14 min read

On Watching More Music Videos

Plus a late 2023 video roundup
On Watching More Music Videos

Last week, I got to join Louie over at Pop Pantheon for a chat about Jennifer Lopez’s bonkers but (if you ask me) endearing new visual album, This Is Me... Now: A Love Story, mostly using the project as a launchpad to talk more generally about visual albums and their history. Lots of Beyoncé in our conversation, and lots of me previewing stuff to come in the newsletter later this year…

In the final days of 2022 (yes, 2022), during the so-called dead week between Christmas and New Year’s, I decided on a whim to have Tidal catch me up on the year’s best in music videos. I combined a few of the service’s genre-specific 2022 playlists—pop, R&B, and rock, if I remember correctly—into one big playlist, then sat in front of the TV watching videos for hours straight.   

Tidal makes its video content (and especially exclusives) a central draw of the service. Besides the fact that the quality’s great, stuff doesn’t pop up between or on videos like it does on YouTube (assuming you aren’t watching via YouTube Music), so you’re never going to miss Britney’s cheeky grins at the end of “…Baby One More Time” (1998) or “Everytime” (2004). Here’s a particularly ironic screenshot I recently took to show you what I mean:

For my first several years of being a user, I mostly took Tidal’s video playlists for granted. One called “New Video Arrivals” is updated weekly or so, but you can get more specific when it comes to genre and moment: “1980s R&B Video Classics,” “Country Video Hits,” “Pop Videos: Best of 2023,” and so on. The service also auto-generates me video mixes in addition to song mixes, though I can’t honestly say I’ve taken advantage of those, either.  

Most of the major music streamers do their own version of video curation at this point, though Spotify seems to lag behind everyone else. By some measures, YouTube’s curation is actually more robust than Tidal’s, you just have to be a bit more open to potentially missing the final shot of something. I also learned recently that Apple Music has a cool feature called Apple Music TV, a sort of 24-hour music video station. Tidal works perfectly fine for me because that’s where exclusives from the Carters have often shown up—I rewatch Lemonade (2016) not infrequently—and because that’s where I’ve already been hanging out for almost eight years. I’m a creature of habit.   

During that dead week back in 2022, however, I was hit with a sudden realization while clicking around the platform’s video section. I was considered to be some kind of “authority” “on” “music” “videos,” and yet the majority of the year’s so-called best ones hadn’t come across my desk—not just “I haven’t seen this yet” but often “I didn’t know this existed” or even “I fully haven’t heard of this artist.” This seemed like something to feel ashamed about, but thankfully something that presented itself during a self-improvement-minded time of year.

Going into 2023, I therefore resolved to watch a new-to-me music video each day, planning on making “New Video Arrivals” one of my usual haunts. But settling in for just one video is harder than it sounds when you work from home and particularly like them; pretty quickly, my one-a-day plan turned into me watching something like half an hour’s worth each day. I already tended to listen to music by casting it to my TV, and already tended to listen to music in album-length batches—a holdover practice from a year when I’d resolved to listen to a new-to-me album each day—so it wasn’t actually too much of a leap. It mostly just meant that I was now listening to music more actively, which is to say with my eyes. And wasn’t that kind of my job? I felt less like a couch potato looking to make excuses and more like someone who’d made a lifestyle change to stay on top of her field.

I kept up as best as I could with new stuff as it came out, but I also made my way through each of the classics playlists already sitting on Tidal. Rather than go through these one by one, I combined everything into a monster playlist to which I constantly added and removed stuff all year long. I ate into it while I woke up, while I folded laundry, while I waited for my Uber Eats to arrive. And because of the particulars of my playlist, I never really knew what I was in for on a given day. I might see a brand new Bad Bunny video, then a Sinéad O’Connor classic I’d seen several times before, then a lower-budget hidden gem from Tidal’s Rising section. Sometimes I hit shuffle and hoped for the best, and sometimes I watched a half-hour straight of dancehall. Each session was totally different from the last.

Over the course of 2023, I watched some unknown four-digit number of music videos this way—almost all new to me, most just plain new. And since I like to do this sort of thing, I kept a record of the ones I liked (colour-coded in green), the ones I knew I wanted to watch at least a second time (blue), and—just for the first few months of the year because it didn’t take long for me to hate these vibes—the ones I actively disliked (red). I’d always track the years and directors, a sub-habit that was an education in itself, and would sometimes add a quick note if I felt so inclined (e.g. “I love the way this is lit,” “this man is literally so annoying!!!!,” “bikini?!,” and so on). Throughout the year, I gradually built a playlist called “2023 greens and blues,” 132 videos for me to watch back as it was winding down.  

