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Some stars have dropped record-breaking amounts of cash on visuals for their hit songs, and you might be surprised which ones made the list! Can you guess which of your favorite music videos cost more than a million dollars to make?
30. Fugees – ‘Ready or Not’ (1996)
Starting the list with a relatively modest price tag of just $1.3 million is the Fugees’ hit song “Ready or Not.” The catchy chorus is immediately recognizable to music fans of all ages, but those born after the heyday of music video popularity may have missed this epic Mission Impossible style adventure.
Emulating popular war films, they didn’t shy away from the action movie cinematography or pricey effects like a submarine set, helicopter battle and motorcycle chase scene. Beyond sky high cost of video production, the song itself racked up some big bills due to legal issues regarding their liberal sampling of Enya’s “Boadicea,” which they never asked permission for. Oops!
29. MC Hammer – ‘Here Comes the Hammer’ (1991)
MC Hammer also fell victim to unauthorized “inspiration” when he was sued by recording artist Kevin Christian, who claimed the rapper stole the hook of “Here Comes the Hammer” from a song he wrote. Hammer ended up compensating him to the tune of $250,000. It’s unsurprising Christian wanted his piece of the pie; before the suit, “Here Comes the Hammer” was a hit, and the music video budget alone reached over $1.3 million.
The 8 minute, 37 second long mini-movie was nominated for a VMA for its groundbreaking visual effects, featuring a ghost-like James Brown, who matches Hammer’s famous dance moves step for step, as he and his posse cavort through a haunted mansion.
This isn’t the only song on the list with its share of controversy – read on to see which others caused a stir.
28. Madonna – ‘Gimme All Your Luvin’ (2012)
One of the few videos on the list from the 2010s, Madonna’s “Gimme All Your Luvin’” originally premiered as a live performance at the Super Bowl XLVI halftime show. The pop hit featured Nicki Minaj and M.I.A, who faced some heat for flipping the camera (and therefore the world) the bird, while she rapped her verse on live TV.
After the pressure subsided and apologies were made, the music video went on to make a splash for its $1.5 million budget, which largely went to expensive visual effects, including CGI fireworks and rain, digitally replacing the sky and numerous backdrops and sets. The football-themed video was hailed as a fun, cheeky romp, but ultimately failed to overshadow the commotion following M.I.A.’s obscene stunt.
27. Blackstreet, Janet Jackson – ‘Girlfriend/Boyfriend’ (1999)
CGI has come a long way, and the price of digital enhancement on film has decreased considerably. Back in 1999, Blackstreet and Janet Jackson wanted a cutting-edge look for their video “Girlfriend/Boyfriend,” and ended up spending more than $1.5 million on a psychedelic journey through a pinball machine.
The colorful, topsy-turvy journey directed by Joseph Kahn features the performers’ faces superimposed on various parts of the internal machinery as the camera POV mimics the chaotic movements of a pinball. Guest stars Ja Rule and Eve appear as avatars, racing through the game on futuristic TRON-style motorcycles, pushing the technological limits of the time.
26. Guns N’ Roses – ‘November Rain’ (1992)
Rock band Guns N’ Roses has never been known for subtlety, and their epic music video trilogy created for the album Use Your Illusion I was certainly on brand with their record-breaking budgets and larger-than-life imagery. “November Rain,” the final installment in the three-part series, reportedly cost upwards of $1.5 million, likely due to the insane scale of each scene in the 9 minute 16 second video.
The story switches between a wedding in a decked out church, a full-scale orchestral performance and a lavish funeral. Costly scenes include a series of exaggerated helicopter shots of guitarist Slash, rocking out in front of a deserted church; and interior church shots, which required multiple crews working around the clock to build the sets.
Despite these extravagant details, “November Rain” is still not the most expensive GNR video in the series. Can you guess which one cost even more?
25. TLC – ‘Unpretty’ (1999)
Another example of a band blowing the budget on state of the art CGI effects is TLC’s effects-heavy video for the song “Unpretty.” Allegedly, more than $1.6 million was spent to create visuals for this musical testament to self love and body positivity.
