During the ’80s, ’90s and early 2000s music videos were the highlight of the music industry, and their importance was recognized through various awards shows that gave credit to the many aspects that go into their production and development—the most famous, of course, being the MTV Video Music Awards. However, since the widespread adoption of music streaming and download services that enable us to listen to newly released music the day it’s available, it’s likely that the glory days of the music video are well behind us. But that doesn’t lessen the value of all those outstanding, ultra-high production value videos put out by artists like Madonna and Michael Jackson over the years. If anything, it just gives us a deeper appreciation for them. And for that reason we’d like to devote this list to some of the most amazing and amazingly expensive music videos that have ever been made.
15. Backstreet Boys – “Larger Than Life” (1999)
When putting together the music video for their hit song “Larger Than Life,” the Backstreet Boys had some pretty big ideas involving a futuristic space setting. And with the help of director Joseph Kahn, as well as over $2 million, they realized that vision in a big way. “Larger Than Life” is essentially the Star Wars of music videos, featuring every sort of science fiction cliche you can imagine, from cryogenic sleep chambers and cybernetic appendages to elaborate mech costumes and laser-filled space combat. Hell, just that one shot of Brian Littrell doing a flip on a hoverboard cost $90,000. We don’t even want to think about how expensive Nick Carter’s breakdancing robots were.
14. Michael Jackson – “Bad” (1987)
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Michael Jackson really established himself as the King of Pop with his fantastically grandiose, and fantastically expensive, music videos. For “Bad” Jackson used a significant portion of the $2.2 million budget to assemble an absolutely incredible production team that included, among others, famed director Martin Scorsese. The video, which was shot more in the style of a short movie rather than a music video, took the team a total of six weeks to shoot and draws comparisons to West Side Story as it depicts Jackson as a teenager returning to his urban hometown after a stint at a preppy boarding school. The video also features some impeccably choreographed street dancing with a gang of Brooklyn tough guys performing some pretty difficult ballet moves.
13. Ayumi Hamasaki – “My Name’s Women” (1999)
Though she may not be all that well-known in North America, in her native country of Japan she’s a singer/model megastar who some have dubbed the “Empress of J-Pop.” In 2005, she released a music video for her eight-minute female empowering anthem “My Name’s Women.” The video looks as extravagant as a scene from The Great Gatsby and you can instantly tell that a good portion of its $2.4 million cost went towards dazzling set designs and outfitting extras in lavish costumes.
12. Busta Rhymes Featuring Janet Jackson – “What’s it Gonna Be?!” (1999)
Since a many ’90s rap music videos followed a similar format, many people were surprised by the amount of special effects that went into making the Busta Rhymes’ music video for “What’s it Gonna Be?!” Undoubtedly, the most expensive part of the video is when a glass of liquid falls to the ground, shatters, and then, in a very T-1000 like manner, the pool of liquid transforms into Busta Rhymes adorned in shiny metallic armor.
Later in the video, after Busta leads a procession of metallic drummer boys, we see Janet Jackson dancing as shiny liquid rain drops fall around her. But those aren’t really rain drops—they’re little versions of Busta that burst into liquid form when they hit her body.
To this day the video still holds the Guinness World Record for the most expensive special effects used in a music video, which brought the total production cost up to $2.4 million. If you haven’t see it, the video is definitely worth a watch if for no other reason than to watch Busta’s pantomimed guitar shredding for a song that doesn’t really feature the instrument.
11. Mariah Carey – “Heartbreaker” (1999)
The music video for Mariah Carey’s “Heartbreaker” features the singer tailing her cheating boyfriend into a movie theater where she proceeds to get in a cat fight with the other woman (who also happens to be played by Carey) and then dump huge cup of soda in her boyfriend’s lap, who is played by actor Jerry O’Connell.
The video was directed by Brett Ratner, who’s now famous for directing the X-Men and Rush Hour movies, and cost $2.5 million to make. However, most of that money went towards paying for the theater rental and creating the animated sequence that was used as a solution to Jay Z’s inability to appear in the video due to a contract stipulation that prohibited him from partaking in more than one video in a certain timeframe.
10. Puff Daddy – “Victory” (1998)
In Puff Daddy’s music video for “Victory,” directed by Marcus Nispel, he pays tribute to the Schwarzenegger action flick The Running Man by appearing as a contestant being chased through dark streets by armed forces. The video also incorporates a lot of imagery from Notorious B.I.G.’s “One More Chance” and features acting appearances by Danny DeVito and Dennis Hopper.
Thanks to the extensive use of airplanes, helicopters and pyrotechnics in the video, the total cost of production was close to $3 million.
9. MC Hammer – “Too Legit To Quit” (1991)
MC Hammer’s video for “Too Legit To Quit” is definitive proof that pouring a bunch of money into a video won’t necessarily ensure it will be of the highest quality, or even any good for that matter. At a cost of almost $3 million, this video features cameo appearances from Danny Glover, Tony Danza, Jose Canseco and a needlessly long intro that plays out like a love letter to James Brown. Getting the funk music legend to appear in the video wasn’t exactly the easiest job either. In fact, he was in jail at the time and only set to be released the day video production was scheduled to start. As such, Hammer—who we all know only makes the soundest of financial decisions—arranged for a private jet to pick up Brown directly from a South Carolina prison and bring him to the Los Angeles set.
