In the wee hours of August 1, 1981, someone walking through its canals might have come across a picture of a rocket exploding in space. The familiar sight of Neil Armstrong stepping out of his lunar module and walking on the moon would fill the TV screen. And then they heard a voiceover, with all the soft crackle of an FM disc jockey: “Ladies and gentlemen, rock & roll. Cue power chords and a flag with a network logo – something called MTV – that quickly changed colors and patterns. It was not a news channel; it was “Music television”. If they kept connecting, they would see clips and hear VJs talking about bringing you the latest music videos. At this point, viewers may have a few questions, such as: is this like a radio station on TV? What is a “VJ”? And what is a “music video”?
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A year later, no one was asking this last question. Most everyone knew what a music video was, and they wanted their MTV. The network has revolutionized the music industry, inspired a multitude of copycat programs, made many careers and shattered more than one. Entire genres and subgenres – from hip-hop and grunge to boy band pop and nu metal – have become part of the mainstream. The format proved to be so enduring that when MTV decided to turn things around and devote its airtime to game shows, reality TV, and scripted series, shutting down the main pipeline of these promotions, artists continued to do them. The Internet quickly intervened to fill the void. Four decades after the channel launched and long after it ceased broadcasting, music videos still complement songs, create mythologies, and spark discussion and controversy. We don’t want our MTV anymore. We keep wanting our clips.
In honor of MTV’s 40th anniversary, we’ve decided to rank the Top 100 Music Videos of All Time. You will notice some significant changes from the last time we did this. (Yes, Michael Jackson is here. No, “Thriller” isn’t.) A few pre-chain; many have never played on MTV. But all of these choices are perfect examples of how the combination of sound and vision created quite an artistic vocabulary, gave us a handful of miniature movie masterpieces, and changed the way we hear. (and see) the music. From Adele’s “Hello” to ZZ Top’s “Gimme All Your Lovin ‘”, these are the videos that continue to excite us, delight us, disturb us and remind us how much you can do in three to four. minutes with a song, camera, concept, pose, mood lighting and one or two iconic hand gestures.