As the world of music videos gets more detailed, expansive, and self-directed, it’s still important to look back on the iconic videos of decades past, paying homage to the visuals that came before our modern era, where everyone has a video phone in their pocket. There are plenty of extremely important rock and hip-hop videos in American culture, and yes, country videos have their own, special place in the music world, but let’s be real, pop videos of yesteryear take the cake when it comes to nostalgia and influence.
From the unstoppable choreography of Beyonce and gone-before-their-time legends like Prince to the lascivious, sweetly sinfulness of Katy Perr and the lasting influence of Madonna, here are 11 videos from the pop world that are still impacting culture, even decades later. This is by no means a comprehensive list, and it is decidedly not ranked. Instead, it’s chronologically arranged so you can travel back in time as you go.
Justin Bieber — “Sorry”
Ask yourself: what’s the best thing about Justin Bieber? The answer comes easy if you really think about it — his fans. In this brave new era where male pop stars and music critics alike are finally showing honor and respect the taste and cultural power of teenage girls, the “Sorry” video is a perfect encapsulation of poptimism’s shifting sands. As Bieber was kind of in the dog house with the public before his chart-topping album Purpose came out in 2015, “Sorry” set the stage for an apology tour of sorts, by parading a bunch of incredible dancers across the screen instead more of Justin’s puppy dog eyes. It was a brilliant idea, and it worked like a charm, quickly turning the dancing girls of the “Sorry” video into a cultural phenomenon, and making the clip one of his most beloved videos to date. Odds are plenty more pop stars will cash in on this trope in the next four or five years, especially when they’re dealing with image issues.
Katy Perry — “California Gurls” Feat. Snoop Dogg
While the racy Teenage Dream album cover featuring a nude Katy Perry might’ve turned heads and earned parental advisory stickers, it was the “California Gurls” video that made good on those promises when Perry appeared in a cloud of pink, cotton candy and little else. The video’s ploy of mimicking the board game Candyland meant that cupcake bras, sheath candy dresses, and girls unwrapped from wrappers and jello cubes were all part of the plot. Enlisting Snoop Dogg to “play” the game and join in later for a rap verse only made the song more appealing, and proved that campy playfulness could still rule the pop world even in the internet era. For this video’s influence, look no farther than former rival Taylor Swift’s 2019 bonanza “You Need To Calm Down.” Technicolor fairytale music videos will never die, but Katy Perry reminded everyone just how sweet absurdism could be.
Lady Gaga — “Bad Romance”
The “Bad Romance” video is such a landmark visual for a pop star that it’s almost in a league of its own. Between the futuristic coffin pods, her plethora of looks, and all the other metacommentary on the pop star industrial complex, Gaga established herself as more than just a songwriter or singer with this surreal, futuristic video. Instead of influencing with a specific aesthetic — though the bizarre, philosophical music video has been thriving since — Gaga’s impact here was establishing that a new pop star could prove they were a “serious artist” by pulling all the stops out for a signature video. And that trope has definitely persisted over the course of the last decade, and will probably continue to be popular into the next.
Miley Cyrus — “Party In The USA”
While Miley Cyrus didn’t necessarily invent the singing-at-home to singing-on-the-stage storyline, she definitely perfected it for the “Party In The USA” video. Similarly, while CMT viewers will be more than familiar with the pickup-truck-as-stage concept, Miley brought it to the masses, singing about her favorite rap song from the bed of a Chevy. We even get a preview of her next era when the third scene in the video switches to the chain swings, foreshadowing the visual that was to come with “Wrecking Ball” in 2013. Even if there were other country-pop crossovers in the works already — Taylor and Miranda were both well on their way by now — Miley’s American flag-heavy clip helped introduce a new generation to the appeal of Southern culture and music.
