2010 is the year the music video grows up. In case you haven’t heard, in December the National Film Registry (NFR) decided to include Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” music video in the Library of Congress. It’s the first time a music video has ever received such a distinction and signifies the dawning of an age of respect for the art form.
Typically, the NFR is devoted to preserving historic and culturally significant movies. For example, since its creation in 1988 it has inducted Gone with the Wind, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Casablanca. Though films aren’t required to have a minimum running time to get into the Library of Congress, most modern inductees have been feature-length films. (Fargo, for example, is the youngest film in the registry.)
So it’s especially significant that “Thriller” has been included, because it means the music video genre is maturing. What was initially little more than a song-length commercial has grown into an independent art form that expresses something unique from the song it represents. In other words, videos have become respectable.
It’s fitting that “Thriller” is the first video included in the NFR. Though music videos had existed long before it, everything changed in its wake. Instead of simply depicting a musician performing or doing something idiosyncratic, the video combined complex storytelling and filmmaking. There was a retro zombie story, and Michael Jackson acted as much as he sang. At over 13 minutes long, it also demonstrated that videos could include extra material that wasn’t a part of the song. (Ed. — Unfortunately, the video embedded above is not the full 13-minute version. Apparently even the power of the Internet is not enough to harness MJ’s greatness — or at least not in an embeddable form.)
As is the case with most revolutionary artworks, the innovations apparent in “Thriller” have become commonplace. Videos typically tell some sort of story today and have big budgets to do so. (“Thriller” was shot on a then-colossal budget of $500,000.) In addition to the innumerable direct imitations, parodies and tributes, most music videos out there are eternally indebted to “Thriller” in one way or another — through dancing, cinematography, production design, etc. In short, “Thriller” was a game-changer when it was released because it proved that music videos could be exciting and expressive. It continues to be a game-changer today because proves that music videos continue to be an important mode of expression in contemporary America.
Jim Dalrymple is a regular correspondent for Rhombus.
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