Earlier this week, MTV quietly celebrated it’s silver anniversary. (When I say quietly, I mean very quietly. Evidently, they didn’t mark the anniversary at all, since their target audience is much younger than the network itself, a fact they’re not looking to advertise.) In celebration of this society-destroying, soul-crushing monolith, and as a charter member of the original MTV generation (my family got cable in 1983 when I was about 14, two years after its debut), I offer here my “15 Most Memorable MTV Videos of All-Time.”
In reading my list, a couple of things must be kept in mind. First, this is obviously entirely subjective. They’re not necessarily the best videos, nor are they necessarily the best songs. They’re what I’ve deemed to be most memorable. Second, you’ll notice my picks are heavily weighted toward the early 80’s. There are two reasons for this:
A). That was the network’s formative, culture-changing period, which set the stage for everything that followed, and (more importantly)...
B). I pretty much stopped watching MTV sometime in the late 80’s when I was in college.
Other than that, it's pretty self explanatory. With the exception of the first three entries, the numerical rankings are almost entirely random, pretty much determined by the order in which I thought of them (which, it occurs to me, is actually a sensible way of doing it, since we're talking about "most memorable").
So without further ado:
1). “Beat It,” by Michael Jackson. One artist defines the MTV era: Michael Jackson. It’s almost as if they were a unit. MTV made Michael Jackson. And Michael Jackson made MTV, which is why he appears in a disproportionate number of these entries. This was the first music video that really told a story. Sure, it was an effeminate rip-off of “West Side Story,” but it was a story nonetheless. A great song, a smokin’ Eddie Van Halen guitar solo, a pre-Wacko Jacko, and some serious choreography combine to make this the definitive MTV video.
2). “Thriller,” by Michael Jackson. More a mini-movie than an actual video, this was a music-video people actually stayed home to watch debut. Great visual effects, weird choreography (remember that zombie dance?), and a cute heroine. But perhaps most memorable was Jackson’s line when he takes the girl aside. “I have to tell you...I’m not...like other guys. I mean...I’m...different” he stammered. Even then, long before Macaulay Culkin and the Neverland Ranch, you seriously thought for a moment, “Oh my heavens! He’s finally coming out right here and now!”
3). “Take on Me” by A-Ha. A one-hit wonder with one of the most memorable videos of all time. The hero (who happens to be the lead singer) is trapped in a comic book being read by the heroine. At the end, he bangs himself into the frames of the comic story until he emerges into real life. It sounds dopey, but it was compelling and beautiful, which a surprisingly advanced interplay between animation and live action, years before “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?”
4). “Sharp Dressed Man” by ZZ Top. A loser is given keys to the magic “Eliminator” automobile, and becomes an immediate ladies man. There was nothing innovative (or even clever) about this video, but its images were burned into the collective consciousness as early 80’s icons: the beards; the coats; the car; the ladies; the spinning guitars. Kids should not have been watching it. They followed the exact same formula for “Gimme All Your Lovin’” and “Legs,” right down to the magic car keys. They may still be following it, for all I know.
5). “Rockit” by Herbie Hancock. No words in the song, and no Herbie Hancock in the video. Just robotic body parts kicking and dancing. Unbelievably creepy. And instantly memorable.
6). “Cry,” by Godley & Crème. These guys found some success as musicians with the 70’s band 10cc (though they left before the band's big hit, “The Things We Do for Love”). But their biggest contribution to pop culture was as music video directors. Their artistic influence was as important to early MTV as Michael Jackson’s. In addition to The Police’s “Every Breath You Take,” Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit,” and Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Two Tribes” (remember Reagan and Chernyenko wrestling?), the duo directed the video for their own song “Cry,” which predates the face-morphing of Michael Jackson’s “Black or White” by seven or eight years. Jackson’s video perfected it, but it was these guys who introduced this hypnotic effect in this utterly transfixing video.
7). “Like a Virgin” by Madonna. As an absolute MTV icon, she has to be on the list somewhere, and this one’s as good as any. Writhing around on a gondola in Venice in a wedding gown, this is where she made her indelible mark. If you were a teenaged boy (and I was), it was hard not to take notice.
8). “Jump,” by Van Halen. This video is as low-tech as it got. Reportedly shot for $600, it’s simply a sparse, black set with the four guys under a spotlight playing the song. Though it was far from their greatest song, Van Halen was arguably best-loved band of it’s era, and this video grabs you by sheer force of infectious personality. David Lee Roth and Eddie Van Halen in their primes, this first VH video turned out to be the near-last gasp for one of rock’s greatest bands before they blew apart.
9). “Sledgehammer” by Peter Gabriel. This was the kind of video that actually caused kids to call each other up and say “Did you just see that?” Sure, the dancing, egg-laying chickens are disturbing, but everything about this video made you want to see it over and over again.