The upbeat video transitions from fairly standard footage of young women facing judgment and self-doubt about their bodies to florid, otherworldly sequences showing the singers lounging and meditating in a simulated field of colorful flowers amid digitally created butterflies and rainbows. An abridged version was created to be more “family friendly,” omitting the more violent and suggestive scenes, but also driving up editing costs.
24. Ayumi Hamasaki – ‘Green’ (2008)
She may not be a household name in the US, but Japanese pop star Ayumi Hamasaki has certainly spent a pretty penny on her videos over the years. The highly lauded singer/songwriter is so popular in Asia, she has been called the Madonna of J-Pop. This nickname is especially appropriate given that Madonna has a similar habit of spending serious cash on music videos.
“Green,” which cost over $1.6 million, shows Hamasaki walking down a bustling street in 1930s Shanghai, populated with tons of background actors in period-accurate costumes. The second half of the video takes place in an art-deco inspired cabaret, featuring choreographed dance scenes and stunning wardrobe changes. That said, this video might be considered a bargain compared to Hamasaki’s earlier videos…
23. Ayumi Hamasaki – ‘Fairyland’ (2005)
“Fairyland,” a hit single by Hamasaki from 2005, cost over $2 million to make, smashing records at the time and making her the only non-American artist to date to spend that much on a music video.
Filming for “Fairyland” took place in Hawaii and shows the star and her backup dancers happily frolicking through an island paradise.
Then, the story takes a darker turn, as their tree house sanctuary burns to the ground in a raging fire. The symbolism of the carefree scenes disintegrating into ashes may reference the singer’s personal struggles with tragic situations – she lost hearing in her left ear due to an illness in 2000 and announced in 2017 that she is becoming completely deaf.
22. Ayumi Hamasaki – ‘My Name’s Women’ (2005)
Due to her astonishing popularity early in her career, Hamasaki evidently had money to burn in 2005, releasing not one, but two music videos costing over $2 million. At the time, she was considered Japan’s best-selling solo act of all time, winning countless awards and distinctions for her work.
“My Name’s Women,” an empowering, poppy anthem about women transcending their stereotypical roles as objects to be admired, shows Ayumi starting as a meek, “nerdy” schoolgirl who transforms into a powerful, self-assured diva who takes over a nightclub with smoldering dance moves and a leather whip.
21. George Michael – ‘Freeek!’ (2002)
If it wasn’t obvious already, futuristic style music videos tend to rack up the bills due to their need for heavy visual effects and innovative costuming. George Michael of Wham! fame worked with visionary director Joseph Kahn on the music for his 2002 hit “Freeek!” and used many of the same types of avant-garde visual effects seen in Kahn’s other work.
That technological artistry comes at a hefty price, given the video’s $2 million budget. George Michael is shown as a new-age superhero in a skintight spacesuit, singing over various green screen backdrops. As the video progresses, we see snapshots of an ultramodern metropolis centered around lascivious self-indulgence. Many compared the video’s aesthetic to Blade Runner, which made judicious use of the latest special effects.
20. Missy Elliott – ‘She’s a B**ch’ (1999)
As one of hip-hop’s most successful artists of all time, Missy Elliott has had numerous chart-topping hits and award-winning videos like “Get Ur Freak On” and “Work It,” neither of which cost as much as 1999’s “She’s a B**ch.” The stylish music video clocked in at over $2 million in production costs due to its unique costuming, sets and advanced visual effects.
One notable expenditure was the electroluminescent (EL) wires used to create the set and light-up costume for Missy, which was hard to find and expensive in 1999. Though no expenses were spared, the song itself barely managed to make an impression, peaking at an underwhelming #90 on the Billboard Hot 100.
19. Will Smith – ‘Miami’ (1998)
Will Smith’s 1998 chart-topper, Miami, had an energetic promotional video that matched the song’s playful, summer vibe, showing the rapper cavorting around various south beach locales and enjoying the opulent lifestyle the area is famous for.
Fun fact: Eva Mendes makes a small appearance in the video for one of her first on-screen roles!
To showcase Miami in all its affluent glory, the music video made use of a private jet, a Bentley with the license plate “WILLYSTYLE,” and a speedboat, all of which brought the budget to more than $2 million. In addition to high-end props, the video made use of a fancy “morphing” effect that seamlessly transitioned Smith from scene to scene, giving the illusion of one continuous shot.
