“Ladies and Gentleman, rock ‘n' roll.”
MTV began its first broadcast with these words just after midnight on Aug. 1, 1981, followed by the music video for The Buggles' “Video Killed the Radio Star.” In those first years, MTV wasn't the international behemoth it is today. In fact, only a few cable providers carried the 24-hour music channel and only in Kansas City. Larger markets like New York and Los Angeles didn't have the channel at all. This was largely due to the fact that music videos were a fairly new form of media.
Prior to MTV, bands would sometimes create promotional clips or videos, and send them to dance shows or shows like “Top of the Pops” and “The Ed Sullivan Show,” which featured live performances. These clips were usually created in-house, and were intended to be a marketing tool rather than an extension of the music itself.
When a few cable executives watched a dozen of these promotional videos together, they came up with the idea for a network that would carry nothing but full-length versions of these short clips. After hiring their first VJs and creating an ad campaign that featured famous musicians delivering the tagline “I want my MTV,” the network was off to the races.
Today, MTV has been credited with changing the face of the music industry. Famous musicians like Michael Jackson and Madonna owe much of their popularity to the frequency with which MTV played their videos, thereby putting their music in front of potential fans. And while the days of the network as a 24-hour music video channel are long gone, videos continue to thrive on new platforms like YouTube and iTunes.
Stacker rounded up some of the most iconic music videos from your high school days. Whether high school came in the ‘70s, ‘80s, ‘90s, early ‘00s or ‘10s, we've hand-selected some of the most memorable, industry-changing videos. Critics and fans alike agree that these videos stand out above the rest.
You may also like: The most famous musician born the same year as you
Six years before the birth of MTV, Queen released a promotional video for “Bohemian Rhapsody” and ushered in the music video era. Rather than perform a complicated, lengthy song live, the band spent a few hours putting together a video that could be aired on “Top of the Pops.” Opening with perhaps the most striking image in the band's history—all four members singing the a capella intro in the dark—the music video helped drive the single to the top of the U.K. charts, where it spent nine weeks and sold millions of copies.
If Queen's “Bohemian Rhapsody” video ushered in the music video era, then Michael Jackson's “Thriller” (released in 1983, a year after the song made its debut) changed it forever. Directed by John Landis, the 13-minute long mini-movie cost $900,000 to make and required 10 days of dance rehearsals. It was a gamble that paid off, however, as the video became a cultural icon. In 2009, it was the first music video to be inducted into the Library of Congress' National Film Registry.
Two months before the release of Madonna's controversial “Like a Prayer” music video, Pepsi signed an endorsement deal with the singer for $5 million and a number of additional perks. When the video aired in March of 1989, religious groups called for a boycott and Pope John Paul II spoke out against it due to the “blasphemous religious images” (think Madonna crooning in front of burning crosses and making out with a wax saint). In the end, the video won a nomination for MTV's “Video of the Year,” but Pepsi was forced to cancel the deal, calling the fiasco “one of the worst advertising blunders ever.”
“Smells Like Teen Spirit” launched Nirvana into mainstream fame. The music video, which featured many of the band's real-life fans as the high school kid extras, made its world premiere on MTV in 1991. Kurt Cobain was reportedly not happy with the director's final cut, and it was his idea to add in shots of extras destroying the set in order to give it an edgier feel.
“All the Small Things” had a huge moment in 2000. Reaching #6 on the Billboard Hot 100 and #1 on the Billboard Modern Rock chart, the song was one of the last recorded for the band's album “Enema of the State.” The song was written as a genuine love song for Tom Delonge's then-girlfriend, but the video was a parody of famous boy bands and pop princesses. It delighted fans and won “Best Group Video” at the VMAs.
“Hey Ya!” by OutKast was the first song to ever reach 1 million paid downloads, and was the most downloaded song on iTunes in 2003, the platform's first year. The music video, which depicts a performance akin to The Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Andre 3000 plays the role of all eight band members.
“All Star” was a career-defining hit for Smash Mouth, and an era-defining hit for those who were in high school in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. The track from “Astro Lounge” hit #4 on the Hot 100, and its quirky superhero-themed music video starred actors Ben Stiller, William H. Macy, and Hank Azaria among others. “All Star” was nominated for Best Pop Performance at the Grammys.
Written for Britney Spears' fourth studio album, “In the Zone,” “Toxic” was released in 2004. It peaked at #16 on the Billboard charts, thanks in large part to the music video in which the pop star poses as a provocatively dressed flight attendant, and dances nude covered with diamonds.
