When MTV debuted on Aug. 1, 1981, it revolutionized how the world consumed music. We could watch our favorite bands and artists from the comfort of the living room couches. Video soon started taking on the shape of short films or gave us an insight into the live concert experience.
Today, music videos continue to push boundaries and innovate. Here's a look at 25 influential music videos listed in chronological order.
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"Subterranean Homesick Blues" (Bob Dylan, 1967)
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Well before the official term "music video" and MTV existed, artists put out promotional clips. This is one of the more memorable ones, and the initial clip was the opening of Don't Look Back,a documentary on Dylan's 1965 European Tour. Dylan heldcards with lyrics from the popular song. Several bands have used the "cue card" approach since, most notably INXS with 1987's "Mediate."
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"Bohemian Rhapsody" (Queen, 1975)
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While the promotional clip was already a thing, the practice was not consistent used by bands and artists. That appeared to change when the four-headed monster known as Queen released a clip for its legendary opus, "Bohemian Rhapsody." The images of the band members' heads on a black background are almost as eerie and powerful as the song itself. The included performance footage added to the whole package.
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"Video Killed the Radio Star" (The Buggles, 1979)
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This song holds the distinction of being the first video played on MTV (at 12:01 a.m., Aug. 1, 1981). However, the clip was actually released in 1979 on BBC's popular "Top of the Pops." While the song wasn't all that good and The Buggles did not enjoy a long run, it ushered in a new way fans could get their music. It's a fitting opener to a channel that now could make or break an artist more than any radio station could ever do.
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"Ashes to Ashes" (David Bowie, 1980)
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Bowie co-directed one of the most iconic videos of the time. It cost £250,000 to make, a huge price tag back in the day. However, it was an example of how music videos can be interpreted as art through creativity, imagery, and conceptualism — all staples of the influential rock superstar. This video allowed artists who followed — and could afford it — to think outside the box.
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"Once in a Lifetime" (Talking Heads, 1981)
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Talking Heads was always a little on the odd side but undoubtedly tremendously talented, incorporating pop, post-punk, and even some new-school funk into its music. This video is one of the more influential in terms of its choreography. It was choreographed and co-directed by Toni Basil (of "Mickey" fame) and featured frontman David Byrne reenacting religious rituals (shown behind him). It's also an example that videos don't necessarily need to make sense to be effective.
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"Hungry Like the Wolf" (Duran Duran, 1982)
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One of the first songs and bands to truly benefit from the MTV machine, Duran Duran wasn't a known commodity in the United States until "Hungry Like the Wolf" and its Indiana Jones-like and jungle-themed video started getting regular play on the cable channel. The band essentially became international stars and heartthrobs for girls around the globe, thanks to the video. It also proved that a video had a better chance of striking the fancy of viewers if it had a story —and plenty of sexual undertones.
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"Billie Jean" (Michael Jackson, 1983)
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While the video helped make Jackson an international superstar, pop icon, and fashion trendsetter (leather suit), the biggest influence that this innovative visual had was that it essentially opened the door for Black artists to be played regularly on MTV.
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"Beat It" (Michael Jackson, 1983)
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While "Billie Jean" set the table for Jackson's soon-to-be dominance in the music video world, "Beat It" raised the bar. It was a story and one of the first to offer some visuals before the music kicked in. It had an almost modern West Side Story take (at least in terms of the dancing). The video remains one of the greatest and will always be lauded for its choreography. It will also be remembered for Jackson's famed red zippered jacket and Eddie Van Halen's guitar work.
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"Rockit" (Herbie Hancock, 1983)
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The visual aspect of Hancock's biggest hit was all about innovation. His robotic, animatronic-like look at everyday life is considered among the most artistic music videos of all time. It was also celebrated for its use of special effects and a creative, conceptual approach considered outside the box in the early '80s.
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“Thriller” (Michael Jackson, 1983)
Arguably the greatest music video ever made. The release of the "Thriller" video in early December 1983 was an event. It was essentially a short film, running more than 13 minutes, directed by John Landis (Animal House, The Blues Brothers, An American Werewolf in London). The zombie-themed video and more innovative dance numbers helped propel Jackson's legendary album to astronomic status. The video has transcended the realm of pop culture.
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"Borderline" (Madonna, 1984)
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Michael Jackson solidified himself as the "King of Pop" and the biggest entertainer on the planet in 1983, but Madonna was not too far behind. Her 1983 self-titled debut was a hit, and the "Borderline" video portrayed Madonna as an empowered female, who was not afraid to do what, and be with whom, she wanted. All while not being held to a lower standard in a seemingly male-dominated world. It also took her look and overall fashion sense to the masses — and that was only the beginning.
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"Money for Nothing" (Dire Straits, 1985)
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This Dire Straits hit became popular because of its groundbreaking video. Using computer animation, the common working man puts down those musicians who get their "money for nothing and chicks for free." The CGI work was completely innovative for its time and even more intriguing since Dire Straits was a straightforward band that wasn't big on living in the limelight.
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"Take On Me" (A-ha, 1985)
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The MTV smash, and still one of the most creative and innovated music videos of all time, is actually the second version made. It is romance depicted through pencil-sketch animationandrotoscoping, completely foreign to the casual music video viewer at the time. It won six awards at the 1986 MTV Video Music Awards and reportedly has surpassed 1 billion views on YouTube to this day.
