I was recently running 20 minutes late to meet a friend for a movie when I realized that I’d rather watch 90 minutes of music videos than whatever we were about to see. A good music video doesn’t just bring a song to life, it takes on a life of its own and makes a song better — it can achieve in minutes what a great film achieves in 90. It can start a movement or even define a generation. What do you think of when I refer to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”? The song, the album, or the full-on zombie hand dance? Sometimes I have to hear a song dozens, even trillions, of times before I realize I like it, but a great music video clicks right away and sticks with me.
As a teen, watching VH1 Top 20 Countdown was my Saturday-morning-cartoon equivalent. Every week, they counted down the top 20 most-requested music videos of the week and interviewed up-and-coming artists about what they’d been working on. It taught me a lot. For instance, before watching “Not Ready to Make Nice” 20 weeks in a row, I had no idea the Dixie Chicks were fucking phenomenal. I knew “Everytime” was a devastating and beautiful outpouring of emotion from Britney Spears, but it wasn’t until the video that I had a good weep. Okay, several good weeps.
When music television, a.k.a. MTV and VH1, became diluted with shows like Laguna Beach (a true gem, don’t get me wrong) and the internet brought about thousands of new ways to discover music, music videos became significantly less important. VH1 Top 20 Countdown was quietly canceled and MTV basically forgot music videos even existed. Music videos lost their spark and for years were relegated to complementary background noise. “With a few exceptions, videos don’t reach a mass audience in the manner of the old MTV,” The New York Times reported in 2003 on the fall of the music video.
But in the late 2010s, after nearly a decade of drought, music videos started ramping up for a comeback. “Thanks to the power of a small number of elite artists,” wrote The Guardian in 2016, “music videos are having a renaissance and once more becoming events in themselves. … Major artists and their labels are again spending serious money on music videos.”
Maybe credit’s due to the internet for briefly getting a handle on itself and allowing short digital productions to become anybody’s game — or maybe it’s the power of a good visual to lift up a song that might otherwise be lost in the ether of a million just like it. Either way, music videos have become creative and transformative once again. Here’s a handful from the last few years that have single-handedly improved upon the songs they were made for, thus achieving the higher purpose of the music video art form, if you ask me.
“Sorry” by Justin Bieber
Directed by Parris Goebel
This one is a bit of a throwback (it came out in late 2015); however, the music video had such an impact on me that I made it my Halloween costume less than two weeks after it was released. (Nobody got it.) This video was initially produced for Purpose: The Movement, a collection of dance videos choreographed by Parris Goebel to every track on Bieber’s Purpose (also of note: “Love Yourself”). The majority of the album was never followed up with “official” videos starring JB himself because how could you top Parris’ creations? I was barely even a fan of Justin until the release of Purpose: The Movement and I’ve since done a deep dive into his back catalogue.
I firmly believe this project — namely Parris Goebel — to be a key player in the recent rise of internet dance videos. I’ve lost months of my life down a Millennium Dance Complex video rabbit hole as a result, and I don’t even regret it.
“Company” by Tinashe
Directed by Jack Begert
Also apparently a huge fan of internet dance videos, Tinashe tapped one of the best up-and-coming choreographers of said videos to choreograph a video for her song “Company.” I’d been a fan of Tinashe since the video for “All Hands on Deck,” but “Company” (the song) had never really been on my radar. The music video is essentially a perfectly lit dance-class video, and that’s all she needs to throw you into this track. The choreography is incredible, and Tinashe has the Britney-like ability to captivate you with a look. (Sorry for bringing up Britney again.)
“Sorry” by Beyoncé
Directed by Kahlil Joseph, Beyoncé Knowles Carter
“Sorry” was a track on the epic visual album that is Lemonade and the first to be released alone outside of Tidal, HBO and other walls I paid to climb. “Sorry” specifically gained quite a bit of attention for “Becky with the good hair,” but I found it enthralling for its introduction to the “Apathy” portion of Lemonade and its spoken-word introduction: “Ashes to ashes, dust to side chicks.” The visual portion of this song quickly made it my favorite off the album. It could be because Serena Williams shows up or maybe because Beyoncé is truly in her perfect element in it.
“Boys” by Charli XCX
Directed by Charli XCX
As the title of the song would lead you to believe, this music video boasts an enormous cast of boys. At first blush, it might seem that this video exists merely as a pretty backdrop to a song, but it goes so far beyond that. In college, my friend and I used to dissect music videos for something we called “extremely subtle hotness,” and almost no one does it better than the first boy in “Boys”: Joe Jonas. The video feels almost like an updated version of George Michael’s “Freedom! ’90.” This song showed up on my Spotify Discover Weekly, but it wasn’t until I saw the video that I truly understood it (and loved it).
“Sober” by Childish Gambino
Directed by Hiro Murai
This music video sold me not only on Childish Gambino but on everything Donald Glover has ever done. I loved the entire Kauai EP, but this music video lifts a good song into another dimension. Also, I’m weak for a good dance break, and this music video has perhaps one of the best of all time. If not for this music video, I may have never become obsessed with his show Atlanta.
“Humble” by Kendrick Lamar
Directed by Dave Meyers and The Little Homies
It’s no secret that this was one of the best music videos of 2017 (it took home the MTV Video Music Award for Video of the Year). This music video was released along with the song, making them hard to separate in my mind, but I have no desire to anyway. While both pieces function beautifully alone, together they’re unstoppable. I didn’t need reminding that Kendrick is one of the greatest of all time, but I certainly wouldn’t turn proof like this away.
“IDGAF” by Dua Lipa
Directed by Henry Scholfield
I hadn’t heard of Dua Lipa until I saw the video for “New Rules,” an instant classic. (The rainbow robes nearly became another music video Halloween costume for me.) After I did, I downloaded the rest of the album right away. When I listened all the way through and selected my favorites, “IDGAF” was not one of them. It’s a fine song, but it wasn’t until I was captivated by the dueling Duas in January of this year that I realized it was actually my favorite song in the entire world. Maybe for Halloween you can be the orange one and I’ll be the blue one?
Before I disappear into YouTube again looking for some new-to-me clips to obsess over, please add yours in the comments and let me know if you’d like to dive into some extreme analysis.
Feature photo by Zachary Mazur/WireImage via Getty Images.