18. Michael Jackson – ‘Remember the Time’ (1992)
MJ’s Egyptian-themed mini-movie for “Remember the Time” is another trailblazing music video that dropped big bucks on never-before-seen visual effects. The video, which features cameos from big stars like Eddie Murphy, Iman and Magic Johnson, ended up costing around $2 million!
Director John Singleton made use of extensive costumes, props, choreographed dance and a CGI technique that made the King of Pop crumble into a pile of sand and magically re-form in a golden costume fit for a pharaoh.
The budget was mind-boggling for 1992, but another video on this list is even older and more expensive!
17. Backstreet Boys – ‘Larger Than Life’ (1999)
When this video premiered, the Backstreet Boys were one of the biggest pop acts on the scene, drawing in huge crowds and topping the charts in record sales. With notoriety at an all-time high, the BSBs obviously merited a “Larger Than Life” budget for their newest music video.
At $2.1 million, this video spent tons on CGI sequences that gave each band member their moment in the spotlight. Nick Carter danced with an army of robots. Kevin Richardson mans a space fighter pod. Brian Littrell surfs in midair in a space-age wind tunnel, a scene which supposedly cost $90k all on its own.
16. Michael Jackson – ‘Bad’ (1987)
The fact that this 1987 video is also the oldest on the list makes its healthy $2.2 million budget even more impressive.
At a whopping 18 minutes and 5 seconds long, it’s essentially a short film with a musical number in the middle that uses multiple locations, actors/dancers and costumes to tell the story of “Darryl” (Jackson).
Darryl is a former delinquent turned honor student who is accused of no longer being “bad” by his old friends. Martin Scorcese directs, and the leader of the “bad” kids is played by a young Wesley Snipes, who was fairly unknown at the time. The West Side Story inspired project took over six weeks to shoot, which most likely contributed quite a bit to the insanely high expenses.
15. Celine Dion – ‘It’s All Coming Back to Me Now’ (1996)
Who would have thought that a 6-minute video of Celine Dion wandering around a spooky mansion in her pajamas would cost more than a small private island? “It’s All Coming Back to Me Now,” which was shot on location at Ploskovice Castle in the Czech Republic, cost $2.3 million and feels more like a romance novel than music video.
Granted, renting a literal castle probably put a dent in the budget, but on top of the pricey set, this video required a fiery simulated motorcycle crash, “magic mirrors” showing Dion and her departed love and a special effects sequence where she slow dances with a ghostly figure. Her darling may be gone, but something tells us that her heart will go on.
14. Busta Rhymes – ‘What’s It Gonna Be?!’ (1999)
Watching this music video, it’s readily apparent that the majority of the $2.4 million budget went towards the extensive visual effects. Aside from the performers’ faces, almost every element in this abstract, hyper futuristic clip is computer generated. Busta and Janet Jackson perform with a robotic drumline in a room that appears to be made of ever-shifting liquid metal, and that’s not even the weirdest part.
For the approximate cost of a Ferrari, visual artists made tiny images of Busta Rhymes rain down from the sky onto Janet Jackson and called it art. In fact, this revolutionary video holds the Guinness World Record for most expensive special effects in a music video to this day!
13. Janet Jackson – ‘Doesn’t Really Matter’ (2000)
Yet another high-priced, futuristic cityscape created by Joseph Kahn, the video for Janet Jackson’s “Doesn’t Really Matter” takes place in a Tokyo-inspired apartment with all kinds of high-tech devices, including mechanized moving walls and an AIBO robotic dog (the hottest new tech toy at the time).
The song, which was written for the soundtrack of The Nutty Professor 2, starts by showing Ms. Jackson hanging at her super hip home. She and her girlfriends then hit the virtual town, busting some classic dance moves on a tilting platform in front of a vibrant space-age downtown scene. If you look close, a young Jenna Dewan of future Step Up fame can be seen performing as a dancer amidst the $2.5 million surroundings.