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"Sledgehammer" (Peter Gabriel, 1986)
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Using stop motion animation, pixilation and claymation, "Sledgehammer" remains one of the true great moments in music video history. The video, which won nine times at the 1987 MTV Video Music Awards, opened the door for established artists and bands to get creative and allow their music to stand out even more, thanks to a captivating visual and out-of-the-box creativity.
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"Welcome To The Jungle" (Guns N' Roses, 1987)
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In the mid-to-late 1980s, hard rock and "heavy metal" on MTV were all about big hair, spandex and guys who looked like girls. Then G N' R came around. Yes, Axl Rose's hair was a little high in the band's debut video, but the stripped-down approach and tale about the sleazy side of L.A. and Hollywood let the hair drop down and makeup come off. Some believe this video was the first nail in glam metal's coffin
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"Like a Prayer" (Madonna, 1989)
Never to shy away from controversy, Madonna was up to her neck in it with one of the most memorable videos ever made. It was attacked for beinginappropriate and sacreligious, even drawing attention from Pope John Paul II, who called for a boycott of the video. It featured an interracial love story and pushed an envelope that the superstar had not gone to, but intended all the way. However, it remains one of the most infamous but creative and compelling music videos ever. Pepsi even got in on the fun.
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"Nothing Compares 2 U" (Sinéad O'Connor, 1990)
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O'Connor made the Prince-penned tune a massive hit, and the simple, yet emotional video was a big reason why. It was an example of how powerful and full of feeling a visual could be while looking so simple and straightforward from the eyes of a jilted lover. When the buzz-cut Irish star sheds some tears toward the end of the video, it still has many reaching for the tissue.
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"Smells Like Teen Spirit" (Nirvana, 1991)
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If hair metal hadn't died yet, it was officially laid to rest when the music world got a look at the video that basically ushered in the grunge movement to the masses. It was a total contrast to the "hard rock" videos MTV was playing, and being invited to the most apathetic-turned-dysfunctional pep rally ever (complete with cheerleaders dressed in black and sporting anarchy symbols and tattoos) was quite the dark but refreshing change of pace.
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"Nuthin' but a 'G' Thang" (Dr. Dre, feat. Snoop Doggy Dogg, 1992)
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It's the first take from Dre's solo debut album and essentially made Snoop a star, but the video also paved the way for fellow rappers to show off the good life — and often thug life — that tends to be associated with some rap. House parties, drop tops, 40s, marijuana and topless females. The edited version was an MTV hit and made Snoop an overnight sensation, plus it gave 1990s rap a new face and method to follow.
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"Buddy Holly" (Weezer, 1994)
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The first of Spike Jonze's two most memorable music videos from this year, but also in the history of the art. The Weezer guys are creatively dropped into a "Happy Days" episode, hanging out at Arnold's, complete with Fonzie and the gang. The video was a smash and even wound up in the hands of Microsoft, making it more iconic and still one of the greatest videos ever concepted.
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"Sabotage" (Beastie Boys, 1994)
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Another Spike Jonze work of brilliance, this memorable video is anhomage to those 1970s police and detective showsthat littered the networks. It's pure genius throughout, and was a good example of a solid song made stronger because of its video. Funny lady and huge fan of the band Amy Poehler said in 2018's "Beastie Boys Book," "I truly believe there would be no'Anchorman,' no Wes Anderson, no Lonely Island videos and no channel called Adult Swim if this video did not exist."
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"Wannabe" (Spice Girls, 1996)
It was the first time we were really introduced to Ginger, Baby, Scary, Sporty and Posh Spice, and pop music fans couldn't get enough — especially those girls and young women looking for a little empowerment. Girl groups have come and gone, but the Spice Girls were trendsetters from the beginning with their catchy songs, lively videos, trendy fashion sense and declaration of "girl power." Thanks to "Wannabe," artists like Charli XCX, Haim and even Lady Gaga have cited the band as an influence.
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"The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)" (Missy "Misdemeanor" Elliott, 1997)
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Elliott's first video working with famed director Hype Williams is best known for her leather blow-up suit. It would go on to become a staple of her live shows that followed shortly. And it offered a unique fashion option that showed what an artist is wearing (including Elliott's other colorful outfits) during a video can be powerful and influential.
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"...Baby One More Time" (Britney Spears, 1998)
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We talked about how Madonna's "Borderline" video delivered a sense of empowerment for women. Spears' breakthrough debut video did the same for young women. Though Spears' sexy school-girl uniform earned its fair share of controversy, it's one of the most iconic moments of her legacy. In a lot ways, Spears quickly became the benchmark for young female singers like Christina Aguilera and Jessica Simpson to follow suit within a movement that was about to have a run that's still going strong.
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"Here it Goes Again" (OK Go, 2006)
The most recent entry on this list is known as one of the greatest choreographed videos of all time. It's still quite amazing how the band members pulled off their moves on all those treadmills. It's also one of the first videos to truly blow up virally out of the gate, thanks to YouTube, and it was viewed more than 50 million times within its first five years of existence.
A Chicago native, Jeff Mezydlo has professionally written about sports, entertainment and pop culture for nearly 30 years. If he could do it again, he'd attend Degrassi Junior High, Ampipe High and Grand Lakes University.