For most of the 2010s decade since about the mainstream descent of Lady Gaga, music videos have taken a dive. In my humble opinion, of course. Withh pop music turning more to the Spotify, hipster-friendly artists of the indies, the art of the music video has been somewhat lost in translation. When you have stars of the moment who are popular precisely for their low-budget, low-key music productions, you aren’t expecting visuals that leave you wanting more.
I grew up in the early aughts, when TRL and MTV upped the ante for wowing on the small screen. Even before my time, I heard stories from my parents and their experiences with music videos. My mom vividly remembers gathering around the TV with her cousins in the early ’80s to watch Michael Jackson’s Thriller premiere on TV. Up until the essential death of music on MTV, VH1, BET and the like, music videos were, to varying extents, events to be seen.
As I mentioned, Lady Gaga stormed out of the gates in her early mainstream career to surpass any videos we were seeing circa 2011 by other artists. Her contemporaries, like Beyonce, Katy Perry, Pink, Justin Timberlake, and a few others continued to impress. But as these artists’ popularity and appeal diminished, it seemed that with them they took the ideology of inspired music videos. For the last several years, music videos have felt like optional ventures, or worse, obligatory ones. Videos filmed for YouTube views and the coins that come with them, but little else.
But this year, I saw a shift. A handful of artists (or at least, their creative teams) really putting a foot into creating memorable visual counterparts to their songs. They either tried to tell a story, or to craft an aesthetic for their brand. And for almost every song in question, the video helped to show the performing artist coming into their own. Into their bag, if you will.
Here are some of the most colorful, whimsical, and fantastical music videos that came out in these twelve months we called 2018.
“Finesse” by Bruno Mars featuring Cardi B
Mere days into 2018, we were given this amazingly nostalgic jam from Bruno and Cardi. A song of the summer released in the dead of winter, it was a remix to the original first heard on Bruno’s album, 24K Magic, this version featuring the Bronx rapper. The video is a clear tribute to ’90s sketch comedy show In Living Color, complete with the show’s set and peak ’90s attire. The brilliance of this video is its choreography, infusing Bruno’s current affinity for carefree dance routines and the groovy dancing made famous by the Fly Girls from the series. The videography as well really created a ’90s sitcom feel. It was just fun!
“All the Stars” by Kendrick Lamar and SZA
The theme for the cinematic blockbuster Black Panther, this video had a lot to live up to. The film itself was grand and colorful with spectacular costumes. So naturally, the video matched the film’s energy. An aesthetically calming indigo hue, along with beautiful reds and golds, this video mirrored the hopefulness of the film. Hope for black beauty. Hope for black art. Hopeful for the harmony of black people.
“This is America” by Childish Gambino
A somewhat random return to music this year was Donald Glover as his rap persona Childish Gambino. There are precisely a million and one thinkpieces written about this 4-minute epic of catastrophe, but the most obvious through line of the video is that the current state of America is a bleak one. The seemingly single-camera shot music video floats from one act of violence or panic to the next, mimicking how quickly Americans consume trauma and move on to the next tragedy. A less obvious subtext of “This Is America” is that black people are constantly in the foreground, smiling and dancing. Analyses of this differ, but many like myself believe this connotes how the public only cares about black bodies when they are comical or happy, and that the everyday fear of black folks must be dealt with away from the public. This is pictured by Gambino running frantically in a dark hallway at the end of the video.
Discourse aside, this video stuck out like a sore thumb this year, for various reasons.
“I Like It” by Cardi B featuring J Balvin and Bad Bunny
Oh, you knew this would be on here. The song of the summer and one of the hottest songs of the year, of course had a bomb ass music video. Clearly capturing the essence of Latinx culture on a hot summer’s day, the Afro-Latina rapper from NY wound her hips in fabulous outfits flanked by two artists rapping in Spanish. I loved this video this year because it brought all of the energy, fun, and sexiness of the music videos of my youth. The formula of a 2003 music vid was updated for the ’99 and the 2000 — er, 2018. And she did all of this while in the early stages of pregnancy. A woman who slowed down for no one this year.
“God is a woman” by Ariana Grande
Hula-hooping the galaxy, lying luxuriously in a pool of purple and blue dyes, and inserting herself into a Michelangelo painting, Ariana was living her peak pop princess life in this music video. More than any song or video before it, this video proved that Ariana may be ready to take the torch from the foremothers of the previous decade. She is fully embracing her sensuality and the divinity of female energy, and that is evident in the layered meanings of the visuals for the song.
“Make Me Feel” by Janelle Monae
A literal coming out party for Miss Monae, “Make Me Feel” was a powerful moment of liberation for an artist whose sexuality has been a subject of speculation for years. Clearly emulating her late mentor (and Dirty Computer collaborator) Prince, Janelle was sexy, quirky, and utterly bisexual in this video — all things that are hard for black women to be in society, as discussed openly by Monae. The video is almost an ’80s electro-pop fever dream, as I’m sure she intended. The cherry on top is that Monae’s real-life partner, Asgardian — I mean, actress, Tessa Thompson, got in on the fun, too. Twentygayteen indeed.
“Apeshit” by The Carters
This video took place at the Louvre. The fucking Louvre. Because when you’re the First Family of Music you can do that. The Carters were elegant but still a lil’ buck in this video, which is fitting for both considering it is the dichotomy of each of their artistic personas. What I remember most when thinking about this video is the brown color palette. The nude leggings and crops worn by Beyonce and her dancers of all shades, as well as the brown skin of the dancers contrasting to the white marble floors. The risk of having black bodies occupying space in what many consider the peak of white art in Europe was making a statement about the beauty of blackness. We are Art. This writer did an excellent job of unpacking the artistic choices made in the video.
“thank u, next” by Ariana Grande
This video’s inclusion on this list is more a testament to the song’s significance in the career of Ariana Grande. Having endured a broken engagement with Pete Davidson and the tragic death of her ex Mac Miller months before, Grande was in a dark place to say the least. Rather than disappearing from the public eye, she chose to work through her pain with new music, and so “thank u, next” came to be within a matter of weeks post-breakup. Soon followed the video, wherein Grande roleplays her way through various teen and girl power classics of the ’90s and ’00s. Calling back to movies like Mean Girls, Legally Blonde, and Bring It On, this video was the singer trying to smile again. It was playful and funny, and it was enjoyable to watch a young woman try to pick herself up by not taking herself too seriously. The song and video will likely be looked back upon as a pivotal moment in her career.
“Money” by Cardi B
A last but not least addition to this list, Cardi released this video only about a week ago. As NSFW as the artist is, the video for “Money” didn’t mince visuals. Bare nipples, asses, and poles galore, it was clear that Cardi was emulating her days as a stripper post-pregnancy. Cardi is the closest she’s ever been to Lil’ Kim in this video, wearing fashion-forward yet very revealing outfits as she raps directly to camera. She’s even naked at one point, and in another shot is seen breastfeeding what I can only hope is a fake baby. With this video, Cardi continues to be the risk-taker that popular music desperately needs right now.
I believe the music video is having a small renaissance of sorts at the moment. Perhaps this is a preview of the future we’re heading in, with streaming services increasingly becoming society’s primary access to music. As we enter the last year of this tiresome decade, we might just see popular music be born again. Don’t we deserve it, after all?