Music videos are the most remarkable works of art of the modern world. The MTV generation of the ’80s and ’90s watched eye-catching clips from the creative pioneers who launched the medium. Nowadays, artists strive to make videos that eclipse boundaries already broken in hopes of gaining attention.
More music videos get released all the time, but only a select few have been powerful enough to spark controversy, launch careers and withstand the test of time. These are some of the most iconic music videos of all time.
Michael Jackson – “Thriller” (1983)
Michael Jackson’s most iconic video is a mini-movie that runs for 14 monstrous minutes. The spooky spectacle is an homage to old horror films mixed with camp and an unforgettable dance routine with a horde of zombies. It’s Michael Jackson at his finest.
The video made “Thriller” an essential song for every Halloween party, and it lives on via the popular “Michael Jackson eating popcorn” GIF. It’s so iconic, in fact, that it’s currently the only music video preserved in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry.
Madonna — “Like a Prayer” (1989)
Madonna’s legendary musical career explores the complicated relationship between sex and religion, and no music video in her career better illustrates her life’s work than “Like a Prayer.” The powerful video explored injustice in the prison system, interracial love and spirituality.
It would be an understatement to say the video didn’t cause controversy. Critics hailed it for its symbolic imagery, but family and religious groups were horrified. Even the Vatican condemned Madonna’s video, criticizing its “blasphemous use of Christian imagery.” In response, Pepsi notoriously canceled its multi-million dollar campaign that used the song.
Childish Gambino – “This Is America” (2018)
Gambino’s rap/gospel video is a gripping meta interpretation of the social injustices that have plagued African Americans for years. The artist seamlessly weaves through protestors, shooting sprees, police brutality, all the while sidetracked with a group of dancers fixated on the latest dance moves.
The internet spent weeks watching the video, attempting to decode its blink-and-you’ll-miss-it symbolic imagery. Countless think pieces later, the video cemented the song as a modern-day protest anthem against gun violence, police brutality and discrimination.
George Michael – “Freedom! ’90” (1990)
In 1990, George Michael was at the top of his game. His music videos were in heavy rotation on MTV, and his albums were selling out across the world. But when it came time to make the video for “Freedom! ’90,” Michael had had enough of the pop music rat race.
He grew tired of the pressures of fame and wanted to take a step back from the spotlight. Instead of seeing George Michael, fans saw supermodels Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista and Cindy Crawford singing his song, as symbols of the pop legend burned in flames.
Missy Elliot – “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” (1997)
When it comes to outrageous music videos, no one comes close to Missy Elliot. She combines surrealist visuals with colorful wardrobes and gravity-defying dance routines. She has a catalog of amazing choices, but her breakout video, directed by Hype Williams, remains the rapper’s most iconic of all time.
In the video, Missy sported her glittered helmet glasses and patent leather blow-up suit, also lovingly referred to as her “trash bag bubble.” The video also filled the screen with neon landscapes, rain dancing in Timberland boots and countless celeb cameos.
Beyoncé — “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” (2008)
“Single Ladies” had no costume changes, no set changes and very simple choreography. It sounds like a recipe for something boring, but the less-is-more approach made Beyoncé’s moves nothing short of captivating. Fans across the globe went wild over the dance, and many wannabes uploaded their own versions on YouTube to the delight of viewers.
Beyoncé went on to win big at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, snagging the coveted Video of the Year award. However, she lost the Moonman for Best Female Video to Taylor Swift, prompting a very drunk Kanye West to interrupt Swift during her acceptance speech on Beyoncé’s behalf.
Peter Gabriel – “Sledgehammer” (1986)
Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” was a trippy tour de force. In the video, the British rocker danced his way through playful vignettes of claymation, pixilation and stop-motion animation. In reality, he had to lie under a sheet of glass for 16 hours so they could film the video one frame at a time.
His efforts paid off. The video was a marvelous display of creativity, weaving through crazy scenes seamlessly. It went on to win nine MTV Video Music Awards in 1987, the most awards a video has ever won.
