“YouTube at 15” is our package of stories to celebrate the streaming site’s anniversary. It’s hard to imagine, but there really was a time before makeup tutorials, conspiracy explainers, on-demand music videos — really, viral videos at large. Since it’s become such a ubiquitous part of culture, we set out to look at how it’s changed our world. To kick things off, contributing editor Rob Sheffield investigated its surprising origins.
In February 2010, Lady Gaga opened up about her and Beyonce’s “Telephone” music video in an interview for KISS-FM, a month before it premiered simultaneously on E! News and YouTube’s Vevo platform. “What I like about it is it’s a real, true pop event,” she said. “When I was younger, I was always excited when there was a big giant event happening in pop music, and that’s what I wanted this to be.”
Two years earlier, shortly after she made her video debut with “Just Dance,” Lady Gaga had complained to MTV News about the absence of that kind of spectacle. “What’s been lost in pop music these days is the combination of the visual and the imagery of the artist along with the music, and both being as important,” she said. “Even though the carefree nature is something people are latching onto right away about my stuff, I’m hoping that they’ll take notice of the interactive, multimedia nature of what I’m trying to do.”
It’s hard to imagine that at one time, Gaga had to convince her audience to “take notice” of the visual aspects of her brand, and not just because of the meat dress. Nowadays, “interactive, multimedia” artists are the name of the game; Instagram and Twitter are just as crucial to the pop ecosystem as streaming numbers and festival ticket sales. Fan-driven content and interaction online are what drive major label signees to international stardom and, in recent years, have turned unknowns into major celebrities, with the “Old Town Road” story standing as the most prominent example. And at the forefront of the digital video revolution has been none other than YouTube.
During MTV’s heyday, major labels sold music videos to television essentially to function as advertisements: Videos would generate interest in the artists and singles they were promoting, and a long-term investment (read: multiple singles/videos per album cycle) would hopefully encourage audiences to purchase the full LP. The videos themselves, which became increasingly high-budget in the late Eighties and into the Nineties — Michael and Janet Jackson’s “Scream,” at $10.7 million, is still considered the most costly — did not generate revenue for the labels, nor count towards their single’s position on the Billboard charts. But they could afford to be flashy, theatrical productions because of the potential payoff. Michael Jackson, Madonna, Nirvana, and others could all attribute at least some of their cultural dominance to their music videos, which were both considered watershed moments when they premiered — enough for millions of people to tune into MTV at the same time, as Gaga would fondly remember — and were given heavy rotation on the network in the years following. In the late Nineties, MTV’s Total Request Live turned music video rotations into a kind of competition, with fans calling into the network to get their favorite artists and groups broadcast as much as possible.
Napster and other file-sharing websites caused a rupture for the record labels, leaving them scrambling to figure out new revenue-generating schemes, and tightening their budgets on “auxiliary” assets like music videos. By the early and mid-2000s, the future of the format was looking bleak; as Carol Vernallis writes in Unruly Media, her book on the evolution of music videos and YouTube, music videos had “dried up,” and even high-profile directors like Hype Williams and Jonas Åkerlund downsized on the number of projects they took per year. Dave Meyers, the most prolific director in the industry, went from producing a whopping 41 videos in 2000 to just 11 in 2003, and a meager 3 in 2006.
Yet despite diminishing returns for the industry, videos never entirely went away. In her “Just Dance” interview, Gaga references the TRL-fueled hype surrounding acts like the Backstreet Boys, ‘N SYNC, and Britney — artists who secured their teen fanbases through their visual presentation as much as through their music. Just prior to the launch of YouTube, early aughts videos like Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On,” Jennifer Lopez’s “Jenny From the Block,” Britney Spears’ “Toxic,” and Beyonce’s “Crazy in Love” hinted at the campiness of old-school MTV.
By the time YouTube was founded in 2005, MTV had already switched its main programming to reality shows, but the newfound accessibility for fans to search for their favorite music videos online put another dent in the videos-on-cable model. At the same time, “viral” non-music videos on YouTube were engaging with a new kind of eye-popping aesthetic. Wacky and nonsensical clips hosted on the platform, like “Chocolate Rain” and “Shoes,” became some of the earliest internet memes to enter mainstream culture, popular for their spontaneity, low-budget look, and general weirdness.
Naturally, some music videos sought to replicate this: OK Go practically built their career on gimmick-y, lo-fi videos like 2006’s “Here It Goes Again,” where the band performs an elaborate, one-take dance routine on treadmills in front of a stationary camera. It’s the type of stunt that would be right at home on Tik Tok in 2020, but at the dawn of YouTube, there really wasn’t any music video like it. OK Go actually performed the routine at the 2006 MTV Video Music Awards — a goofy and unintentional way, on MTV’s part, of passing the torch to a new platform.