12. Mariah Carey – ‘Heartbreaker’ (1999)
Pop diva Mariah Carey is well-known for her lavish lifestyle and expensive tastes – she allegedly spent $45,000 in one year on spa treatments…for her dogs.
Her 1999 music video’s budget for “Heartbreaker” was similarly extravagant at $2.5 million. The video – filmed at the Los Angeles Theatre – tells the tale of Mariah confronting her cheating boyfriend while he’s on a date with another girl (portrayed by Carey herself).
The two Mariahs ending up brawling kung-fu style in the bathroom. Guest artist Jay-Z isn’t depicted in the video for contractual reasons, so his section became an animated sequence shown as a movie within a movie. The video is impressive but, at that cost, one has to wonder if the budget included some extensive pampering for the canine co-star between takes!
11. MC Hammer – ‘2 Legit 2 Quit’ (1991)
Hammer’s back with another crazy expensive music video, this time dropping over $2.5 million on a star-studded, nearly 15 minute long, epic tale boasting pyrotechnics and a signature dance move.
Among the cameos, some familiar faces can be seen lamenting MC Hammer’s alleged decision to “quit.”
There’s Jim Belushi, Jose Canseco, Jerry Rice, Henry Winkler, Mark and Donnie Wahlberg, Eazy-E, Tony Danza, Queen Latifah, Milli Vanilli and the Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders. James Brown also stars as Hammer’s spiritual adviser and “Godfather,” tasking the rapper with finding a sequined glove belonging to another big star who, coincidentally, might be seen a bit further down our list…
10. Puff Daddy – ‘Victory’ (1998)
Puff Daddy – now better known as Puffy, Puff, P. Diddy, or just Diddy these days – went all out for the making of his video, “Victory,” in 1998. The cop-film reminiscent video used every expensive action movie effect available: rain effects, explosions, fire, stunts, helicopters and more.
Danny Devito and Dennis Hopper also make cameos in this $2.7 million musical chase scene. Other major expenses included the enormous city set and tons of background actors.
One unfortunate bit of trivia is that the song contains the very last verses ever recorded by the Notorious B.I.G. – just one day before his untimely death.
9. Aqua – ‘Cartoon Heroes’ (2000)
Aqua, the Danish pop group known throughout the world for their catchy hit, “Barbie Girl,” went absolutely bonkers with the budget on this video. They spent $3.5 million for this wacky adventure, starring the group as “Cartoon Heroes” summoned from space battling a giant squid monster set on destroying the Earth.
The set is an elaborately designed spaceship-submarine hybrid where little green men serve as background dancers, and it’s as ridiculous as it sounds. Watching this craziness unfold, it’s easy to see how they spent so much on this video, but perhaps the better question to ask is why?
8. Lil Dicky – ‘Earth’ (2019)
There are crazy music videos that cost an inordinate amount of money, then there’s comedy rapper Lil Dicky’s $4 million Earth-day themed video, fittingly named “Earth.” The almost entirely CGI animated short follows a cartoon version of the rapper dressed in primitive garb with singing animals, plants and humans (including “Kanye West” voiced by Kevin Hart and Leonardo DiCaprio as himself).
The message of the song is as simple as the catchy refrain – “We love the Earth.” Though the rest of the lyrics are silly, the song, which features top artists like Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, Meghan Trainor, John Legend, Katy Perry, Shawn Mendes, Miley Cyrus, Snoop Dogg and many more, went viral, becoming certified gold and making tons of money for environmental charities.
7. Gwen Stefani – ‘Make Me Like You’ (2016)
No Doubt frontwoman Gwen Stefani has been in the spotlight for years, but it wasn’t until 2016, when she paired with retail juggernaut Target, that she had the money needed to put on a $4 million live production for her song “Make Me Like You.” The ambitious one-take video, which was filmed 100% live at the 58th Annual Grammy Awards, displayed carefully rehearsed choreography and seamless transitions.
Even the “fall” that happens during the roller skating scene was intentional, allowing Stefani to swap with a body double so she could change costumes for the final scene. Despite complicated dance numbers, wardrobe changes and moving set pieces, the video went off without a hitch and was considered a tremendous success.
6. Michael Jackson – ‘Black or White’ (1991)
If you thought you’d seen the last of ridiculously long and expensive music videos from Michael Jackson, think again!
