobile, Monster Heartbeats and Miracle Whip being some of them. This 9- minute video got the featured brands noticed by over 296 million people. Mercedes and Adidas were also able to reach 3.2 billion viewers by placing their products in the 2012 released surprise hit PSY’s Gangnam Style. It would be safe to assume that with good visibility came good revenue. So, from brand incorporations, to merchandise and advertisements, the way this art form is operating as a business is proof enough that it’s here to stay for the long-term.

Twenty-First century worldwide also witnessed the rise of popstars and their ever-increasing influence spread all around the globe generating a massive fan base. From JLO and Shakira to Taylor Swift, One Direction, Justin Bieber, Drake, Kanye and an endless list of teenage icons rose as Gen Z sensations that continue to feature in almost top 25 out of 30 most viewed and popular YouTube videos constantly. For instance, ever since Tones and I’s infectious Dance Monkey hit the music world by storm last year, the song is yet to get out of our heads. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that on May 19th, the music video for the song hit one billion views on YouTube just one year after it was released.


Recently also rose to fame K-Pop, that has managed to influence the entire world’s not only music but also fashion. Bands like BTS have generated a colossal fan base all over the world, with all their music videos being regular chartbusters and their merch and concerts selling out in minutes. All in all, from musicals and talkies, to singles and chartbusters, the journey of music videos is no less than a roller coaster, but hey if that means we get to s

ee old archived performances of The Beatles AND new BTS drops, we’re not complaining! In a culture of consumption of art and entertainment, music can often be forgotten or lost in a sea of content but videos have always helped artists stand out from the crowd, pushing for the attention they oh so deserve.


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