Nine Inch Nails – “Closer” (1994)
This creepy clip took place in what can only be described as a 19th-century doctor’s office with a touch of S&M. Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor found himself blindfolded, gagged, windswept, handcuffed and surrounded by various dismembered animals.
The video was too explicit for TV, so several scenes were blocked by a black screen that read “Scene Missing.” The video was later voted number one in a VH1 Classic poll for “The Greatest Music Videos of All Time.”
Janelle Monáe feat. Grimes – Pynk (2018)
Monáe doubled down on self-love and female empowerment at the coolest desert party of all time. In the 2018 video for “Pynk,” women were safe to be themselves — and men weren’t necessary. The queer representation and anatomically-diverse lady pants were a visual breath of fresh air.
The video premiered around the time Monáe came out as pansexual, which was a big moment for the very private singer. For that reason, the video’s visuals and message made the song an anthem for lesbian, bisexual and queer-identifying women.
The Smashing Pumpkins – “Tonight, Tonight” (1996)
The Smashing Pumpkins usually made heavy metal goth rock, but this song was different. “Tonight, Tonight” was an orchestral, climactic ballad with a video that harkened back to the silent film era.
The video’s primitive effects and turn-of-the-century costumes were a surprising visual counter to the band’s sound. It was a significant visual departure for the band, and it paid off in droves. Silent films were suddenly all the rage, and the band won six MTV Video Music Awards.
Sinéad O’Connor – “Nothing Compares 2 You” (1990)
O’Connor took viewers through an emotional rollercoaster in her emotional Prince cover. The video mostly consists of a closeup shot of her face as she sang through her anger and sadness. Toward the end of the video, two real tears rolled down her cheeks.
The clip collected three Video Music Awards in 1990, including Video of the Year. O’Connor inspired other artists, including D’Angelo and Miley Cyrus, to look into the camera for their music videos, but nothing compares to Sinéad’s devastated gaze all these years later.
OK Go – “Here It Goes Again” (2006)
OK Go made a name for themselves in the early 2000s with their low budget viral videos. Their first video for “Here It Goes Again” was a complex dance routine on treadmills performed in one take. It was their first taste of virality and changed the music video game forever.
YouTube was becoming the next MTV, and musicians looking to make a wave had to think fast. OK Go had the idea to create music videos with the intention of trending on the internet. They kept the same formula intact for all their videos that followed.
A-ha – “Take On Me” (1984)
A-ha made music video history thanks to the animation style known as rotoscoping. Animators draw over motion picture footage frame by frame to produce realistic action with a cartoon look. It sounds like a lot of work — and it is — but it paid off for the Norwegian synthpop band.
The video’s romantic storyline and whimsical animation style made MTV history. The group won six Moonmen at the 1986 Video Music Awards and amassed over 930 million views on YouTube. Bands like Weezer and Paramore have created their own video tributes using the iconic style.
Christina Aguilera, Lil’ Kim, Pink, Mya and Lil Kim — “Lady Marmalade” (2001)
It’s the ultimate pop music collaboration. These four powerhouses joined forces with a lot of lingerie for a cabaret like no other. Like a circus on acid, each performer showed off tiny costumes, sultry dance moves and outrageous hair and makeup.
The blend of hip hop, pop and French cabaret was a recipe for success. The video won the 2001 MTV Video Music Award for Video of the Year and the 2002 Grammy Award for Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals.
2Pac feat. Dr. Dre – “California Love” (1995)
Burning Man meets Mad Max in 2Pac and Dr. Dre’s futuristic homage to their home state of California. Filmed inside the actual Thunderdome from Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, the powerhouse rap duo threw a post-apocalyptic rave in the desert for the video.
Everyone in this video’s twisted future drove giant jeeps and wore steampunk armor. The sepia-toned, desert visuals make the video look futuristic to this day, unless you’ve ever been to Burning Man. Then it’s just another day at the Thunderdome.
