At over a billion hits, the most-viewed piece of YouTube content of all time is last fall’s inescapable "Gangnam Style." Considering the almost infinite variety of content available, this rise to the top is significant: Dominating the world’s premiere video-sharing platform shows that the music video is still undeniably vital.
Beginning April 3, the Museum of the Moving Image in New York will play host to Spectacle: The Music Video. The world’s most comprehensive exhibition to focus on this topic, Spectacle will celebrate music videos as an influential art form in modern culture, an incubator for filmmaking talent, and a powerful mode for transporting and translating pop culture around the world.
"After they were kind of left for dead for a while, there’s been an exciting resurgence in videos," Jonathan Wells says of the exhibition’s reason for being. Wells is part of the global creative collective Flux and a curator of the exhibit along with Meg Grey Wells. "It’s been over 30 years since the pinnacle of videos with the launch of MTV, and all the people who were teenagers then are now going to museums and looking for things to connect with."
Designed by Alexei Tylevich and his production company Logan, the exhibition will contain more than 300 videos, spanning the pre-MTV era, the heyday of videos, and contemporary culture. These are the kind of videos everyone over the age of 25 or so will remember like old friends: Madonna’s "Like a Prayer" and Beastie Boys’ "Sabotage," but of course Lady Gaga and OK Go will be on hand as well. Along with the videos, there will also be artifacts from them for viewers to see up close.
"‘Take On Me’ is one that we’re happy to have presented in the show," Wells says. "It was just this magical moment of someone diving into a comic book that really stuck with people. That’s an example of how a video can introduce and break an artist. We have the original illustrations that were done for the video." In addition to the video, the exhibition will have original artwork from A-ha’s video, and many others, that has never been viewed by the public before.
The curator also cites Peter Gabriel’s Sledgehammer as an example of how music videos can transcend their medium and become indelible works of art. Spectacle will play up the more artistic and experimental side of music videos with a series of interactive experiences by Vincent Morisset, Chris Milk, James Frost, and Aaron Koblin.
One of the things that is unique about the exhibition is that it isn’t organized chronologically. Instead, the curators took pains to look at music videos in terms of genre. A section that looks at choreography is divided further into sections for traditional hip-hop choreography and also more hipster choreography, as seen in videos such as Fatboy Slim’s "Praise You"—directed by Spike Jonze. Another section looks at the cinematography. Others focus on controversy in videos, and the inherent interactivity of remixing. The only section that hews close to chronological order is "In the Beginning," which looks at the pioneers of video leading up to the launch of MTV—which was the greatest outlet for music videos for decades.
"MTV’s programming used to bring bands to your attention," Wells says. "You would get exposed to many kinds of artists who may not be your personal favorites. If you wanted to see Madonna, you were going to have to see ZZ Top."
After MTV stopped broadcasting videos a few years ago, the idea of a video being in heavy rotation was lost. The way to tell that a video is popular now isn’t that you personally were made to sit through it dozens of times, but rather that the YouTube hit count is high. But the highest hit counts and even the most MTV Moonmen don’t necessarily factor into the criteria of what made it into the exhibition.
"Sometimes a video will be popular because the song is popular and the video won’t be an amazing cinematic experience," Wells says. "I think the best video is one where both the visual element and the audio element come together and make something that is greater than its parts, and those are the ones we were interested in."
Spectacle: The Music Video will be on view at the Museum of the Moving Image from April 3, 2013 though June 16, 2013. Have a look through the slide show above for some of the featured videos.