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The 25 Most Influential Music Videos Ever Made

These are the clips that created stars, impacted culture, and totally changed the game.

Back in the '80s, music videos were splashed across the airwaves by MTV. These days, you probably catch most of them on social media. But whether you're watching it on VH1 or Vevo, a music video brings a particular song to visual life—and a really great one can have a significant cultural footprint. Some revolutionized the art form, others impacted pop culture itself, a couple of the videos listed below were even banned. Read on for 25 of the most influential music videos ever made. (Just note that some of them include strong language and other adult content!)

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"Subterranean Homesick Blues," Bob Dylan (1965)

Bob Dylan threw out performance and story in favor of standing in a street, Allen Ginsberg visible in the background, and silently dropping a series of cue cards with puns and key words from lyrics for the clip that opens the Dylan documentary Dont Look Back. The video sparked decades of copycats from INXS's "Mediate" to that scene in Love Actually.

"Strawberry Fields Forever," The Beatles (1967)

When artists started filming "promotional films" for singles to be played on television in the '60s, the British Musicians Union prohibited bands "miming" to their songs and tricking fans into thinking the performance was live. The Beatles thus took a different route, setting "Strawberry Fields Forever" to a trippy sequence centered on a fantastical stringed instrument in a tree. Introducing fans to a new, mustachioed image of the band and interspersed with trippy closeups and time lapses, the psychedelic video set the tone for the era.

"Bohemian Rhapsody," Queen (1975)

The 1975 promotional video for this iconic hit interspersing a staged performance and the band singing against a black backdrop with a few low-budget effects was filmed in three hours on a sparse £3500 budget, but became a surprise career-defining moment for the band. It also made promotional videos a must for marketing any band.

"Video Killed the Radio Star," The Buggles (1979)

The video for the aptly named single marked the turn of an era with vintage clips from television. It made its mark as the first music video ever aired on MTV when the network launched in 1981, underscoring the pivotal moment in the history of music videos and solidifying their role as a powerful promotional tool.

"Rapture," Blondie (1981)

In this New Wave/disco/rap mashup, Debbie Harry dances around a Sesame Street set-esque version of the Lower East Side past graffiti artists, a goat, and Jean-Michel Basquiat as a D.J., before busting into a sci-fi-themed rap. "Rapture" didn't just originate the (mostly) one-take video, it was also the first rap video to ever air on MTV.

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"Thriller," Michael Jackson (1983)

The 13-minute-long mini-movie directed by John Landis pushed the boundaries of what a music video could be. "Thriller" would later inspire zombie-dancing flash mobs across the world and in 2009, became the first music video inducted into the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress for being "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant."

"Bastards of Young," The Replacements (1985)

Not everyone was a fan of the dawn of music television, including Minnesota punk band The Replacements. When it came time to film a video for the lead single from their 1985 major label debut Tim, they put out a low effort clip consisting of single black and white shot of a stereo speaker with a partially viewable listener smoking in the foreground. Just to make sure fans knew what they thought of commercial music promotion, at the end of the video, the listener gets up and kicks the speaker over. Despite this, the video became a fan favorite on MTV's late-night alternative program 120 Minutes, bringing forth the paradox of the hit alternative video.

"Money for Nothing," Dire Straits (1985)

This groundbreaking video directed by Steve Barron intersperses footage of a computer-animated retail worker with live footage of Dire Straits performing. Released in 1985, "Money for Nothing" not only commented on the consumeristic culture and music industry of the decade but was also one of earliest use of computer-generated characters in video.

"Take on Me," a-ha (1985)

Not content to rest on his laurels with his video for Dire Straits the same year, director Steve Barron merged hand-drawn animation (by the husband-and-wife team who would later work on Paula Abdul's "Opposites Attract") and live-action in a comic book-come-to-life romance. The massively popular video played on frequent rotation on MTV for more than a year and now has close to 2 billion views on YouTube.

"Sledgehammer," Peter Gabriel (1986)

Combining claymation, stop-motion, and other animation techniques to surreal effect, Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer" won a record-setting nine MTV Video Music Awards, including Video of the Year, in 1987. According to Time, it remains MTV's most-played music video of all time.

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"Like a Prayer," Madonna (1989)

In the opening frames of "Like a Prayer," Madonna witnesses a murder that leads to the wrongful arrest of an innocent Black man. She takes refuge in a church, where the statue of a saint that looks like the man comes to life and shares a passionate moment with her on a church pew. The provocative exploration of religious, racial, and sexual themes keeps going to include a gospel choir and burning crosses, leading even the Pope to complain about its content.

"Rhythm Nation," Janet Jackson (1989)

Janet Jackson's 1989 album Rhythm Nation brought social conscience to the lighthearted world of dance pop. The dystopian, black and white video for its 1989 titular single also inspired choreographers for decades to come with its precisely synchronized routine set in an abandoned factory.

"Opposites Attract," Paula Abdul (1989)

Few pop stars were as big as Paula Abdul in the '80s, and this 1989 video, in which she wages a dance-off with a randy cartoon cat, is one of the decade's silliest and most iconic clips. The fictional MC Skat Kat went on to release his own album in 1991, and Abdul made a cameo in the video for the lead single, "Skat Strut."