Pearl Jam – “Jeremy” (1992)
Pearl Jam’s “Jeremy” was a chilling illustration of loneliness and depression. The troubled lead, Jeremy, moved through frozen family members and classmates as the music intensified. Strobe lights flashed as words like “problem” and “ignored” appeared, pushing Jeremy to his breaking point.
In the video’s unedited climax, Jeremy reached for a gun in his desk and shot himself. MTV restricted the most violent parts from airing, and an alternative version was released. The video was still powerful after the edits, but Pearl Jam stopped making videos for years following the controversy.
Outkast – “B.O.B.” (2000)
Outkast has so many iconic music videos that it’s hard to pick just one. “Miss Jackson” saw Andre 3000 and Big Boi save a house from flooding as animals bounced their heads to the music. “Hey Ya!” offered a Beatles-style performance on live TV.
But none of Outkast’s other videos compare to “B.O.B.,” their hip hop opus on psychedelics. The rap duo celebrated their community while expressing their unique individuality. No one could mix technicolor suburbia, bondage–clad Bond girls and gospel choirs quite like Outkast.
Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson – “SCREAM” (1995)
The iconic Jackson siblings hopped aboard a spaceship for a $7 million ride into history. The video for “Scream” earned the Guinness Book of World Records title for the most expensive music video ever made. The video gave Michael a chance to retaliate (angrily) against the media.
The spaceship featured a selection of rooms for the brother-sister duo to relax, but they had other plans. Instead, the Jacksons let out their aggressions and danced with a vengeance. It was a complicated time in the King of Pop’s controversial career, and the video proved it.
Jamiroquai – “Virtual Insanity” (1996)
Jamiroquai’s singer Jay Kay takes viewers on a ride with the most confusing dance sequence in music video history. Performed in a white room with a gray floor, Jay Kay sang the song as the floor appeared to move while the room stood still.
Viewers and critics agreed that this was a stunning display of special effects. Jay Kay’s bizarre dancing helped a little too. The video won four Moonmen at the 1997 Video Music Awards, including Video of the Year.
Sia – “Chandelier” (2014)
Before making it big as a pop singer, Sia was a talented songwriter for big-name acts like Rihanna and Katy Perry. Years after releasing her own indie music, Sia broke through with 1000 Forms of Fear. The only problem was she was afraid of the attention.
Enter dancer Maddie Ziegler. Instead of Sia starring in her own video, the young dancer donned a blond wig and danced through Sia’s powerful song. The choreography fit the song perfectly, and Sia enjoyed the spotlight from a safe distance.
Nirvana – “Smells Like Teen Spirit” (1991)
The song ushered in the grunge movement, but the video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” ushered in the look. First-time director Samuel Bayer took a typical high school concert and turned it into a total riot. What else would you expect from a school with cheerleaders sporting anarchist symbols?
The grunge rock movement paired well with a general apathy toward society, and the video exemplified that. In fact, the students shown in the video were actually bored after filming the video for several hours.
TLC – “Waterfalls” (1995)
The clouds. The water. Those matching pastel pants! TLC were aquatic muses with a warning for the world in their iconic “Waterfalls” video. T-Boz’s raspy voice offered two tales of gang violence and unsafe sex as viewers watched the stories unfold.
Not even Left-Eye’s timeless rap could save the characters from making the wrong decisions. By the end of the video, T-Boz, Left-Eye and Chili appeared liquified next to an actual waterfall — and danced their way into ’90s history.
Kendrick Lamar – “HUMBLE.” (2017)
Lamar made music video history with the release of his spiritually charged video for “HUMBLE.” The video started with Lamar dressed like the pope, looking somber in a cathedral. He later recreated Leonardo da Vinci’s 15th-century painting The Last Supper, with Lamar, naturally, sitting in Jesus’ chair.
In between religious visuals, Lamar played with money, golfed in an underpass and stood surrounded by men on fire. Critics hailed it as a critique of society’s focus on consumerism. Perhaps we should all “sit down and be humble.”
