The Most Iconic Music Videos of All Time
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. Here are 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.
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.
Childish Gambino – “This Is America” (2018)
Gambino's rap/gospel video was a meta interpretation of the social injustices that plagued African Americans. The rapper goes on a shooting spree surrounded by police and protestors, but then he and a group of children are distracted by the latest trending dance moves.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.