My brain grew several sizes as a result of this whole exercise. While I definitely consumed a great deal of garbage, I got to watch lots of wonderful art, too. And as with prolonged exposure to any medium—this also happened back when I was inhaling albums in a similar way—I could feel both of those things challenging but also sharpening my taste. I started noticing when an artist didn’t seem to know how to make an interesting video without CGI, I got more fed up than ever with empty references to beloved millennial touchstones, and I found myself riveted by artists and genres I may not ever have spent much time with otherwise.

I also ended the year feeling like I could truly speak to the current video landscape. That may sound strange if you’re a regular reader who likes to think they can trust my video takes, and it feels strange for me to type as someone who wants others to trust my video takes. But having never really grown up with 24-hour music video programming—only various countdown programs as a smaller kid, then online streaming as a bigger kid and beyond—I’ve mostly engaged with music videos in my lifetime on an artist-first or director-first or topic-first basis. I feel like I watch music videos constantly, and my loved ones would tell you they’re subjected to music videos constantly, but it’s mostly stuff from a pretty specific slice of the industry. My year of incessant video-watching woke me up to the cumulative impact of that over time, and it was very humbling.

Now, when people tweet things like, “No one [does x or y] in music videos anymore”—a very popular kind of tweet as of late—I can come up with a six-example rebuttal in my head. If someone comes to me for a video recommendation, I can actually give one. I can explain the curious trend in the last couple of years of artists simply hanging out outside, where time spent in the natural world seems to be the entire point of the video. I can tell you that self-directing is now exceedingly common—so common, in fact, that soon we might not consider it all that remarkable. I watched and learned so much that I shudder to think I was ever weighing in on this stuff prior to 2023 (but I know that’s just me being hard on myself).

We’re in a strange moment in music video history and culture, even compared to a decade ago. On the one hand, there’s never been more out there to explore, and it’s never theoretically been easier to get a video into people’s eyeballs. But in practice, we’re so deep in our individual algorithms that any exploring generally only happens within self-determined/reinforced genre boundaries. The whole point of algorithms is to be fed more of what you already like, or maybe the slightest of variations on your palate, not to shake it up entirely. Which means that your favourite video of the year could be a country video, but you “hate” “country” and have trained YouTube to think you “hate” “country,” and so you might not even know it exists.  

But that’s if we’re out there exploring at all; for many people, maybe even the average person, the interest to watch new video releases just isn’t there. I got to speak to a room of undergrads this week about my work, the vast majority of whom did not identify as regular video-watchers, and they gave me a number of personally-blasphemous but technically-sound reasons for that: There’s nothing mandatory about them, whether culturally or as a way of being introduced to new music; My attention span is so bad; I’m doing other things instead. With the exception of the odd project that cuts through the noise—we talked about “WAP” (2020) and “MONTERO (Call Me by Your Name)” (2021) as a couple recent examples—you can mostly get away these days with avoiding music videos, socially speaking.   

In the event that one is keen on keeping up with them, there are simply too many being made to know which ones actually deserve your attention. A teenager watching MTV after school in 1994 had all the Ws of music video-watching—what, where, when, and perhaps why—taken care of; a teenager these days exists in a freewheeling media moment of algorithms and individual subscriptions and infinite choice, when you have to bring most of the Ws to the table yourself. The benefit to having some kind of curation at work—if not MTV, then perhaps a YouTube playlist, or a Pitchfork year-end roundup, or a recommendation from a friend—is that you’re at least being provided with the what.

With that in mind, I wrangled 50 videos from “2023 greens and blues” into my own roundup below, and I put them in the exact same order into a YouTube playlist here, so now you also have a where. The when of it all is up to you, but I believe it’s about three hours long in total. These videos aren’t necessarily my “favourites” or the “best” of last year, and they’re definitely not in any particular order—just 50 that I think are worth everyone’s time, grouped together roughly by clique (and with brief programming notes, because why not).