Billboard recently named Lady Gaga's video for “Bad Romance” the best music video of the 21st century thanks to the way it pushed the bounds of the art form. Fans seem to agree with critics about how great the visual style is, and in January 2019 the video hit 1 billion views on YouTube, an impressive feat for any pop star.
Michael wasn't the only Jackson producing iconic music videos during your high school days. Janet Jackson also had a huge hit with her military-inspired, post-apocalyptic, black and white “Rhythm Nation” video. Applauded for being socially conscious, it eventually won MTV's Video Vanguard Award.
Beyonce's “Single Ladies” music video, released in 2009, is now closing in on 700 million views. Most famous for its stunning choreography, borrowed in part from a 1969 performance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” the dance took a month and a half to perfect. Nearly 5,000 women auditioned for a chance to be in the video, but in the end, only two were chosen to groove alongside the pop superstar. The song soared to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Peter Gabriel's “Sledgehammer” holds the title of MTV's most-played music video of all time. Shot and edited in just over a week, the video is a mixture of stop-motion animation, claymation, and pixelation, all of which come together to create one of the most creative videos to ever land on national television. In 1987, the video won nine awards at the MTV VMAs (the most a video has ever won), and the song itself was nominated for three Grammys, including Song of the Year.
The lead single from Katy Perry's third studio album “Teenage Dream,” “California Gurls” hit #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart four weeks after its release, making it one of the fastest-rising singles of all time. The Candyland-themed video was provocative (recall Perry's whipped cream “cannons”) and fun, winning Video of the Year at the 2010 MTV European Video Awards.
In 1986, RUN-D.M.C. was changing the face and direction of rap, while Aerosmith was stuck in a career slump. So when Def Jam producer Rick Rubin approached Aerosmith's manager Tim Collins about doing a mashup, sparks flew. While the rock-rap hybrid may sound odd on paper, it worked in real life. “Walk This Way” will go down in history as a party anthem, and the recording studio feud video is one of the best to come out of the ‘80s.
Directed by F. Gary Gray, the video for TLC's “Waterfalls” was infused with social issues. Two stories allowed TLC to bring awareness to issues other groups simply were talking about. One was about a boy getting shot during a drug deal, and another followed a man contracting AIDS after unprotected sex, The rawness of the track and message behind it all lead to “Waterfalls” winning Video of the Year at the VMAs.
Formerly a Disney Channel star, Miley Cyrus broke out of her shell in the 2013 music video for “Wrecking Ball.” The most iconic image from the video, which has garnered over one billion views since its release, shows the pop singer swinging around naked on a wrecking ball. While it helped Cyrus step away from her kid-friendly image, she regrets the choice, saying, “My worst nightmare is that being played at my funeral.”
When OK Go's “Here it Goes Again” music video hit YouTube back in 2006, it launched a whole new era. The platform was a fairly new one, as was the concept of becoming a viral internet star, but their video, which featured complex treadmill choreography, garnered 900,000 views in a single day. This opened new channels for up-and-coming musicians to be discovered (Justin Bieber who began posting on his channel in 2007) and new ways for more established artists to connect with their audiences. The video won a Grammy for Best Short Form Music Video that same year.
“The Real Slim Shady” was the lead single from Eminem's third album, “The Marshall Mathers LP.” The track, which won a Grammy in 2001 for Best Rap Solo Performance, pokes fun at the way so many high school boys were dying to be just like the rapper even as critics poked at him for being “illegitimate.” In the video, Eminem tosses out dozens of pop culture and celebrity references. Only eagle-eyed viewers have been able to spot them all.
“Honey” was the first single on Mariah Carey's popular album, “Butterfly.” The 1997 video starts out with Carey as a James Bond-esque spy who makes a daring escape from her captors in order to be reunited with her boyfriend and dog. Along the way, there are several dance scenes on a yacht, and plenty of shots of the pop singer's impressively toned body. The video marked a major step in Carey's career, a pivot to a more mature image.
“Work It” is one of the best-known songs from Missy Elliott's huge catalog of work. The song spent 10 weeks at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and the video won Video of the Year at the 2003 VMAs. A section of the chorus that is sung in reverse (which many fans speculated for years was actually a hidden dirty message) and Missy's classic dance moves (featuring Disney Channel star Alyson Stoner) make this video stand out in a sea of early 2000's rap tracks.