Enter Beyoncé, who inadvertently demonstrated what it takes to make a viral video (and how not to do it) when she released two visuals, simultaneously, in 2008. You couldn’t ask for a better experiment: two music videos, both from the I Am Sasha Fierce… album, both directed by Jake Nava, both in black-and-white. “If I Were a Boy” was more conceptual, with a gender-flipped narrative and higher production value. “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)” was simpler, a dance video based off an old Bob Fosse routine and filmed on a white soundstage. When both videos premiered one after the other on TRL, there was only video that went viral, spawning an entire dance craze and sweeping the VMAs the following year.
“I don’t think any of us predicted the amount of parodies it would attract,” Nava would later say about “Single Ladies.” “It’s a testament to Beyoncé’s mind-boggling talent and to the fact that sometimes, less really can be more.”
Gaga arrived on the scene shortly thereafter, working with visionary directors like Melina Matsoukas, Francis Lawrence, and Jonas Akerlund to achieve her vision: a gussied-up version of the queer, New York arthouse trash she’d idolized. What was so genius about her videos was that they didn’t need a gimmick to create buzz — she was the gimmick. The same could be said for the best Jackson and Madonna videos. But what sets digital-forward videos like “Paparazzi” and “Bad Romance” apart from their earlier counterparts is that within their outlandish premises, there are a plethora of smaller, absurd moments that fly by at lightning speed: Metropolis crutches, dead models, Minnie Mouse makeup, giant eyes in a bathtub, suspending crystals, monster claws. Meme-ready moments, before there were even really memes.
By the time “Telephone” was released, YouTube had already partnered with Vevo, a joint venture between Universal, Sony, and EMI that would allow them to receive direct advertising revenue, thereby officiating YouTube’s status as the industry’s primary music video platform. In the years that followed, the culture around music videos evolved; instead of videos entering recurrent rotation on MTV, dictated by hired VJs and however much a label was willing to pay for it, videos were available a la carte, accessible to any individual person with internet access at any given time.
While a video’s number of views matter from a business sense (since 2013, they’ve counted in a song’s Billboard ranking) the way that YouTube videos proliferated though culture didn’t exclusively have to do with how many people watched them — rather, it depended on how much media surrounding the video could be disseminated outside of YouTube, on other platforms like Twitter or Reddit or, well, real life. And so came phenomenons like Psy’s “Gangnam Style,” which pretty much pressed every button that teenagers and the internet in 2012 found funny. Much like Lady Gaga’s videos, “Gangnam Style” had a compelling premise (satirizing the elite class of Seoul) with plenty of smaller gags and goofs scattered within. The cultural satire was lost on most viewers outside of South Korea, but the gags and goofs stuck.
It took until the middle of the 2010s for artists to take full advantage of Instagram, a visual-heavy platform that couldn’t host full music videos (yet) but could certainly promote them — as long as those videos fell in line with the sleek, lightly fluorescent look that the social network prioritized. Drake’s “Hotline Bling,” which premiered on Apple Music before launching wide on YouTube, fit the Instagram aesthetic perfectly, and the brightly-colored, minimalist promotional photos for the clip drew viewers in.
But of course, what kept everyone coming back to “Hotline Bling” was Drake himself — a living meme, dancing like a fool in a little box that seemed to be projecting out directly from your phone screen. “Hotline Bling” memes became a surprise hit on Vine, the six-second video platform from Twitter that, for about two years, contained all the best jokes on the internet. You could log on and see Drake playing tennis, Drake wielding a lightsaber, Drake teaching scientific concepts like the sodium-potassium pump. Elsewhere, still photos like the “Drake approves/disapproves” meme became permanent parts of the internet lexicon. Saturday Night Live aired a parody of the video starring Donald Trump.
It’s this long-term fan development that has incentivized artists to once again make videos a high priority; because of the disconnected nature of streaming and the rapid decline of physical album sales, videos are often the best way to draw news fans to an artist and to strengthen their relationship with existing ones. Recent developments in videos, both on and off YouTube, have worked to further capitalize on this relationship. Beyoncé released her visual album Lemonade as a televised event on HBO, before making it available exclusively on Tidal, the streaming platform she co-owns. Ariana Grande’s “Thank U, Next” was the first to utilize YouTube’s Premiere feature, attracting a reported 829,000 viewers to its live video premiere and chatroom. In an attempt to further increase streaming numbers for the single, which had been released several weeks prior to the video, Grande’s team also uploaded a “teaser” for the music video and a behind-the-scenes montage clip that both contained the entire song, further boosting the single’s chart status.
In recent years, the biggest overall shift in music videos has been the optimization for mobile platforms. It’s not uncommon now to see videos in square or vertical aspect ratios, designed for mobile phone video players or Instagram’s grid display. Post Malone recently released a “dual-phone” video for “Circles,” which required the song to be played simultaneously on two different playlists on two phones side-by-side.
This doesn’t mean that music videos will be leaving YouTube anytime soon: Google has made every indication that they want to remain the industry’s flagship video platform. But in order for them to do so, adaptation is necessary, not just from the platform and its formats but from artists who are allowed to work outside the box and bring their visual endeavors to life.