HOLLYWOOD -- When it first came out in 1981, Duran Duran's video for "Girls on Film, " with nude models strutting down catwalks and rolling around in mud, was a little too racy even for MTV. But you can see the once-banned six-minute clip in all its glory on YouTube. You also, if you're of a certain age and cast of mind, can relive your youth by punching up videos by Pat Benatar, Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie , and every other pop singer who made the '80s so (pick your adjective) memorable, laughable, or loathsome.
In some respects, this is no surprise, because virtually anything committed to film or video can and usually does wind up on YouTube, from the Zapruder film of John F. Kennedy's assassination to Britney Spears' s latest up-skirt misadventure.
But increasingly, the video-sharing site, bought this year by
Andrew Sullivan, a conservative commentator whose popular politics-and-culture blog is affiliated with Time magazine's website, said the videos from the Reagan-era vault "appeal to my generation -- mid-30s to mid-40s -- who came of age then and miss pop. Today, music is so dominated by hip-hop and indie crap and country that good old pop and silly hair-metal seems like a relief."
You can argue with Sullivan's verdict on today's music, but he does have a firm grasp on the appeal of the oldies. For the last few weeks, his blog has been running an immensely popular feature on the best and worst '80s videos.
"It emerged from the YouTube phenomenon," he wrote in an e-mail. "The response has been overwhelming. Hundreds of them -- far more than I could easily handle. And the emotions provoked by them are quite intense."
VH1 figured this out a long time ago, doing well with shows such as "I Love the '80s" and "100 Greatest Songs of the '80s."
"The '80s stuff always seems to resonate," said VH1 executive vice president Rick Krim. "It's a time that didn't take itself too seriously."
The trend is about more than 40-year-olds getting misty-eyed over Phil Collins's "Sussudio " video. YouTube-ification offers a snapshot of how the Internet continues to upend the media world and influence cultural memory.
MTV and VH1, which owe their existence to the video boom, have long since branched out well beyond videos and serve up original programming with only a tangential relationship to music, such as "My Super Sweet 16" and " The Flavor of Love."
YouTube and similar sites, meanwhile, are beginning to play a role as de facto syndicators of old "off-network" programming like music videos, not to mention original stuff generated by users. Indeed, music videos are particularly ripe for exploitation on YouTube. Most are brief, which fits well with the site's 10-minute time limit on uploaded clips. When Google purchased the company in October, moreover, deals were cut with major record labels that cleared the way for many videos to run without fear of litigation from copyright holders.
"Kids' predominant venue for music videos is not MTV anymore," said Marc Webb, a prolific director who has overseen videos for top rock bands such as My Chemical Romance and Weezer. "It's YouTube or
The rock group OK Go choreographed an elaborate dance on treadmills for a video of its song "Here It Goes Again "; the clip was viewed by more than 1 million users in less than a week on YouTube last summer. According to Webb, when MTV balked at the sex-education theme for the video "Gettin' Enough," teenage rocker Lil Chris packed the clip off to the Internet.
"After two days, it had 70,000 hits," Webb said. "That song had a whole life outside MTV."
And then there are the '80s.
Among the semiforgotten treasures Sullivan and his readers have unearthed is the video for Benatar's "Love Is a Battlefield, " which, it's fair to say, has not aged well (basic plot: After a family squabble, the singer winds up in a hooker outfit, walking the streets). But Sullivan fondly remembers other artifacts, including the video for a dance anthem by the group Bronski Beat: "Many of us as teens lived in small towns and yearned for the big city," he wrote on the blog. "And no music video spoke to our lives as powerfully as 'Smalltown Boy.' Even now, it chokes me up."
Alas, most of the videos from that period might not choke viewers up so much as make them convulse with laughter. But Bob Giraldi doesn't care.
Giraldi is the New York-based filmmaker who could be called the king of the '80s music vid. He conjured elaborate story lines and lavish, Broadway-style spectacles for his best-known works, including "Hello," "Say, Say, Say" (Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney as snake-oil salesmen in the West) and perhaps the era's quintessential video, "Beat It," which pictured Jackson as the peacemaker between rival gangs. A runaway hit in its day, the "Beat It" video now looks like what might happen if the cast of a "West Side Story" revival went club-hopping.
During the making of "Hello," Giraldi recalled, Richie protested that the blind woman had no relationship to the song.
"I said, 'You're not creating the story, I am,' " Giraldi said by phone. "I treated them as screenplays; there was an attempt to tell a story."
Is he sorry that such an approach led to occasional excesses that are now making the kids on YouTube giggle? Well, no.
"I'm proud of that work and not ashamed of its date," Giraldi said. "Would I show that work today? No, probably not. It's not the kind of film I'd make today."