Drake, Lady Gaga, M.I.A.: ‘Storyline’ Videos Return!

Improvements in online video have meant that artists can say what they want, for as long as they want.

In 1992, Guns N’ Roses wowed fans — and tormented programmers — with the release of “November Rain,” a nearly nine-minute-long super-video that featured lavish costuming, gratuitous supermodel-ing, lots of emoting, plenty of the titular rain and exactly one screaming guitar solo played outside a church.

It was remarkable as much for its excess as it was for its scope. GNR certainly weren’t the first group to test time constraints (Michael Jackson’s iconic “Thriller” clip went beyond the 13-minute mark), nor were they the last, but with “November Rain,” they accomplished something few had ever attempted: a clip that kicked off an expansive, (sort of) linear storyline, one that would continue in subsequent videos. It almost didn’t matter if said storyline didn’t make a whole lot of sense, the point is Guns (or, more specifically, Axl Rose) realized they had the means to launch something this epic, and they went for it.

Of course, nearly 20 years later, this kind of thing is no big deal: Lady Gaga pulls off the whole “storyline” thing in her sleep. And she’s not the only one to go big with her clips. In recent months, much to the delight of superfans and the woefully employed, a host of artists — from Beyoncé and M.I.A. to Drake — have decided to not only break through the time-constraint barrier, but tell full-blown stories with their music videos.

The question is, why now? Certainly, the Internet has a lot to do with it: There are no time constraints here, no editors or standard-keepers to appease. But that’s only part of it … after all, the Internet has been around since before Guns N’ Roses went on hiatus. It’s just that technology — in the form of video streaming — may have finally caught up with artists’ egos. And the result is an influx of so-called “story” videos.

“There’s the liberating nature of not having to conform to the 3 to 4 minute standards of programming, and that’s sort of allowed artists to go nuts, but that’s only part of it,” music journalist Maura Johnston told MTV News. “There’s also the fact that video quality on sites like YouTube and Vevo has improved, and streaming video has reached more of a critical mass in the past year. Bandwidth for people is greater, and so you can have these really high-quality videos streaming all the time.”

But perhaps more important than the advances in technology is the fact that there’s a whole new generation of artists making videos these days — artists who grew up watching “November Rain,” who don’t shy away from inserting the odd product-placement shot in their clips, and, perhaps most importantly, artists who realize they can make a ripple in the Internet age by shouting very loudly.

“Artists know that they need to maximize the expense of making a video, so they need to make a statement that can stand on its own, and also promote a record and a song,” Johnston said. “Because so much of what people talk about online are these ‘spectacle’ things, and they don’t necessarily have to be big-budget, big-story things either.”

To that end, while Johnston recognizes clips like Gaga’s “Paparazzi” and “Telephone” videos, M.I.A.’s “Born Free,” Drake’s “Find Your Love” or Beyoncé’s “Why Don’t You Love Me” as pushing the envelope (and the time limit), she also singles out OK Go’s “This Too Shall Pass” and Erykah Badu’s “Window Seat” (the latter of which cost next to nothing to make) as videos that are succeeding in raising awareness — and, in a sense, helping to usher in a new era of music videos … one that truly knows no limit. Which is why she doesn’t necessarily agree with the “storyline” label in the first place.

“I think it’s better to call them ‘statement videos,’ because they don’t necessarily have to have a storyline to be impactful,” she said. “Look at [Beyoncé's] ‘Single Ladies.’ It was the biggest ‘statement video’ of the past few years. It made the song more of a part of the cultural consciousness, and, really, I think that’s what all these other artists are trying to emulate with their new videos. They know they have to make an impact, somehow.”

What do you think of the recent proliferation of “storyline” and “statement” videos? Let us know in the comments below!