Music videos may have reached the masses in the 1980s, but the art form was truly perfected in the 1990s. It was a time when budgets went through the roof and ambitious young directors like Spike Jonze, Jonas Åkerlund and David Fincher made names for themselves with amazing work that doubled as short films. It was the last decade that MTV had videos in heavy rotation, and a good clip could break an artist practically overnight. We asked our readers to vote for their 10 favorite videos of the 1990s. Click through to see the results.
Weezer first landed on MTV in the summer of 1994 with their video for "Undone – The Sweater Song," which simply showed a pack of wild dogs and the group playing the song. But they truly broke through a few months later with "Buddy Holly." Spike Jonze (still five years away from making his first film) had the brilliant idea to put the band in Arnold's Diner from Happy Days, complete with a cameo from Al Molinaro himself. Jonze sifted through thousands of hours of Happy Days clips to find the perfect footage to use in the video, including Fonzie dancing. The effect was seamless and MTV played the video over and over and over. It was the single biggest factor in breaking Weezer.
Watching the video brings forth an almost unprecedented level of nostalgia. Happy Days itself is a 1950s nostalgia show, but now it brings back the 1970s, also. The video is a 1990s classic, too, so it manages to evoke nostalgia for three different decades in a single three-minute video. That's a remarkable achievement.
Long before David Fincher made Se7en, The Social Network or any movie whatsoever, he was the busiest music video director in the business, working with Aerosmith ("Janie's Got a Gun"), Billy Idol ("Cradle of Love"), George Michael ("Freedom '90") and many, many others. His masterpiece, however, is Madonna's 1990 video for "Vogue." The song references many Hollywood legends of the 1930s and 1940s and 1950s, and Fincher's video brings back that era with an Art Deco set and black-and-white film. Fincher recreated iconic photos by fashion photographer Horst P. Horst, and the end result is absolutely brilliant, even if the visual references went over the heads of most viewers.
Samuel Bayer is the Steven Spielberg of music videos. His only movie is 2010's underwhelming Nightmare on Elm Street reboot, but he's the man behind the videos for Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," the Smashing Pumpkins' "Bullet With Butterfly Wings," Green Day's "Wake Me Up When September Ends," Justin Timberlake's "What Goes Around Comes Around" and countless others. One of his greatest works is Blind Melon's "No Rain." He captured the band's quirky, hippie vibe perfectly by casting nine-year-old Heather DeLoach as a tap-dancing girl in a bee costume. She's mocked by society until she finds a paradise full of freaks just like her. It's a wonderful message and it inspired Pearl Jam to write "Bee Girl."
DeLoach is a 30-year-old event planner in California now, though she's always happy to put the bee costume back on for a magazine photo shoot.
The debut single from In Utero could have almost been a snuff film and MTV would have put it into heavy rotation, but Nirvana (and Geffen) weren't taking any chances. They hired photographer Anton Corbijn to direct a creepy, Wizard of Oz-inspired video that shows an emaciated old man on a cross, a little girl in a KKK outfit and the band lip-syncing the song in a hospital bed, a forest and a tiny, bright red room. It's trippy, more than a little confusing and impossible to forget.
Nine Inch Nails would have probably become a huge group even had they not made a video for "Closer," but it certainly sped up the process. Directed by Mark Romanek, the disturbing video portrays Trent Reznor as a 19th century mad scientist in a laboratory, complete with a beating heart tied to a chair and a monkey tied to a cross. They had to edit it down a bit for TV, and the chorus ("I want to fuck you like an animal") obviously had to be edited for radio, but it still became a huge hit and introduced the band to angsty teenagers all over America.
The cover of the Smashing Pumpkins' 1995 double LP Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness reminded husband-and-wife directing team Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris of early silent films, and the stars and planets reminded them of the groundbreaking, 1902 Georges Méliès film A Trip to the Moon. "Tonight Tonight" is an amazing homage to the movie and early silent films in general. Dayton and Faris went on to direct 2006's Little Miss Sunshine.
Axl Rose spent five years tinkering with "November Rain" before he finally released Guns N' Roses' nine-minute, Elton John-inspired masterpiece in 1991, and he wanted to make sure the video was equally ambitious. Directed by Andy Morahan, the video cast Axl's real-life love Stephanie Seymour as his doomed girlfriend and (very briefly) wife. Nobody knows exactly how she dies in the video, but if you look carefully at her funeral scene, you can see a mirror by her face. That's often done to people who suffered some sort of facial trauma.
The song was inspired by a short story by Rose's friend Del James about a woman who kills herself, so it seems that's what happened to Seymour. It's part of a trilogy of videos that begins with "Don't Cry" and ends with "Estranged," but good luck trying to find the common threads.
On January 8th, 1991, 15-year-old Jeremy Wade Delle shot himself in the head in front of his English class. Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder read about the incident, and it reminded him of a troubled kid in his own school who fired off a gun in class. Both incidents inspired Vedder to write "Jeremy," and he hired photographer Chris Cuffaro to direct the video. Epic didn't like the results and (much to the chagrin of Vedder) brought in Mark Pellington to remake it.
The video presents Vedder as the narrator of the horrific story, and it culminates with a student coming into class, throwing an apple on his teacher's desk and shooting himself. MTV was uncomfortable with the shot of the kid putting the gun into his mouth, so they edited that out. The next shot was his classmates covered in blood, frozen still. This led many to wrongly conclude that Jeremy shot up his class. The video went into heavy rotation on MTV, helped break the band and won a ton of MTV Video Music Awards, but when it came time for their next album, the band instituted a strict "no videos" policy. They had little interest in going through all that hassle again, and MTV showed it so many times they felt extremely overexposed.
Spike Jonze made his 1994 video for the Beastie Boys' "Sabotage" seem like the beginning of a 1970s cop show, i.e. Barretta or Starsky and Hutch. Beavis and Butt-Head weren't the only ones confused by the whole thing: "This is gonna be cool when this video finally comes out," Beavis says. Butt-Head, always a little smarter, tries to correct him: "This is the real video, dumb-ass." It didn't win a single MTV Video Music Award, losing out to Aerosmith's "Cryin'" and R.E.M.'s "Everybody Hurts." In 2009, the channel made up for the slight by giving it a new award: Best Video (That Should Have Won a Moonman).
In the summer of 1991, Nirvana spent a day on a soundstage in Culver City with first-time video director Samuel Bayer and a ton of extras dressed up like high-schoolers at a goth pep rally that devolves into a punk-rock riot. Nobody present that day could have possibly imagined they were making something that would forever change the music business and eventually become the most iconic piece of film of the entire decade. The whole thing cost less than $50,000.