In order to top the charts, you once needed a fantastic video in rotation on MTV or VH1. I clearly remember where I was the last time I watched a music video that mattered: in a shitty hotel in southern Georgia over 10 years ago, working on a commercial for a local hospital with two director friends. We crowded around my computer to watch the premiere—on the Vice music blog Noisey, LOL—of “Bad Girls” by M.I.A. The video, directed by Romain Gavras, was shot over four days in Morocco, and it was mesmerizing. M.I.A. deadpans to the camera about having sex in cars while vamping in front of tanker fires and crumbling buildings. She files her nails while riding on top of a drifting car. The video was risky and (vaguely) political, even more so than the song. We watched it over and over.
There was a time when having the Director’s Label Series DVD sets visible in your home was a sign of great taste. Each volume featured the music videos of a different director. The Spike Jonze, Chris Cunningham, and Michel Gondry box sets were released in 2003; Mark Romanek, Jonathan Glazer, Anton Corbijn, and Stéphane Sednaoui arrived in 2005. I especially remember Jonze’s clips for Weezer’s “Buddy Holly,” which expertly recreated Happy Days, and Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice,” featuring the graceful dancing of Christopher Walken. The proper movie-style production took the music to a new level. Many people I knew not only owned these sets but pored over them, using them as references when planning ad campaigns and photo shoots. It was a testament to the art form’s importance and how a great video can propel a song to new heights.
Then MTV stopped playing videos, Instagram and Twitter took over as entertainment and conversation starters, and we lost what little attention span we once had. The bottom fell out of the CD business, and the music industry transitioned to streaming. Labels and artists stopped pouring time and money into videos and turned their focus to creating a steady output of short-form content. The changes now seem so inevitable that I hadn’t thought about what we lost until “Rush” came out. A well-done video can do something that a song on its own cannot, which is why millions of dollars were spent making them for years and years. But the true value was not about the money spent. It was—and, as “Rush” shows, can still be—about doing something clever and creative to cut through the noise, algorithms, and assumption that no one wants to watch anything longer than 90 seconds. TRL isn’t coming back, but I hope more artists follow Sivan’s path.