"Justify My Love," Madonna (1990)

Madonna described her 1990 video as a "celebration of sex." Meanwhile, MTV called the steamy five minutes of gender-bending, sadomasochism, and same sex-love "just not for us," leading the singer to release it as a video single in an unprecedented move. The multiplatinum video sparked discussions about sexuality, censorship, and artistic freedom, and solidified Madonna's place at the center of the music world for a second decade.

"Nothing Compares 2 U," Sinéad O'Connor (1990)

In this stark video for Sinéad O'Connor's cover of Prince's original, her emotive face set against a black backdrop—she'd just shaved her head after label execs suggested she stop cutting her hair and start dressing in a more feminine manner—carries almost the entire song. The video was in heavy rotation on MTV and made O'Connor the first female artist to win Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards.

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"Freedom! '90," George Michael (1990)

Directed by David Fincher, the black and white video for George Michael's single features supermodels Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Cindy Crawford, Tatjana Patitz, and Christy Turlington lip-synching to Michael's voice. It brought together high fashion and music—four of the models would close out the Fall 1991 Versace fashion show by walking out to the song–and made the supermodels household names. While Michael, who does not appear in the video, wouldn't come out for another eight years, it also became an anthem for the LGBTQ community.

"Losing My Religion," R.E.M. (1991)

Years before he would go on to direct films including The Cell and The Fall, visionary director Tarsem Singh, then a recent film school graduate who had worked on videos for Suzanne Vega and En Vogue, was enlisted by R.E.M. to helm the video for this haunting single off of 1991's Out of Time. The result, featuring spare shots of lead singer Michael Stipe dancing in an empty room intercut with lurid religious imagery, went on to win six MTV Video Music Awards and a Grammy.

"Smells Like Teen Spirit," Nirvana (1991)

In this high school pep rally from hell, anarchist cheerleaders shake their pompoms through a dry ice haze as Kurt Cobain screams at a crowd of high schoolers who quickly go full mosh pit. And with that, grunge rock and its defiant aesthetic became mainstream.

"Nuthin' But a G Thang," Dr. Dre ft. Snoop Doggy Dogg (1992)

Following Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg through a day of barbecuing, house partying, and riding in their lowrider, the video directed by Dr. Dre himself brought the laidback lifestyle associated with West Coast hip-hop to screens across the world and ushered in the peak era of G-Funk's mainstream popularity.

"Buddy Holly," Weezer (1994)

Nirvana got there first, with the Ed Sullivan-esque video for In Bloom released just two years earlier, but Weezer took retro-kitsch even farther when director Spike Jonze inserted the band into Arnold's diner via clips of the '50s-era throwback series from the '70s, Happy Days. This dizzying spiral of nostalgia, which was included on the Windows 95 installation CD, became a staple of the '90s, propelling the band to fame and crowning former skateboard photographer Jonze the unofficial king of the music video world for years to come.

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" …Baby One More Time," Britney Spears (1998)

A daydreaming Britney Spears dances her way through a number of high school scenes while pleading into the camera in the titular single from her 1999 debut album. The video catapulted her to superstardom and launched a new generation of teenaged and troublingly hyper-sexualized pop princesses.

"Sleep Now in the Fire," Rage Against the Machine (2000)

For this 2000 video, Rage Against the Machine launched a guerrilla performance outside what director Michael Moore called "the belly of the beast"—the New York Stock Exchange. Interspersed with satirical clips from a Who Wants to be a Millionaire-esque game show, the footage of the performance and police intervention includs Moore actually being taken away and detained by police, as well as a man holding a "Donald Trump for President 2000" sign. Hinting at both the presidency and Occupy Wall Street movement that were to come, the performance temporarily ground the gears of capitalism to a halt as trading had to stop for about half an hour because of the chaos.

"A Million Ways," OK Go (2005)

When YouTube launched in 2005, MTV had already become more of a lifestyle channel than the TV radio station it once was. OK Go's lo-fi, one-take video featuring the band doing a silly "Rhythm Nation"-inspired dance in the backyard was the first music video to go viral. In fact, one of YouTube's co-founder reached out after seeing it circulated via email in hopes of adding it to his new site. ("If Nirvana ushered in the grunge generation, it seemed like OK Go ushered in playing videos on the internet," Samuel Bayer, the director of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" video, once said about the clip.) For their next viral hit, the band did what they had originally done on accident on purpose, with the treadmill themed "Here it Goes Again."

"Gangham Style," Psy (2012)

A tongue-in-cheek dance hit by South Korean rapper Psy became a global viral sensation on the back of its catchy beat and infectiously silly music video, in which Psy engages in over-the-top antics (not to mention impressively silly synchronized dancing) in locations around the world. It was a gift to internet meme culture (it racked up billions of views on YouTube and was that platform's most-viewed clip for five years running). The web was soon rife with tributes and parodies, even as world leaders like the British Prime Minister and the Secretary General of the UN attempted to perform Psy's signature moves.

"This is America," Childish Gambino (2018)

Released amid the Black Lives Matter movement and at a time when some Americans knew Donald Glover best as Troy from Community, the video for Childish Gambino's "This Is America" hit pop culture like a semi-truck. Orchestrated in a single take by director Hiro Murai, who also worked with Glover on his series Atlanta, the video utilizes dark humor and shocking violence as the rapper dances and struts through scenes depicting the experience of being Black in America. Together, the song and video went on to win four Grammys.

Andrew Miller
Andrew Miller is a pop culture writer living in New York. Read more
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