Many of us keep track of what tops the box-office and iTunes charts, but can anybody even guess what’s the most-viewed YouTube video of all time? No, it doesn’t involve a baby or a kid doing something hilarious. The answer is “Bad Romance,” the music video starring Lady Gaga shimmying in what looks like an underground brothel. As of press time it had been viewed 244,529,375 times. The runner-up, and catching up fast, is the music video for Justin Bieber’s song “Baby,” with 243,479,950 views. No. 3 features a real baby (“Charlie Bit My Finger—Again”), though there’s another video, Miley Cyrus’s “Party in the U.S.A.,” at No. 5, with 138 million views. Of course, music videos make up only a fraction of YouTube’s audience as the second-largest search engine after Google, but the Web site has singlehandedly revived the genre—with a little help from a woman who wears soda cans in her hair.
Once upon a time, when people purchased their favorite songs on records and cassettes, the music video was a touchstone of popular culture. MTV launched in 1981 as a network devoted to airing them 24 hours a day—remember the rise of the VJ? But just like video killed the radio star, reality TV killed the music video. In the late ’90s, music channels stopped being synonymous with music—and started airing washed-up music stars, such as the Osbournes and the Lachey-Simpsons, bickering in the comfort of their own McMansions. Not long after TRL was axed in 2008, music videos were relegated to the graveyard shift; even now, they air on MTV only between 3 a.m. and 9 a.m. As the music business imploded on the back of illegal downloads, videos—once seen as the best promotion to help boost albums—were a luxury that didn’t make sense.
And then came music to record executives’ ears: YouTube, which has partnered with a company named Vevo to monetize a medium that was as dated as a pair of disco shoes. Every time YouTube broadcasts a video through Vevo online, it is accompanied by a brief ad, and for every 1,000 such “impressions,” Vevo earns at least $25. The reason music videos have come back from the dead is simple. They are the perfect length—three to five minutes—for abbreviated online attention spans. They are easy to share, tweet, Facebook, and comment on. You can watch them from the comfort of your own home (or cubicle, when you’re procrastinating at work). Some videos are now so high in demand, they even have their own trailers. Is it just a coincidence that the movie industry feels so sluggish at the same time music videos are taking off?
If there’s one lady who should take credit for the resurgence of the music video, it’s Lady Gaga. Just as Michael Jackson revitalized the genre in 1983 with his 14-minute “Thriller” extravaganza, Gaga’s videos have the production values of an action movie, with special effects, elaborate costumes, background dancers, and more bling than the Oscars. It’s not just that her music videos are theatrical, but like an episode of Lost, they lend themselves to being watched, rewatched, dissected, and argued about in surprisingly sophisticated ways. When “Bad Romance” premiered last November, it created an online blitz—Rolling Stone compared it to Kubrick, and even The Wall Street Journal weighed in. Gaga’s music video for “Telephone,” which premiered in March on E! as well as on Vevo, was more than nine minutes long. It was something like a homage to both Tarantino and Thelma & Louise: a statement of female empowerment through murder and violence, set against a pastiche of singing, dancing, and cheesy acting, courtesy of Beyoncé. Soon enough, the video got even more attention when fans started posting their own shot-by-shot remakes on (you guessed it) YouTube. The best was from a platoon of soldiers in Afghanistan, which has been watched by 5 million people and prompted a U.S. Army spokeswoman to report that “the brigade command team is happy to see that they also still have a good sense of humor and that morale is high.”
And if the boys in uniform can get in on the act, who’s to say that you can’t, too? Democratized fame—in the form of American Idol and The Hills—may have once stifled music videos, but now it’s an ally. Anybody can star in a music video and have the whole world watch them lip-sync, even if they’re not lip-syncing to their own songs. In order to understand the parodies, we need to be familiar with the original videos. A similar principle was behind why we studied music videos in the first place—to learn how to dance like Michael Jackson or Madonna in the clubs. Now, of course, nobody goes to a club to meet somebody; we can thank Match.com and dating Web sites for that. But the Web isn’t all that bad. If it weren’t for the Internet, the music video wouldn’t have been able to accomplish a feat that neither Britney nor Whitney could pull off: it’s made a full comeback.