Growing up during the 1950s and 1960s, my primary exposure to music was limited to the radio and to the few 45s or albums that I purchased. At times, I didn’t understand the words, or I had a hard time visualizing the narrative of the song. That’s why when MTV (Music Television) began in the early 1980s, I was hooked immediately. I loved this cool new art form that added video to the soundtrack. So today, when I need a short break from all my reading and writing on the computer, I often jump over to YouTube to watch some of my personal favorites and to recall again why I love music videos.
Music Videos Capture a Time and a Place
“Allentown” by Billy Joel. During the early days of MTV, I watched it often, so the videos from that era remind me of where I was — single and lonely — and what I was doing: teaching English at a small, Catholic high school. The songs themselves can also portray a time and a place, and Billy Joel’s “Allentown” is a touching anthem to the unfortunate death of the steel industry in Pennsylvania.
Music Videos Can Really Tell a Story
“You Belong With Me” by Taylor Swift. A 2009 Taylor Swift song for an old guy might seem like an odd combination, but I love this short drama. In fact, I often show this video to my students as a great example of contrast between the two female characters in love with the same young man: one who is the narrator and a nerdy band member and the other who is the captain of the cheerleaders. Interestingly, too, I think I watched this video about five or six times before I realized Swift plays both roles.
Music Videos Capture Universal Experiences
“Cinderella” by Stephen Curtis Chapman. This video is beautiful in its simplicity. As Chapman sings about his daughter at three different stages of her life, the viewer sees silhouettes of the two of them dancing. As a father of two daughters, I can definitely relate to the song’s key lines: “Oh I will dance with Cinderella. I don’t want to miss even one song ’cause all too soon the clock will strike midnight, and she’ll be gone.”
Music Videos Demonstrate Human Interaction
“Boots of Spanish Leather” written by Bob Dylan and performed by Mandolin Orange. This is a pure performance video, but it stands out because Andrew Marlin does a phenomenal job with his vocals and guitar and because Emily Frantz is even better with her vocals and violin. Together, their dialogue of a long-distance relationship rings true, and the violin at the climax of the song is both somber and haunting.
Music Videos Are Fun
“You Can Call Me Al” by Paul Simon. This 2017 concert video from Hyde Park may be the most playful song on this list, and for the longest time, I had no idea what the song was even about. (Apparently, it’s about a midlife crisis.) Still, I sang along, and I especially love all the horns and the audience participation on this version.
Music Videos Bring Joy into Public Spaces
“Hallelujah Chorus” by a flash mob at a food court. Wikipedia defines a flash mob as “a group of people who assemble suddenly in a public place, perform for a brief time, then quickly disperse, often for the purposes of entertainment, satire, and artistic expressions.” So, yes, I have to admit, I am a sucker for flash mob videos. This particular video may be one of the first flash mobs I ever saw, and it’s still one of my favorites.
Music Videos Capture Historical Moments
“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” by The Band. I’ve read some books about The Civil War, and I watched the Ken Burns documentary, but this song about the fall of the South is really powerful. If you’ve seen The Last Waltz, the 1978 movie directed by Martin Scorsese, you’re probably familiar with this concert video; the drum work and vocals by Levon Helm are magnificent.
Music Videos Showcase Both New and Old Artists
“Father and Son” by Cat Stevens on NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert. These short, intimate concerts are filmed at the desk of National Public Radio host Bob Boilen. They are a great way to see up-and-coming artists and also some old favorites. Honestly, I didn’t realize Cat Stevens was performing again until I saw this video.
Music Videos Can Sometimes Bring about Change
“The Hurricane” by Bob Dylan. This eight-minute narrative helped free boxer Rubin Carter from jail after he had been falsely accused of murder. Dylan is so passionate on this song, playing both guitar and harmonica, and violinist Scarlet Rivera makes the overall piece amazing. The YouTube link below is good, but an even better performance is included in Martin Scorsese’s recent film called Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story (at about the two-hour mark) now available on Netflix.
Music Videos Can Unite the World
“The Weight” featuring Robbie Robertson and Ringo Starr: Playing for Change. In 1985, America’s most famous musicians came together to record the classic “We Are the World.” Today, an organization called “Playing for Change” also gathers musicians electronically to record famous songs. “The Weight” was originally recorded by The Band over 50 years ago, and this version uses an eclectic collection of musicians and instruments from around the world. I’m pretty sure you’ll enjoy it.
My wife, Barbara, was selling encyclopedias when we first met, and when she highlighted the benefits to potential customers, she always used the word “serendipity,” a word that Merriam-Webster defines as the “phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things not sought for.” So just as those who browse through an encyclopedia are often surprised by what they find, I, too, am always amazed and delighted by the music videos I find on the internet. In fact, I think I’ll go watch a few songs right now.