Fans of Weezer's “Buddy Holly” may be shocked to know that it never ranked on the Billboard charts. While the song was arguably the biggest hit from the band's “The Blue Album” it was never sold as a single, which made it ineligible for the Hot 100. The music video, directed by Spike Jonze, featured the band performing on the original Arnold's Drive-In set interspersed with clips from “Happy Days.” The finished product won a number of awards, including four MTV music video awards and two Billboard music video awards.
The lead single from Whitney Houston's second album, simply titled “Whitney,” “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)” was a smash hit. The song spent weeks at #1, and picked up a Grammy nomination for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance. The neon-themed video for the single features big hair, lots of makeup, and impressive dance moves. Houston won 16 Billboard music awards throughout her career, including one awarded post-humously.
“Somebody That I Used to Know” first became a chart-topper in Australia before becoming popular in nearly a dozen countries and hitting #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2012. The video features Gotye and Kimbra in front of a bare wall that slowly becomes an abstract painting. It's an effective video, especially when others on the airwaves tend to feature more explicit themes.
In 1997 U.K. pop-soul band Jamiroquai's music video for “Virtual Insanity” was in heavy rotation on MTV thanks to its mind-boggling optical illusions. Fans pressed director Jonathan Glazer as to how he pulled the stunts off, and eventually, he revealed that everything in the room was on wheels and was being manipulated by crew members just outside of the frame. The video won Video of the Year at the VMAs, and inspired a video game that was released in 2015.
Shot in 1971, the “Imagine” promotional video includes shots of John Lennon and Yoko Ono walking to their London home as well as legendary footage of the musician playing and singing at his white baby grand piano. The video was an instant classic that helped bolster the peace anthem to #3 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Directed by Dave Meyers & the Little Homies, the “Humble” music video features vivid imagery. From Kendrick as the pope or a figure in Leonardo da Vinci's 15th-century painting “The Last Supper,” to the unedited shots of women, the video is poignant and anti-conformist. The track, which topped charts for several weeks, and won three Grammys. The music video swept the 2017 VMAs, taking home five Moonmen.
“Ironic” was the most successful single from Alanis Morissette's 1996 album “Jagged Little Pill.” While the lyrics have left many questioning whether or not Morissette actually understands what ironic means, what's never been questioned is how iconic the music video is. It won a Grammy nomination for Best Short Form Music Video in 1996, and took home three MTV moonmen.
“Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” was Cyndi Lauper's first single as a solo artist, and a defining track of the 1980s. The sitcom-esque video features Lauper's real mother and professional wrestler Captain Lou Albano (playing Lauper's father) and ran almost constantly on MTV after its release. Ultimately, the track topped out at #2 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Before becoming an Oscar-winning feature film director, David Fincher was one of the most sought-after music video directors. When he attended the 1990 VMAs, three of the four videos nominated for Video of the Year were his—including Aerosmith's “Janie's Got a Gun.” Released as the second single from the band's album “Pump,” it peaked at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.
Trent Reznor, who wrote and sang “Closer,” and Mark Romanek, who directed the video, agreed early on that they'd make no compromises when it came to completing their vision, even if it meant risking airtime. The end result is a NSFW experience that Reznor described as making the song better than it was on its own. While it only reached #41 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, it cemented Reznor and Nine Inch Nails as rock icons.
While MC Hammer's career may have been a short one, the influence of his “U Can't Touch This” music video can still be felt today. Its intense 1990 popularity came from a combination of parachute pants and highly choreographed “stutter step” dance moves, which were widely emulated. The video helped push the song to the top of the Hot R&B/Hip Hop list, and landed it at #8 on the Billboard Hot 100.
“Tonight, Tonight” is one of The Smashing Pumpkins' most enduring hits from their more than 20-year long career. The video was based the a 1902 film “Trip to the Moon,” and was directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the couple behind “Little Miss Sunshine.” It was the cinematic quality and old-school special effects that won the video six MTV Video Music Awards.
Destiny's Child produced a slew of music videos during their time as a group, but “Survivor” stands out as one of their more memorable offerings. Stranded on a desert island, Beyonce, Kelly Rowland, and Michelle Williams find an abandoned temple and bust out some impressive choreography. The “Survivor” video won Best R&B Video at the VMAs, and the album was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best R&B Album.
A-ha actually released a different video for “Take on Me” before releasing the legendary comic book-style video we all know and love today. The mix of live action and rotoscoping illustration had never been done in a music video, and was such a revolutionary concept that the video ended up winning six MTV moonmen in 1986 (a year after its release). The video, whose visuals took four months to draw, also ended up reaching the #1 spot in America mere months after its debut.
