Tom Scott
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A Brief History of Lyric Videos

There's a good argument that lyric videos count as a whole new genre. Here's that genre's history, presented in its own style.


Lyric videos are all over YouTube like a rash. Record companies love 'em. And for good reason.

They're very cheap, compared to a full video. They can be released earlier, which means there's more than a static picture for the many people who mainly listen to music through YouTube. And they separate the official release from all the unofficial fan videos that inevitably pop up.

Lyric videos are older than that, though. There's an argument that Bob Dylan's 1965 Subterranean Homesick Blues counts as one.

In 1987, Prince's video for Sign O The Times was perhaps the first proper lyric video. Just pulsing shapes and moving words, complete with the slightly dodgy punctuation and abbreviations that you'd see from an amateur video today.

And in 1990, George Michael's "Praying for Time" just had classy white text on a black background. That wouldn't look out of place if it'd been put together a quarter of a century later in Windows Movie Maker.

The modern, professional lyric video can trace its roots back to kinetic, or dynamic, typography. Inspired by, among others, the movie titles of designer Saul Bass, there was a YouTube trend for taking famous scenes from films and animating the dialogue. Jarratt Moody's dynamic 'Pulp Fiction' scene stole the show here.

That led to a trend through 2010 for animated lyrics - most notably a gorgeous and painstakingly-animated video for Jonathan Coulton's Shop Vac uploaded in November 2010. But by then, Katy Perry's management had started releasing simple lyric videos - just subtitles on a photo background. These were to compete with the fans, who'd been putting up unofficial ones for years. These unofficial videos often had inaccurate or mispelled lyrics, and in some cases - to get around YouTube's automated copyright systems - they'd speed up the music slightly, mangling the original track just so their lyric tribute could survive.

In 2010, Cee-Lo Green made the first mainstream, dynamic, and massively popular modern lyric video - for the song that middle America knew as 'Forget You'. And suddenly, everyone had to have one.

Some of them are amazing feats of design, and have brought the art of motion graphics back into the public eye. Some of them... are terrible. But as long as YouTube's around: well, they're here to stay.

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