Cinema and Media Studies Music Video
William Straw
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 March 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 October 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0046


Music video emerged as the object of academic writing shortly after the introduction in the United States of MTV (Music Television) in 1981. From the beginning, music video was claimed as the focus of academic study by different disciplines or subfields, leading to evident tensions and territorial disputes in early scholarship. For television scholars in the 1980s, music television networks (such as MTV) were seen to confirm the sense that television, with its fragmentary forms and repetitive structures, was the quintessentially postmodern medium. Scholars of popular music, less drawn to claims about music video’s postmodern character, were more concerned with the fate of music within a cultural form that bound it to moving images. This emphasis on image, some argued, threatened the autonomy of music and facilitated its commodification and co-optation. As academic writing on music video developed in the 1980s and 1990s, it followed a range of directions corresponding to different disciplines and specializations. Scholars of media economics and institutions studied the ways in which music video production had come to be integrated within the functioning of the music industries. At the same time, and amid widespread public outcry over the sexual and violent content of music video, numerous studies examined the treatment of women or racial minorities within music videos. Some of this work was interpretive or qualitative in character, drawing on the increasingly popular methodologies and political impulses of cultural studies, which spread across the humanities during this period. Other academic studies of music video content were quantitative, involving content analyses of selected samples of music videos or statistical measurements of the responses of viewers to particular kinds of content in controlled situations. As the novelty of music videos declined in the late 1990s and their distribution came to favor the Internet more than specialty television networks, the popularity of music video as a distinct object of study likewise seemed diminished. This decline in the influence or novelty of music video networks was hastened as well by the move of networks such as MTV toward “long-form” programming (such as reality programs or documentary series), which reduced the time devoted to video clips. Within scholarship on music video, the most notable trend since 2000 has been to situate music videos within broader contexts involving the audiovisual treatment of music. A range of works have placed music videos within a broader history of encounters between music and audiovisual entertainment media such as cinema or television. Among the most important of these studies have been those that study the audiovisual media systems outside the Western world, most notably in different regions of Asia.


The two key collections of writing on music video are Frith, et al. 1993 and Beebe and Middleton 2007. The differences in focus between these two collections point to concrete shifts in the cultural status of music videos in the fourteen-year interval between the two books, and this reveals important changes in the methods and perspectives brought to bear on them. The book Sound and Vision (Frith, et al. 1993) was conceived in part as a response to arguments made by Jody Berland, Briankle Chang, Dana Polan, and John Fiske in the Journal of Communication Inquiry (Berland 1986, Chang 1986, Polan 1986, and Fiske 1986, all cited under Postmodernism), in which the postmodern character of the music video was a dominant theme. Berland’s emphasis on music had already set her apart from those who argued that the defining trait of music video was its exaggeration of certain characteristics of television in general. In their contributions to Sound and Vision, Andrew Goodwin and Will Straw make their own arguments for the postmodern character of the music video but join the other contributors to Sound and Vision in locating videos within more concrete histories of technology, celebrity, narrative form, and musical genre. Still in print, Sound and Vision sums up the first decade of writing on music video while moving the field slightly away from television studies and toward the emerging field of popular music studies, of which coeditor Simon Frith was a founding figure. Coedited by two scholars of English, Beebe and Middleton 2007 shows the multiple directions in which the study of music video has traveled since the 1990s. First, music video is set within a longer history of attempts to join image to song, as in Amy Herzog’s article on “Soundies,” which were musical shorts of the post–World War Two period, and Norma Coates’s study of Elvis Presley’s appearances on television in the 1950s. Next, the growth of music-oriented cable television systems is set in the context of broader technological transformations in the television industry, such as the global satellite broadcasts of music concerts studied by Lisa Parks. Finally, the geographical scope of this book moves beyond that of the earlier anthology, with articles on the emergence and spread of music videos in Papua, New Guinea; Finland; and Canada.

  • Beebe, Roger, and Jason Middleton, eds. Medium Cool: Music Video from Soundies to Cellphones. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007.

    E-mail Citation »

    Anthology of articles by media scholars that follows the directions common in new scholarly writing on music video: outward, to consider music video in contexts other than those of the United States, and backward in time, looking at antecedents of music video in satellite broadcast television concerts and 1950s television variety programs.

  • Frith, Simon, Andrew Goodwin, and Lawrence Grossberg, eds. Sound and Vision: The Music Video Reader. London: Routledge, 1993.

    E-mail Citation »

    Early anthology of writings on music video, dominated by scholars of popular music rather than those of television or film, and situating music video within a longer history of music’s relationship to audiovisual media. Key texts include Kobena Mercer’s analysis of Michael Jackson’s Thriller video (pp. 80–93) and Lawrence Grossberg’s essay on cinema, postmodernity, and youth culture (pp. 159–179).

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