10). “Money for Nothing” by Dire Straits. “That ain’t workin’. That’s the way you do it. You play the guitar on the MTV.” Making fun of MTV on MTV, right down to Sting chanting “I want my MTV” on the background track. Though by today’s standards the animation is pretty primitive, there was just something about this song and video that stuck. In my memory of the summer of 1985, this video is everywhere.
11). “Walk This Way,” by Run-DMC featuring Aerosmith. It’s like that old “You got peanut butter in my chocolate” commercial. You’d never think of it and it shouldn’t work, but oh, does it work. This marked the breakthrough of rap into the mainstream, as well as the return of Aerosmith, which had been dormant for years until that point. One of the truly electrifying video moments of all time, I remember thinking (and I’m no rap fan) “Something really unusual is happening here.” Even now, I get goosebumps watching it.
12). “Need You Tonight/Mediate” by INXS. Guys wanted to be this dude, and girls wanted to be with him. It was two videos in one: the interesting collage effect of “Need You Tonight,” and then the Dylan homage in “Mediate.” A very watchable 5 ½ minutes.
13). “Weapon of Choice” by Fatboy Slim. My only entry from the 21st century. Starring the stunningly talented Christopher Walken, this one must be seen to be believed. It defies description. Like the JFK assassination, you’ll never forget where you were when you first saw it.
14). “You Might Think” by The Cars. Some early, innovative animation. My mother never once walked past the television without observing, “That guy looks like Ichabod Crane.”
15). “Black Hole Sun” by Soundgarden. Whoa. This was long after most of my video watching days were over. But...whoa. Don't watch this one if you plan to sleep at all in....August. (Incidentally, am I the only one who thinks this video is the inspiration for those creepy cable TV "Enzyte" commercials with that guy Bob-the-under-endowed?)
Some honorable mentions:
“Sweet Dreams” by Eurythmics. It’s been 23 years, and I’m still asking myself: “What’s with the cow?”
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana. Okay, the song is better than the video. Still, the first time you saw this, you knew...something had changed.
“Let’s Go Crazy” by Prince. (No video available online.) Something by Prince has to be in here (though surprisingly he never really made a great video), and this is as good a choice as any. Essentially a live performance interspersed with cuts from “Purple Rain,” this showed The Artist at his kinetic best.
“Dancing in the Dark” by Bruce Springsteen. Stiff and awkward, but it was the Boss’s first music video, and hey, he pulls a young Courtney Cox onstage to dance with him at the end.
(By the way, it has nothing to do with MTV, but if you really want to see the Boss in action, check out his performance of “Glory Days” on David Letterman’s last NBC broadcast in 1993. Whenever someone says “I don’t get the whole Bruce Springsteen thing,” this is the video I want to show them. Awe-inspiring.)
“Vacation,” by the Go-Go’s. Fluffy and insubstantial, but who doesn’t remember those girls all lined up on water skis? An iconic image.
“Uptown Girl,” by Billy Joel. While watching it, you were thinking “I can’t believe Billy Joel is dating Christie Brinkley.” And while filming it, Billy Joel was thinking “I can’t believe I’m dating Christie Brinkley.”
“Opposites Attract” by Paula Abdul. A decade-and-a-half before "American Idol," she dances with a big, animated cat. You don’t see that everyday. Or at least you didn’t back then.
“Once in a Lifetime,” by the Talking Heads. A Saturday Night Live parody once put it best: “You may ask yourself, why such a big suit? You may ask yourself, can this suit be taken in? You may ask yourself, does this store have any mirrors? You may ask yourself, did I get a bad deal?" Very bizarre behavior.
“Billie Jean” by Michael Jackson. Not as good a video as “Beat It” or “Thriller,” but this is the one that came first. And it’s attached to one of the most indelible pop songs in music history.
(Although it has nothing to do with MTV, the definitive version of “Billie Jean” is actually the one Michael did on the Motown 25th anniversary program in 1983. Though he’s lip-synching, it’s one of the electrifying musical performances in the history of television. This stuff is old hat now, but at the time, nobody had ever seen anything like it. I remember watching this when it aired, and everyone’s jaw simply dropped, especially when he debuted the “moonwalk.”)
And finally, there has to be something from Weird Al Yankovic, the court jester of the MTV generation. He’s parodied many of the iconic videos I’ve already listed, with surprising wit and artistry. My personal favorites are “Eat It” and “Smells Like Nirvana.” Others would vote for “Like a Surgeon” or “Money for Nothing/Beverly Hillbillies.”
So have I left anything out that you'd include?
Related Tags: MTV, music videos, 25th anniversary, Michael Jackson, Madonna