This unapologetically ’90s video starts with a spoken scene, starring Macaulay Culkin blasting his dad (Geroge Wendt) through the roof, all the way to Africa, with a particularly powerful guitar riff. We then go on a dance-based excursion through the world as MJ boogies with African tribesmen, traditional Thai dancers and Russian folk dancers, among others.
More cameos include Tyra Banks, Bart and Homer Simpson, Khrystyne Haje and Jeffrey Anderson-Hunter. Besides costly costumed dancers and famous faces, the video showcased a massive set with replicas of famous world monuments and a high-tech “morphing” effect that transitioned the singers of various cultural backgrounds into one another. All those extras added up to some seriously spend of over $4 million.
5. Guns N’ Roses – ‘Estranged’ (1993)
In another installment of Guns N’ Roses’ elaborate trio of videos from their album, Use Your Illusion, the “Estranged” music video managed to expend over $4 million over the course of its 9-minute run time. The lightly narrative short film involved expensive scenes like lead singer Axl Rose swimming with dolphins.
Another pricey shot involved a full live concert performance in Munich’s crowded Olympiastadion (which seats nearly 70,000 screaming fans). An entire scene depicting Slash walking on water also added to the budget considerably. In addition to the aforementioned expenditures, the video somehow “required” the use of a US Coast Guard chopper, oil tanker and Russian quadjet to tell the story.
4. Madonna – ‘Bedtime Story’ (1995)
If there is one takeaway that can be learned from this list, it’s this: Music videos for pop royalty don’t come cheap. We’ve already mentioned the King, but you had to know that the Queen of Pop would show up eventually. Like many others, this video employed the use of leading edge technology and paid dearly for it.
CGI was used heavily to create a mystical, dreamlike feel, replete with Islamic, Sufi, and Egyptian symbology. The total cost for the experimental video was reportedly more than $5 million, and the surrealist-inspired video for “Bedtime Story” was critically acclaimed for the highly advanced visual effects for its time. The video did so well, in fact, that it is on permanent display at the Museum of Modern Art in NYC.
3. Madonna – ‘Express Yourself’ (1989)
Madonna dropped a similarly colossal amount of money years earlier on 1989’s “Express Yourself,” a spirited pop hit about female empowerment and gender equality. The complex video takes major visual and conceptual inspiration from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, a German expressionist sci-fi film from 1927 with themes of revolt, revolution and class power struggles.
Again, multiple sets, rain effects and large groups of choreographed dancers contributed to the high cost of creating this laborious video, skyrocketing the budget to over $5 million, which was worth considerably more back in 1989. Impressive as it may be, it’s still not Madonna’s most expensive production; that would come a few years later.
2. Madonna – ‘Die Another Day’ (2002)
13 years after “Express Yourself”, Madonna was still making major hits and majorly costly videos to match, including the second most expensive music video of all time. “Die Another Day” was written for the James Bond film and definitely took thematic cues from the 007 flick, but featured no actual footage from the movie itself.
Instead, Madonna stars in the $6.1 million mini-blockbuster as a super spy type character being violently interrogated and fighting a black-clad version of herself. Visual effects like digitally composing the Madonna-on-Madonna fight sequence and greenscreen backdrops helped contribute to the absurd cost, but the amount of sugar glass and props that were smashed to bits surely added up as well.
Basically, a star like Madonna just doesn’t cut corners when it comes to her work.
1. Michael and Janet Jackson – ‘Scream’ (1995)
Who other than the legendary Jackson siblings would have pockets deep enough for a $7 million music video? With their star power combined for the first time since “PYT” back in 1982, Michael and Janet made music video history with the insanely costly “Scream.”
Following the trend of other “futuristic” videos on this list, the spacey sets (13 total!) and visual effects racked up bills fast. In the aggressive, retaliatory video, the famous siblings dance on walls, scream their lungs out and smash windows, vases and pricey-looking guitars. The song’s undertone of anger most likely comes from all the negative press the King of Pop was facing.
Despite the public controversy, the video smashed the record for most expensive of all time and earned an impressive 11 VMA nominations that year.