Flashback to the 'MTV Generation': Legendary Music Videos That Defined an Era

By Jack Ripley | March 11, 2024

Michael Jackson - “Thriller”

Few artistic expressions have captivated the human imagination quite like the music video. It's a visual medium that thrives on pushing boundaries, distilling melodies into unforgettable images, and shaping cultural narratives. From the intoxicating glamour of Madonna's "Vogue" to the mind-bending gravity-defying antics of Jamiroquai's "Virtual Insanity," from the kinetic, frenetic energy of Beastie Boys' "Sabotage" to the supernatural dance of the undead in Michael Jackson's "Thriller," and not to forget the surreal, gender-bending world of Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)," these music videos have forever altered the landscape of both music and visual storytelling.

In the short lifespan of the medium, music videos transformed from simple performance pieces to mini-movies where cutting edge directors learned their trade. These are more than just videos; they're time capsules, works of art, and cultural milestones. So, sit back and hit that play button, as we take you on a journey through some of the greatest music videos ever crafted. If you want to explore the magic of these iconic videos and discover the stories behind their creation, keep reading.

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The music video for "Thriller" by Michael Jackson, directed by John Landis, is an iconic and groundbreaking masterpiece that has left an indelible mark on music and pop culture. It goes beyond a traditional music video, with a runtime akin to a short film. The video features Jackson and Ola Ray in a thrilling homage to horror films, complete with a stellar dance sequence involving a horde of zombies. The "Thriller" video was initially not planned as a single release, but Michael Jackson's manager, Frank DiLeo, saw its potential and suggested creating a music video. The result was a cinematic experience shot on 35mm film with a budget of $900,000, setting a new standard for music videos. MTV initially hesitated to finance the project, but with Showtime's assistance, they ultimately agreed to contribute. To help fund the production, a making-of documentary titled "Making Michael Jackson's Thriller" was created. The video's debut sent the "Thriller" album soaring, making it the bestselling album of all time.

At the 1984 MTV Video Music Awards, "Thriller" received numerous awards and nominations, solidifying Michael Jackson's status as the "king of pop" and turning him into a global cultural icon. The impact of the "Thriller" video is immeasurable, as it continues to inspire and entertain audiences worldwide.

Talking Heads - “Once In A Lifetime”

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The music video for the Talking Heads' "Once in a Lifetime" is a mesmerizing and enigmatic visual experience that perfectly complements the song's unique and thought-provoking lyrics. In the video, frontman David Byrne stands alone in a vast, empty white room, donning a suit, bowtie, and glasses. Behind him, footage of various religious rituals and multiple incarnations of Byrne himself are seamlessly inserted via bluescreen, creating a surreal and captivating backdrop. Byrne's performance is a tour de force of erratic and spastic movements, mirroring the rituals and trance-like states he studied from archive footage of religious practices around the world. Directed by Byrne and Toni Basil, with choreography by Basil, the video is a testament to their creative ingenuity and resourcefulness.

To enhance Byrne's jerky movements, Basil employed an "old-fashioned" zoom lens, resulting in a visual style that perfectly complements the song's hypnotic rhythm. Despite its low budget, the "Once in a Lifetime" video is an enduring work of art, a testament to the power of simplicity and creativity in the world of music videos. Basil later said of Byrne's memorable dance moves:

David kind of choreographed himself. I set up the camera, put him in front of it, and asked him to absorb those ideas. Then I left the room so he could be alone with himself. I came back, looked at the videotape, and we chose physical moves that worked with the music. I just helped to stylize his moves a little.