Most music videos take several days to shoot; R.E.M.'s video for “Imitation of Life” took 20 seconds. The video is made up of the same 20 seconds being played forward and backward, with sections zooming in and out. Released in 2001, it was underappreciated in its time, but is often cited now as an incredibly inventive and original video.
The perfect song for the drama of high school (or adulthood, for that matter), R.E.M.'s track “Everybody Hurts” was the fourth single from their 1992 album “Automatic for the People.” The music video, which shows the band stuck in a traffic jam, won several moonmen at the 1992 MTV VMAs and helped the song reach #29 on the Billboard Top 100.
Considered the band's breakout single (even though it was their third single from Metallica's fourth studio album) “One” also marked the group's first video. The video, which runs seven minutes and 44 seconds long and features disturbing images from the film “Johnny Got His Gun,” was vastly different from anything on MTV at the time. The network had just started acknowledging metal tracks with their 90-minute segment “Headbangers Ball,” which helped the single gain more recognition.
Directed by Spike Jonze, Fatboy Slim's music video for “Weapon of Choice” features Christopher Walken dancing around a Marriott hotel. The video won six MTV Music Video Awards as well as the Grammy for Best Short Form Music Video. Surprisingly, it doesn't include any shots of Fatboy Slim himself, who was preoccupied at the time with the birth of his first child.
“Oh So Quiet” was undoubtedly Björk's biggest mainstream single, reaching #4 on the U.K. charts. The music video, which was directed by Spike Jonze, was inspired by musicals from the ‘40s, ‘50s, and ‘60s. It seems that Björk herself wasn't such a big fan of the song, leaving it off her 2002 greatest hits album entirely.
The “Opposites Attract” music video won Paula Abdul her lone Grammy award for Best Short Form Music Video in 1991. Abdul dances alongside the animated MC Skat Kat, who plays her love interest. It's a video that's nearly impossible to forget, and it made Abdul's seventh single her first smash it.
“Learn to Fly” was the lead single from Foo Fighters' third album “There is Nothing Left to Lose.” The 1999 video, which featured a cameo from Jack Black, his Tenacious D partner Kyle Gass, and a whole host of other zany characters, established Dave Grohl and company as one of the most humor-driven bands on the scene. A little-known fact about the popular video is that it was directed by a fellow musician: Jesse Peretz, the original bass player for The Lemonheads.
When the “Lady Marmalade” music video premiered in conjunction with the 2001 film “Moulin Rouge!” it caused quite a stir. All four female powerhouses were clad in lingerie and danced provocatively throughout the course of the song, which already contained some pretty suggestive lyrics. The song remained at #1 on the Hot 100 for nine weeks, and still holds the record for the most nonconsecutive weeks at #1 for a female collaboration.
Allegedly the most expensive music video of all time, “Scream” explores Michael and Janet Jackson's frustration with the way they were being portrayed in the press. It features the famous siblings dancing on a sleek spaceship, and at one point Janet gives the middle finger (a highly controversial move in 1995). The track itself was mysteriously leaked two weeks before the music video was set to premiere. “Scream” is credited with being the first song to officially debut at #5 on the Billboard Hot 100.
Never one to do things halfway, Kanye West's music video for his hit track “Runaway” is 35 minutes long. When it premiered in 2010, it was met with mixed reviews: Many critics thought the rapper was trying too hard, while others appreciated the work it took to string together something so detailed and elaborate. Wherever you stand, one thing's for sure: The scenes of West playing piano in a white tuxedo surrounded by black tutu-clad ballerinas is certainly memorable.
The Beastie Boys released “Sabotage” as the first single off their 1994 album “Ill Communication” and it quickly became one of the defining tracks of the decade. The video, which is a parody of 1970s cop shows, was directed by Spike Jonze. It was nominated for several VMAs in 1994, but the group went home empty-handed until 2009 when they took home a trophy for Best Video (That Should Have Won a Moonman).
“November Rain” has been called the best rock ballad of all time, and is undeniably the most ambitious moment in Guns N' Roses history. At eight minutes and 59 seconds, it was the longest-ever Top 10 hit, and contained the longest ever guitar solo in a Top 10 hit. The epic $1 million video for the song, which starred Axl Rose's then-girlfriend Stephanie Seymour, became MTV's most-requested video ever, and won a moonman at the 1992 VMAs.
