Ever since it launched back on August 1, 1981, MTV has been a constant reminder of the central role music videos play in pop culture. Of course, this art form existed well before the network started handing out “moon man” trophies during the first MTV Video Music Awards in September 1984. Music videos were available in some rudimentary form back in the 1960s—the Beatles made a short film for “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” when the studio-bound band wanted to plug a new single—and they continue to exist long after MTV has largely abandoned music programming.
Nevertheless, it’s impossible to deny that the glory days of the music video were the 1980s and 1990s, when the form dominated popular discourse. Even now the biggest videos of that era—“Thriller,” “…Baby One More Time,” “Vogue,” “Sabotage”—are ever present in pop culture, as much for their visuals as for the songs they accompany. The occasion of the 39th MTV VMAs allows us to look back on the great videos that have been made over the years. Don’t think of this list as comprehensive as much as a thorough sampler, one that illustrates the wide range of music videos and their lasting impact on the culture over the last four decades.