Mariah Carey – “Honey” (1999)
Mariah Carey was topping the charts with her pristine image for years, but that came to a screeching halt in 1999. Something was different about the elusive chanteuse with the release of “Honey.” The squeaky clean singer spent the video diving in a bikini and dancing way more suggestively than ever before.
Carey was in the midst of divorcing her music executive husband, Tommy Mottola. The video was a provocative pivot for the diva and a not-so-subtle nod to her divorce. In the video, she escaped captivity from a wealthy man’s mansion and began the rest of her life as a free, liberated woman.
Guns N’ Roses – “November Rain” (1992)
The video for Guns ‘N’ Roses booming ballad “November Rain” featured the most rock n’ roll wedding of all time. In the video, lead singer Axl Rose married his then-girlfriend Stephanie Seymour, surrounded by gothic candles, cigarettes and hairspray.
Between shots of the wedding reception, viewers watched in high-def as the band performed “live.” The $1 million video ended in despair after nine beautiful minutes. Rain poured down during the reception, which then segued into shots of Seymour’s funeral. It’s confusing, but still epic.
Rihanna & Calvin Harris – “We Found Love” (2011)
Music videos depicting relationships gone wrong are a dime a dozen. However, director Melina Matsoukas created a relationship rollercoaster ride. Rihanna fought, kissed and danced through her relationship with her boyfriend before leaving him in a pool of drugs and alcohol.
The video used visual cues from films like Trainspotting and Requiem for a Dream to emphasize their chaotic love. It won the Grammy Award for Best Short Form Music Video and the VMA for Video of the Year.
Queen – “Bohemian Rhapsody” (1975)
Before the regular release of music videos, there were promotional videos. Also known as “pop promos,” the videos played on TV stations when the bands couldn’t be there to perform for the cameras. Queen specifically wanted to produce their video so they could avoid lip-syncing to their song on Top of the Pops.
It turned into more than a performance clip of the band; it was an artistic statement. The video is one of the main catalysts for the creation of MTV and the creation of music videos at large. It currently has more than one billion views on YouTube.
Luis Fonsi feat. Daddy Yankee – “Despacito” (2017)
Before the video was filmed, Fonsi had some requests. First, he wanted 2006’s Miss Universe, Zuleyka Rivera, cast to represent “the power of a Latina woman.” Next, he wanted the video to celebrate Latin American culture and amplify the song’s soul accurately.
He nailed it. The video perfectly captured the beauty of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Fonsi and Daddy Yankee serenaded the world with their infectious hit. “Despacito” stands alone on YouTube with more than 6.4 billion views, making it the most viewed music video of all time.
Prince – “When Doves Cry” (1984)
Doves, flowers and a smoking bathtub all within the first 10 seconds? It must be Prince. Wearing nothing but a cross around his neck, Prince rose from his bathtub and stared into the camera, holding his hand out for whoever wanted it.
The video featured Prince getting dressed to perform, mixed with scenes from his Academy Award-winning rock musical Purple Rain. It was one of the first clips to spark controversy for being too sexually explicit for TV.
Bjork – “Big Time Sensuality” (1993)
This is the video that made Björk a household name, and the premise was simple: Film Björk while she dances on the back of a truck in New York City. Simple or not, it was just bizarre enough to make the video an MTV mainstay in 1993.
The focus was on her tight hairdo, bizarre dance moves and grandiose facial expressions. She was the otherworldly Icelandic pixie on full display in the Big Apple, and you could almost feel her joy climb through the black and white clip.
David Bowie – “Ashes to Ashes” (1980)
In 1980, music videos were still finding their footing. Most videos at the time showed bands performing their songs as if they were on another stage. There weren’t a lot of creative special effects used yet. That is, of course, until Bowie got into the mix.
Bowie was already a creative legend, but music videos gave him the chance to push boundaries even further. The opulent, otherworldly clip cost more than $425,000 to make, making it one of the most expensive music videos of all time.