A once-obscure track written by Prince, “Nothing Compares 2U” was released by Sinead O'Connor in 1990, and quickly became one of the most iconic pop tracks of the decade. The bulk of the video is classic ‘90s fare: mostly a close-up of O'Connor's face, with a few scattered walking-through-Paris shots mixed in. But it's the two solitary tears that roll down the singer's face in the final minutes of the video that made the emotional track iconic, and helped O'Connor become the first woman to win Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards.
While “Gangnam Style” was Psy's 18th single, it was his first global hit. The video for the track, a fun romp through the Gangnam district of Seoul, South Korea, was so popular it broke YouTube. At the time, YouTube only used a 32-bit integer for their view counter, meaning it could only count to 2.1 billion views, “Gangnam Style” blew right past that. For five years, the track held the record for the most-viewed video on YouTube.
Johnny Cash's cover of the Nine Inch Nails' hit “Hurt” evokes an emotional response thanks to the music video. Shot in Cash's first home, a rundown mansion dubbed “The House of Cash,” the video speaks openly about the gracelessness of death, the transience of life, and the end of an era. June Carter Cash, who is featured in the video, died three months after it was shot, and Cash himself passed away four months later, making this a final tribute to their shared legacy.
It's said that some of the executives at Virgin Records were strongly against “Wannabe” being the Spice Girls' first single, but the band held firm. In the end, of course, they were right: “Wannabe” remains the group's top-streamed single, spending seven weeks at #1 in the U.K. upon its release in 1996. Originally, the fast-paced, high-energy video was supposed to be shot in Spain, but when the group couldn't get permission, they moved the location to the Midland Grand Hotel in London.
Financed entirely by Apple as their first foray into original video programming, Drake's “Hotline Bling” video premiered on Apple Music a week before making its way to other platforms. Helmed by Director X, who worked on the videos for several of Drake's other hits, the video's nonstop play helped the song reach #2 on the Hot 100 chart in 2015. The neon-lit boxes Drake spends much of the track dancing inside were inspired by visual artist James Turrell's work.
Shot in a single unbroken camera shot, the video for OK Go's track, “This Too Shall Pass,” features a massive Rube Goldberg machine. The band partnered with Syyn Labs in Los Angeles to create the video, which took nearly four months of work. Every aspect of the machine is timed perfectly to the last second, which led to gasp-inducing moments like a flock of umbrellas dropping from a second-story window.
Directed by Michel Gondry, the music video for The White Stripes' 2001 hit “Fell In Love With a Girl” has been called one of the most innovative of all time. Shot entirely with Legos using no special effects, the video won a handful of MTV VMAs. While the song didn't chart in the United States, it reached #21 on the U.K. charts.
While the premise of this Cher video is relatively simple—Cher performs her song on the naval battleship USS Missouri—her revealing outfit and the controversy it caused made this one of the most iconic music videos of all time. The Navy received criticism for allowing the scantily clad singer to perform (and it was, in fact, the last time they have ever allowed one of their vessels to be used in a music video). MTV even refused to play “If I Could Turn Back Time” before 9 p.m. as so much of the singer's body was exposed. However, the song became Cher's second consecutive #1 on the Billboard charts, and is credited with reviving her career.
While nearly all of ABBA's time as a group happened before the rise of MTV, the band still managed to make and circulate music videos for nearly every single. “Take a Chance on Me” is one of the most memorable, with its “Brady Bunch” style split frame opening and classic ‘70s costuming. While it pales in comparison to many of the other over-the-top videos on this list, it becomes a truly impressive feat when you remember that few others were taking chances on mini-films like this one in 1977.
With more than 1 billion views since its release, Katy Perry's video for “Firework” was undoubtedly one of the biggest hits to come out of 2010. Filmed in Budapest, the upbeat video depicts a huge dance party taking place in the middle of one of the city's biggest squares. While the plot isn't that complex, it didn't come without controversy. The video was edited in the U.K. to remove the fireworks that shoot from the singer's chest, as well as a shot of two men kissing.
The #1 song of 1984, “When Doves Cry” was written for Prince's movie “Purple Rain.” Prince wrote, composed, and played all of the instruments on the track, which famously has no bass line. The video itself features images like Prince in a bathtub, as well as the singer doing synchronized dance moves with his band, The Revolution.
Released as a radio single in 2000, NSYNC's video for “Bye Bye Bye” won Pop Video of the Year at the MTV VMAs. Nearly every shot in it is music video gold, including the iconic boy band moves put together by renowned choreographer Darrin Henson. Included on the group's album “No Strings Attached,” the song peaked at #4 on the Hot 100, and remained the #1 video on “Total Request Live” for 25 consecutive days.