In 1992, the recording industry was riding high. The compact disc had become a major success, with music lovers purchasing new albums and old releases in astonishing numbers despite the format's comparatively steep price tags. And the music-video juggernaut known as MTV was helping major labels to break new music to an unprecedented national audience.
That may seem strange to those who have grown up with the Jersey Shore version of MTV, but 20 years ago, musicians were the network's stars. Back then, a hot music video could turn semi-anonymous performers into superstars overnight, and the major record labels pumped millions into their top acts' video budgets.
In many ways, 1992 was the high-water mark for music video as an artistic medium. The high-concept shoots pioneered by artists like Michael Jackson had raised the bar far beyond simple lip synching. Put simply, music videos moved units. For that reason, everyone was making videos, from Megadeth to Tori Amos. Video budgets had never been higher, and MTV couldn't get enough of them.
Before long, of course, it would be all over. Videos would be replaced on MTV by reality series, and the days of record companies blowing a few million on a clip directed by David Fincher began to seem too impossible to be true. But in 1992, the medium appeared vital, healthy and here to stay.
Here's a look at the best five music videos from 1992 and what they tell us about that era of popular music:
5. Michael Jackson, "Remember the Time"
By '92, Michael Jackson was already regarded as the greatest music-video artist of all time. The King of Pop's "short films" for "Thriller," "Beat It" and "Bad" had been landmark events for MTV, and in the early '90s -- before the network embraced hip-hop wholeheartedly -- he was still MTV's biggest black star.
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Maybe he felt he had a lot to live up to, or maybe he just wasn't altogether sane. But whatever the reason, Jackson elected to go straight over the top for his "Remember the Time" video. Directed by John Singleton, the nine-minute clip casts MJ as a (freakish, alien) wizard in a lavishly decorated ancient Egypt, brazenly trying to woo Queen Iman away from Pharoah Eddie Murphy. Magic Johnson, the Pharcyde(!) and "Tiny" Lister also make cameos, because why wouldn't they.
The whole thing only cost $2 million, a mere fraction of the $7 million Mike would blow on his "Scream" video later in the decade. But that was still a large enough sum to make "Remember the Time" one of the most expensive (and memorable) music videos in history. Er, HIStory.
4. Nirvana, "In Bloom"
A year after the classic clip for "Smells Like Teen Spirit" had exiled the Wingers of the world from MTV forever, Nirvana frontman Kurt Cobain groused (as he often did) that the band was being taken too seriously by the lamestream media and fans. Consequently, the band decided to lighten the mood a bit with their third video from Nevermind, "In Bloom."
Parodying the group's outrageous, overnight pop stardom, the video casts Nirvana as early-'60s heartthrobs playing an Ed Sullivan-like variety show. The band kept things edgy with some trademark dresses and instrument smashing, but compared to the strange, slightly unsettling clips for "Teen Spirit," "Come As You Are" and "Heart Shaped Box" (not to mention the funerary ambience of the band's Unplugged appearance), "In Bloom" was as silly and light as Nirvana would ever get. It was named "Best Alternative Video" at the 1993 VMAs.
3. Madonna, "Erotica"
By the time the '90s rolled around, Madonna was unquestionably MTV's second-biggest video star, right behind Michael Jackson. From almost the very beginning of her career, Madonna had courted controversy with her videos, but none pushed boundaries harder than her '92 clip for "Erotica."
In the post-Magic Johnson world of 1992, sex had never seemed more dangerous, and Madonna played that danger to the hilt. The "Erotica" video featured footage of the pop star shot during the sessions for her Sex book, wherein Madonna explores filthy fantasies from interracial threesomes to lesbian bondage. The standard version, featuring no nudity, was promptly banned by MTV, making it a sensation. An explicit version, starring Madonna's impossibly tiny nipples, was also released in Europe and other freakier markets.
As usual, the steamy controversy made Madonna money. The scandalous clip did big business on the home-video market and helped keep her name in print for months.
2. Guns N' Roses, "November Rain"
Guns N' Roses may have been a damn sight grittier than the likes of Michael Jackson and Madonna, but beginning with the video for "November Rain," front man Axl Rose began proving he was no less ambitious -- or eccentric.
Inspired by the lush epics of Axl's '70s idols Elton John and Queen, the "November Rain" video was a decadent masterpiece featuring hundreds of extras, an orchestra and Axl's girlfriend Stephanie Seymour wearing an $8,000 wedding dress. Like the song, the video seemed to be about the stormy, heartbreaking end to a relationship, but scenes of Axl munching on sleeping pills and Seymour lying in a casket with half her face apparently destroyed left many fans wondering what the fuck was going on.
The video cost $1.5 million, and every penny is evident onscreen. The clip won for "Best Cinematography" at the 1992 VMAs and sealed GNR's claim to the Video Vanguard award. Before long, Guns N' Roses' classic lineup would dissolve in acrimony, but "November Rain" survives as a monument to the band's brief-but-memorable reign over the most glorious period in music-video history.
1. Pearl Jam, "Jeremy"
While their Seattle peers in Nirvana opted to get goofy on video in 1992 for "In Bloom," Pearl Jam decided to get deadly serious on its clip for "Jeremy." Released long before school shootings became a cultural meme, the video told the story of a troubled teen (Jeremy, duh) who lashed out with a very public suicide in front of his classroom. The clip made MTV squeamish, and the network only showed an edited version of the video that omitted shots of Jeremy putting a gun in his mouth and pulling the trigger.
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This more ambiguous version of the video, with its frozen, blood-spattered students, led many to believe that Jeremy had murdered his classmates, inciting the kind of controversy that Pearl Jam had absolutely no interest in. Eddie Vedder, who graced the video with some truly epic faces as he lip-synced, was particularly upset over the way the video turned out. Even after "Jeremy" won four VMAs in 1993, including "Video of the Year," the band elected not to make another video until 1998.
So... which ones did we miss?