The why here is a bit thornier. I have my own reasons for loving and engaging with this medium, and hopefully I’ve done an okay job of explaining how much I personally grew from being pummelled by it all through 2023. But I admittedly struggled a bit in that undergrad class to come up with a more universal why on the spot. “They’re fun,” I said at one point—not wrongly. They go over great at a party? They’re where I see some of the most creativity in a given calendar year? They’re the art form of choice for an industry, a fascinatingly paradoxical idea? They fire up the imagination, which means they cause trouble and sometimes even save lives?

Why do you watch music videos? (Do you watch music videos?) I’d genuinely love to know. And if you decide to dip into these ones, please tell me what you think.

The worldbuilders

"Capable of love"

Each of these videos is fully committed to the reality of its own making—generally one much like our own, save for a crucial detail or two. Consider this the “tasteful escapism” category, basically. (As a fun fact, half of it was at some point considered for The lonely hearts instead.)

The self-mythologizers

"I Can See You (Taylor's Version) (From the Vault)"

Four artists tapping into their own narratives and toying with what we think we know about them. Billie Eilish uses her Barbie (2023) contribution to ask whether she might be a doll herself; Doja Cat kicks off an only-semi-warranted villain era; Taylor Swift reimagines her big rerecording project as an actual heist; Miley Cyrus comes out as a contented divorcée, then circles back later in the year with some oblique “one decade since I twerked on Robin Thicke” apologia.

The horndogs 


Pretty self-explanatory—I am prescribing these artists exactly one (1) cold shower, and also thanking them for making some of my most-listened-to music of 2023.

The art students


If this roundup were a high school cafeteria with a bunch of lunch tables, here’s the table that spends the whole hour scrolling through Tumblr and saving “references” for later. We’ve got our cinephiles, we’ve got our collagists, we’ve got our performance artists, and we’ve even got “paying homage to this piece I love by my mom, Madonna.”

The dancing queens

"A Night to Remember"

In keeping with my intro, recent videos from Dua Lipa and Tate McRae and Ariana Grande have wrought many a take on “dancing” “finally” “being” “back” “in” “music” “videos.” But dancing never really went anywhere, even if the sub-genre that is “channelling MTV-era icons in an abandoned warehouse/studio” seems particularly hot right now. A couple of the videos below do vibe nicely with the trend, but the others offer something totally new. (I don’t have Victoria Monét in here because it wouldn’t be fair to have her occupy the whole category with everything she released in 2023; that said, you can technically find her dancing in The troublemakers.)

The high-conceptualizers

"Character Development"

This category is a master class in “all we needed was this one great idea.” The videos here are simple on paper and indelible for precisely that reason, whether it’s Allison Ponthier riffing on paperback romance covers or Cate Blanchett dancing in a highlighter-yellow suit. For what it’s worth—and as I mentioned above, I’ve started to appreciate it more than ever—they also rely almost entirely on practical effects. 

The troublemakers


If this were another lunch table, it would probably seat the perennially-in-detention kids—the ones who get caught smoking in the bathroom, violating dress codes, skipping school, sacrificing meat to Satan, and other things of that nature.  

The therapy clients


Various degrees of healed/healing on display here. Sometimes a single lyric has landed someone in this category, and sometimes there’s a greater sense of a project purposely emanating an aura of mental healthfulness… or, uh, the exact opposite (I badly wanted to have the Paris Texas video somewhere in this roundup, and this was the best place).

The lonely hearts

"One of Your Girls"

A couple artists in this category managed to fit some of the most heartbreaking writing of the year into some of the biggest earworms; a couple of these videos just need more eyes on them, where I was able to make it work with a lyric or two. If you watch nothing else, check out “One of Your Girls,” one of the most interesting pop music releases/texts of last year.

The scream queens


This is essentially the horror category. Sometimes that’s in a more overt, “Doja Cat plays a demon terrorizing Christina Ricci in her home” way, and sometimes it’s in a more insidious and psychological way. Each is uniquely disturbing, for those into that sort of thing.

That’s it for me! What are your own favourite—or at least must-see, which is sometimes a different thing—videos from last year (or perhaps this one so far; until something else comes along, this takes the cake for me).

I’ll be back soon-ish with my first big long-read of 2024. ●

Mononym Mythology is a music video culture newsletter by me, Sydney Urbanek, where I write about mostly pop stars and their visual antics.

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