According to director Rupert Wainwright, the costs for the video just spiralled out of control as production went on. “It was an 18-day shoot, but we didn’t shoot it in 18 days,” said Wainright. “We shot [it] in 30 days. We would shoot an 18-hour day and take two days off. It was insane. It was the hardest shoot I ever did in my life.”
The final product is at best a mediocre music video that features a lot of intense pyrotechnics and all the dance moves you would expect to see in an MC Hammer performance.
8. Aqua – “Cartoon Heroes” (2000)
Most people probably only remember Danish-Norwegian pop group Aqua for that annoying song “Barbie Girl,” but the fame they got from that actually led to them getting a much bigger budget for their “Cartoon Heroes” music video.
Costing roughly $4 million, the video features the band as a humorous group of steampunk astronauts/aquanauts who must save the planet from the threat of an oversized octopus. If only they still made music videos with this kind of refreshing originality.
7. Guns N’ Roses – “Estranged” (1993)
In the ’90s, Guns N’ Roses were well-known for spending huge sums of money in order to realize their visions–which is probably why the video for “Estranged” cost more than $4 million to produce. The emotional power ballad was directed by Andy Morahan, who helped Axl Rose channel the recent separation from wife into a musical storyline that sees the singer hiding from police, attempting suicide by jumping into the ocean, and eventually being rescued by some majestic dolphins, all interwoven with shots of the band’s live performances.
Some of the major production costs for the video included the use of a U.S. Coast Guard chopper and rescue squad, a massive oil tanker, an Antonov An-124 Ruslan aircraft, and, of course, those wonderfully trained dolphins. The video is also nearly 10 minutes long so that certainly didn’t help keep costs down.
6. Michael Jackson – “Black or White” (1991)
“Black or White” was the first single of Michael Jackson’s Dangerous album, so the production team new they had to really knock it out of the park with the music video—no small feat when considering the generally stellar quality associated with all of Jackson’s videos up to that point. So director John Landis (who also directed “Thriller”) went for maximum appeal and brought in famed child actor Macaulay Culkin to play the disobedient kid who refuses to turn down his music in the video’s opening.
Combine that star power with Tyra Banks and some impressive morphing visual effects and what you’ve got is this $4 million 11-minute video that was seen by 500 million people when it premiered on MTV, BET, VH1 and Fox on November 14, 1991. At the time it was the highest rated special Fox had ever broadcast.
5. Madonna – “Bedtime Story” (1995)
Madonna is the reigning queen of expensive music videos with three entries on the list. All of her videos are hugely ambitious projects featuring cinematic camera work and top-notch directors like David Fincher and Mark Romanek (who recently got back into music videos with Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off”).
In the music video for Madonna’s “Bedtime Story,” Romanek uses incredibly rich, saturated color palettes, flipping from warm desert orange hues to cool midnight blues, evoking the work of artists like Frida Kahlo, and incorporating Salvador Dali-style surrealism. Achieving this look required weeks of post-production work to ensure that all the digital effects were as eye-popping as possible. When all was said and done the video cost a total of $5 million and, much to its credit, it still looks gorgeous more than 20 years after it was made.
4. Madonna – “Express Yourself” (1989)
Looking back, it’s hard to believe that the music video for Madonna’s “Express Yourself” was directed by David Fincher—the same man who brought us the excellent movies Se7ven, Fight Club and The Social Network. But his work still shines through in the video, which picked up awards for best direction and best cinematography at the MTV Video Music Awards.
The video emulates the classic film Metropolis and features a masculine-clad Madonna overseeing a horde of factory workers and singing about the fact that you shouldn’t be content to settle with second best. When it was released in 1989, it was the most expensive music video ever created, costing $5 million to make.
3. Madonna – “Die Another Day” (2002)
Although the song itself initially got mixed reviews from critics, Madonna’s James Bond theme went on to be the bestselling dance song of 2002 and 2003 and even received a Grammy nomination.
The video was inspired by action scenes from the James Bond movie Die Another Day and incorporates a lot of flashy visual effects to depict a realistic fight between a good Madonna and an evil Madonna. Needless to say, the post-production work on this was very extensive and very expensive. When all was said and done the video cost a total of $6.1 million—making it Madonna’s most expansive production ever.
2. Britney Spears – “Work B–tch” (2013)
The only video on the list to be released within the past decade, Britney Spears’ “Work B–tch” features a lot of different geographical locations, an extensive wardrobe, some pretty impressive choreography work, and a shiny white Lamborghini Aventador tearing it up in the desert. Combine that with all the special effects used to show Britney doing things like standing atop a platform in a pool of color-changing, shark-infested waters, and perhaps it shouldn’t be so surprising that this video cost $6.5 million to make. But at least they probably recouped some of the money from that blatantly obvious Beats by Dre product placement.
1. Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson – “Scream” (1995)
Mark Romanek is clearly a guy who knows what to do with a big production budget. When he directed the video for the Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson collaboration “Scream,” he went with a polished, high-contrast black and white look that helped to emphasize some of the contrasting emotions on display in the video. Apparently the concept was conceived as a reaction to all the press attention the Jacksons were getting at the time. A massive, sparsely populated set provided the spacecraft setting for the video as the pop duo cruise the cosmos together—a theme that’s believed to symbolize them wanting to avoid all the media headlines and tabloid speculation. But aside from that depressing subtext, the video has a lot of fun playing with zero gravity effects. This likely took up a good portion of the budget, which was estimated to be about $7 million despite the minimalist look.