7 Innovative Music Videos of the ’80s and ’90s

Artists still make music videos to promote their work, but it’s a much different world out there from when every new clip premiered with Ballyhoo on a channel called MTV (which still exists but is a music channel in name only these days.) For a stretch in the ’80s and ’90s, the top rock, pop, R&B, and hip-hop artists played a game of one-upmanship in an effort to create the most innovative, evocative, and memorable videos. Narrowing the list of the most ground-breaking videos from that era is no easy task, but we’re going to give it a go anyway.

Videos by American Songwriter

1. “Hungry Like the Wolf” by Duran Duran (1982)

Around the same time as this song came out, Michael Jackson was also stretching his music video budget for epics like “Thriller.” But Jackson was already an established star who was using videos to solidify his standing. Duran Duran, on the other hand, was a relatively unknown commodity in the United States. “Hungry Like the Wolf” changed that, and the video was the catalyst. Shot on location in Sri Lanka by director Russell Mulcahy (who would go on to become one of the titans of the music video genre), the video is thrillingly cinematic, even if it doesn’t make a ton of narrative sense. And it was one of the first times that a video was able to drive the bus for an artist’s popularity; it wouldn’t be the last.

2. “Rockit” by Herbie Hancock (1983)

If there was a knock against MTV in its early years (and it’s a very significant one), it’s that they were slow to play many black artists. Michael Jackson and Prince helped to batter down those barriers because there was no way to ignore them. But in the case of Herbie Hancock, he delivered such a unique clip that they had no choice but to play it. “Rockit” featured the jazz maestro dipping his toes in the synth-driven scene and creating a wildly catchy instrumental. Video directors Kevin Godley and Lol Creme developed the perfectly idiosyncratic match to the music, with a bunch of strange, puppet-like sculptures dancing in a funkily robotic fashion to the music. At the first-ever MTV Video Music Awards in 1984, “Rockit” won a bunch of trophies, to no one’s surprise.

3. “Take On Me” by aha (1984)

As an example of what an innovative video could do for a band’s prospects, consider the example of the Norwegian band A-ha. They released a simple performance video for “Take on Me” in 1984, and it didn’t do much stateside. But then they went in and redid it with a high concept, one in which lead singer Morten Harket gets involved in a star-crossed romance where the main obstacle is…animation! Using a then-revolutionary concept known as rotoscoping, video director Steve Barron managed to introduce an element of high drama that was perfectly synched to the big emotions of the song’s chorus. Buoyed by the video, “Take on Me” became a worldwide hit and still stands as one of the ’80s most iconic songs.

4. “Money for Nothing” by Dire Straits (1985)

Dire Straits was the first group to address the music video craze in song. Mark Knopfler famously came up with the idea for “Money for Nothing” when he overheard some appliance store movers watching videos on the store’s TVs and griping about the charmed lives of rock stars. The band then decided on a video that would push the medium to its limits, using then-novel computer animation to depict the movers and recreate the scene which inspired the song. Enlisting Sting on backing vocals to sing the famous tagline “I Want My MTV” only reinforced the connections. By both holding and biting the hand that fed them all at once, Dire Straits ended up with a self-reflexive video for the ages.

5. “Cry” by Godley & Creme (1985)

Kevin Godley and Lol Creme were uniquely set up to release a special video. By 1985, they had already directed a few iconic clips. And they had been hitmakers before as members of the group 10cc. But still, nobody could have predicted just how mesmerizing their video for “Cry” would turn out to be. For the brooding, slow-burning song, Godley and Creme came up with the idea to show different faces singing the video. In editing the various shots together, they stumbled upon a technique where one face would “wipe” into the other. Although this technique was much more smoothly done digitally in years to come, there’s something unmistakably cool about what “Cry” presented, especially when the faces were in mid-transition from one to the next.

6. “Buddy Holly” by Weezer (1994)

They release an album about once every three months or so these days, but once upon a time (1994) Weezer made a self-titled debut album that featured a power-pop ditty about innocent romance. What better setting for the “Buddy Holly” video than the set of Happy Days, the most innocent of sitcoms? Coming up with the idea was one thing, but director Spike Jonze had the wherewithal to pull it off by using footage of the show and placing the band inside a replica of the show’s famous hangout. Amazingly, no computers were used to bring the ’50s (the setting of the show), the ’70s (when it aired), and the ’90s (the timing of the video) to an unforgettable juncture, with Fonzie’s Cossack dance the unifying element.

7. “Sabotage” by Beastie Boys (1994)

Spike Jonze was on quite the roll with the retro videos in the ’90s. For “Sabotage,” a screaming punk anthem from the Beasties, he and the Boys devised the greatest ’70s cop show that never was. Mike D., Ad-Rock, and MCA threw themselves into their roles (and across the hoods of cars) with abandon. There’s not a trope of the genre left unexplored, all with anarchic but loving mockery. It was so captivating that we all wanted to see a full-length adventure with Cochese, The Rookie, and The Chief. Instead, we had to settle for one of the funniest and most creative videos of all time. 

Duran Duran. (Photo by: Universal Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

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