On March 3, 1989, Madonna released her music video for “Like a Prayer.” Directed by her longtime collaborator Mary Lambert, the clip quickly took on a life of its own, solidifying fashion’s pivotal role in music videos. The iconography remains iconic: Madonna’s weighty cross necklace paired with a provocative black lace slip dress was controversial, even sinful. This was intentional, of course: The video addressed topics of institutionalized racism and criminal injustice — a black man is imprisoned for a crime he did not commit —not to mention the cross-burning defacement of religious insignia; the clothes pushed back against those same boundaries.
Three decades later, that lingerie dress is now timeless, a tidy representation of the video’s thematic elements as a whole. While Madonna is a strong example, this close association between clothes and content is not unique to the “Material Girl.” One simply can’t talk about pop music without also discussing fashion, and historically, there’s been no greater stage for fashion than in the kind of short film meant to be disseminated to millions of people on platforms like MTV and VH1.
“When we were growing up, MTV was everyone’s go-to for fashion, and music videos had such a huge impact on our culture at that time,” says stylist B. Åkerlund, whose list of clientele — including Beyoncé, Katy Perry, Madonna, Nicki Minaj, and Paul McCartney — reads something like a line of succession in pop royalty. “But music videos have always set such a tone for the song, and when you think of a song, you think of the video. You know what that artist wore.”
As pop music itself has gotten bigger, bolder, and more creative, so have its videos — despite diminished budgets in the hundreds-of-thousands-of-dollars range — as have the clothes in them that help establish an artist’s image. So while fashion in pop videos has evolved in the four decades since the dawn of MTV, the two have also become more interdependent than ever.
Today, the “pop” category spans across genres: The current Top 40 is a reliable cocktail of R&B (SZA), hip-hop (Travis Scott), soft rock (Maroon 5), and even country (Kacey Musgraves). According to British musicologist Simon Frith, pop is that which is produced as a matter of enterprise, not art, and designed to appeal to everyone.
“In musical terms, it is essentially conservative,” Frith wrote in the 2001 book The Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock. “Pop is not do-it-yourself music, but is professionally produced and packaged.” Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” video was an interesting nexus of the two: It certainly wasn’t “conservative,” and it wasn’t intended to appeal to everyone. And yet, its five minutes and 37 seconds represented the absolute pinnacle of pop.
By the mid- to late-1990s, we had emerged in a post-Madonna world: Those aesthetic walls Madge had worked to bring down — using a slip dress as a means to expose the more puritanical expectations of women in contemporary society, for example — had inspired other pop musicians to play with fashion in similarly inventive ways and challenge themselves to be more creative with style. (Twenty years later, Lady Gaga’s “Alejandro” video may have paid the most literal homage — donning a red latex habit, the pop star swallows a rosary before appearing in nude-toned underwear — and was promptly condemned by the Catholic League.)
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