Beyonce — “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)”
It’s tempting to rank this list and put “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)” at No. 1 because I’m not sure any pop music video has had more influence on culture before or since. Did Beyonce basically invent memes when she created this video? Yes. Did she maybe invent parody videos as a byproduct, too? Yes — okay, well the hilarious geniuses of SNL will have words with me if I assert that, but it feels true. The number of parodies I have watched of this dance and those costumes is probably in the thousands. In the era of GIFs, social media, and smartphones, Beyonce proved that a killer dance could steal the show, even if the song it was accompanying was incredible, too. Remember our first entry, the “Sorry” video? Yeah, where do you think Justin got the idea?
Kelis — “Milkshake”
One of my favorite things about this video is Nas’ cameo as a cook in the kitchen at Tasty’s Yard diner. More pop stars should stealthily sneak their love interests into their videos. Between perfectly embodying the way women wore jeans in the early 2000s, and perfecting the art of imbuing a nonsensical word with sexual innuendo, Kelis also manages to create the best diner-based music video of the last couple decades. If this video came out in 2019, odds are the diner itself would exist somewhere and host a press preview, while actually serving up milkshakes and social media hashtags. The most impactful thing about the “Milkshake” video, though, was Kelis proving that the right artist can take a song and turn it into a hit through sheer force of personality and will. Oh, and that Pharrell producing for pop stars was a win for everyone involved.
Britney Spears — “…Baby One More Time”
It’s easy to see Britney’s influence on… well, almost any pop diva still doing the damn thing. Between the short, plaid skirts, pigtails, and high school setting, everyone from Ariana Grande to Iggy Azalea to Charli XCX can thank Britney for making high school a great setting for a pop video all the way back in 1998. Sure, there might have been high school videos that game before, but “…Baby One More Time” was the one that made it an iconic setting, and blew up Britney Spears in the process.
Spice Girls — “Wannabe”
When I was in grade school, I remember a girl at summer camp whispering in my ear that “ziga-zig-ah” meant sex. Though I didn’t get the reference, and I don’t think I knew what sex was at that point either, when I finally heard the song, her declaration stuck with me. Years later, I think the message of this song is actually pretty mature — love me, love my people. Also, we are forever indebted to them for putting forth the idea that relationships are the ephemeral thing, and it’s friendship that is eternal to a whole generation of girls. But the video is a fascinating artifact too, as it shows the girls making trouble for wealthy folks in a fancy hotel, and establishes the idea that for a pop group to be successful, each member needs to have a distinct, separatist look. From One Direction to Fifth Harmony, that trope has definitely held up. And again with the nonsense words. Maybe that’s where Kelis and co. got it?
Madonna — “Like A Prayer”
Look no further than last year’s “God Is A Woman” to see the impact of religious imagery in pop music, partially indebted to Madonna taking it mainstream in the late eighties. And though the hackneyed political commentary included in this video doesn’t hold up very well in 2019, Midge was at least trying to use her platform to make a statement for good. Pop video as political prop? Oh, that would definitely continue to happen for the next thirty years, and will almost certainly be happening in thirty more. If any real political system has survived, that is.
Whitney Houston — “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)”
Aside from helping popularize the idea of a pop star wearing many different looks throughout a single video (Gaga knew who she was pulling from for “Bad Romance”), this video also highlights the different worlds a performer occupies: the bright, colorful magic of the stage, and the black and white slide back to reality when the show is over. Showing the glamorous, sexy side of a pop star in “work” mode, and transposing it with their somewhat lonely personal life isn’t just common in music videos, but show biz plotlines of all mediums.
Prince — “When Doves Cry”
While some people might argue the genre definition here, it’s almost impossible to overstate the influence of this visual on subsequent videos in pop music. Directed by Prince himself, the song’s nude opening scene, clips from Purple Rain including depictions of domestic violence and sex, and double-frame cinematography toward the end of the clip all meld together to create a video that should feel like a hodgepodge, but actually manages to come off as pretty cohesive. It set the stage for artist’s directing their own videos, pulling clips from movies into music videos, and unusual cinematography effects.
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.