14 Groundbreaking Music Videos
Lady Gaga, "Bad Romance"
Lady Gaga had hits before "Bad Romance," but the 2009 video helped hone her outré aesthetic, with the crazy Alexander McQueen Armadillo boots and that flame-shooting cone bra. Since "Bad Romance," her music videos have only gotten crazier, from the lezploitation mini-movie " Telephone" to the S&M-tinged " Alejandro." Is it any surprise she'll be the first music artist to reach a billion combined YouTube views?
Madonna, "Like a Prayer"
Madonna courts controversy like it's her job—which technically it is. And among her many scandals, the "Like a Prayer" video ranks pretty freakin' high. Madonna with stigmata? Check. Madonna macking on a saint? Check. Madonna dancing in front of burning crosses? Check. Despite the controversy—or because of it—the video has still received tons of accolades, including nabbing the No. 2 spot on VH1's list of 100 Greatest Videos of all Time.
Michael Jackson, "Thriller"
The King of Pop was truly the king of music videos—"Black or White," "Beat It," and "Smooth Criminal" are among the most iconic music videos ever—and "Thriller" was his crowning glory. The 14-minute masterpiece was less a music video and more a short film. It's no surprise, then, that "Thriller" was added to the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress in 2009.
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, "The Message"
Aside from being a really solid music video in its own right, Grandmaster Flash's 1982 video for "The Message" featured a gritty urban narrative, making it one of the first music videos to embrace the milieu from which rap was born. In 2002, "The Message" became the first hip-hop recording to be inducted into the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry.
The Buggles, "Video Killed the Radio Star"
When MTV infiltrated the airwaves on Aug. 1, 1981, it did so with the aptly titled "Video Killed the Radio Star" by Brit synth-pop group The Buggles. The otherwise forgettable video would likely not have managed to kill the radio star on its own terms, but sometimes being the first out of the gate is enough to nab a slot in the history books.
The Beatles, "Rain"
Way before video killed the radio star, The Beatles had created a promotional film for their 1966 song, "Rain." In the 1995 Beatles Anthology documentary, George Harrison noted how far ahead of the curve The Beatles were, saying, "I suppose, in a way, we invented MTV."
OK Go, "Here It Goes Again"
This 2006 video from OK Go—featuring the band dancing on treadmills in an impressive single take—melded pop music with viral videos. More important, it served as a catalyst for lead singer Damian Kulash's stand against his record company, EMI, for disabling embedding on the video that rocketed the band to fame. In a New York Times op-ed, Kulash wrote, "Embedded videos—those hosted by YouTube but streamed on blogs and other Web sites—don't generate any revenue for record companies, so EMI disabled the embedding feature. Now we can't post the YouTube versions of our videos on our own site, nor can our fans post them on theirs. If you want to watch them, you have to do so on YouTube. But this isn't how the Internet works." OK Go followed up the op-ed by cutting ties with EMI and starting its own label, Paracadute Recordings, allowing the band members to enable embedding on any awesome, viral music video they wanted.
U2, "Where the Streets Have No Name"
There's groundbreaking music videos, then there's law-breaking music videos. When U2 decided to film a video for "Where the Streets Have No Name" atop a liquor store in Los Angeles, the LAPD had a few objections. The police attempts to shut down the shoot were woven into the video itself.
a-ha, "Take on Me"
Norwegian pop band a-ha may have been a one-hit wonder, but what a hit it was! The "Take on Me" video was cutting-edge for 1985, featuring extensive rotoscoping and a blend of live action and animation.
Queen, "Body Language"
Glam rockers Queen gave the execs of then-nascent MTV a heart attack in 1982 with their skin-baring, super sweaty video for "Body Language." The naughty video was the first one to be banned by the station, due to its highly sexual nature.
Paula Abdul and MC Skat Kat, "Opposites Attract"
The pioneering efforts of "Opposites Attract," Paula Abdul's 1989 music video with MC Skat Kat, helped pave the way for other live action/animation blends like Space Jam, something for which we should all be grateful.
Puff Daddy, "Victory"
Back when he was still going by Puff Daddy, Sean Combs dropped a pretty penny—$2.7 million worth of pennies, to be exact—making his dystopian-themed video for "Victory," which features cameos by Danny DeVito and Dennis Hopper. To date, it's still one of the most expensive music videos ever made.
Nirvana, "Smells Like Teen Spirit"
Did it have the best special effects? No. Did it have any special effects? No. Was it the first music video to… well, anything? No. But the rough-and-dirty video for Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" perfectly captured the zeitgeist of the grunge scene, cutting through the bubblegum pop clutter of late '80s/early '90s music and paving the way for harder rock to hit mainstream. You know, until bubblegum pop went on to reclaim the top spot a few years later.
Britney Spears, "…Baby One More Time"
After a decade of choking Times Square with squealing teenagers, MTV's Total Request Live went dark in November 2008, played out with one of its staple videos, "…Baby One More Time." A fitting choice, considering TRL helped launch Spears' career. And, sure, "…Baby One More Time" may not have reinvented music videos, but love it or hate it, it's hard to deny the naughty-nice aesthetic had a big influence on pop music.
Additional reporting by Denver Nicks.
Shannon Donnelly is a video editor at The Daily Beast. Previously, she interned at Gawker and Overlook Press, edited the 2007 edition of Inside New York, and graduated from Columbia University. You can read more of her writing here.