Past Rebels, Future Hits: Predictive AI watches decades of viral music videos to discover trends through time

Published in
4 min readMay 26, 2023

This data was generated by Sphere, a market research solution driven by diagnostic and predictive AI. It applies machine learning algorithms on internet data to uncover insights about customer intelligence, cultural shifts, and market trends.

Like teenage blog poetry you forgot to delete and too-skinny jeans from your indie sleaze era, music videos are the ultimate time capsules. They freeze moments in musical history, capturing the cultural zeitgeist with all its glorious highs and embarrassing lows. They are portals into the collective consciousness of a specific time, offering a glimpse into the prevailing trends, aesthetics and values of an era.

But music videos are more than just visual storytelling and creative expression; they can be crucial to a musician’s commercial success. They are potent promotional tools, creating hype and capturing potential fans. A standout music video has the power to go viral, reaching millions worldwide and propelling an artist to superstardom.

Breaking into the billion view club

With the heyday of MTV long past, YouTube has emerged as the leading platform for music videos. Its global popularity breaks down barriers like never before, extending the appeal of music videos beyond geography, language and culture to billions of viewers worldwide. A prime example would be Psy’s meteoric explosion onto dancefloors around the world with the infectious Gangnam Style.

YouTube’s recommendation algorithms also extend the lifespan of music videos. By suggesting content to viewers they may have never discovered otherwise, it keeps videos relevant long after their initial release through a cycle of discovery and rediscovery. Just take Gen Z’s appreciation for the grainy appeal of Nirvana’s grunge anthem Smells Like Teen Spirit.

Charting cultural evolution with artificial intelligence

Using predictive AI, we analyzed music videos spanning four decades to capture the cultural spirit of each era. These videos had a few billion views each, making them some of YouTube’s most-watched content of their time.

Sphere’s video evaluation model analyzed each video frame to determine the contextual meanings they represent. The AI model was trained on nearly half a billion image and meaning associations to understand how we see the world, enabling it to identify the values and archetypes that emerge from each video.

The findings revealed distinctive stylistic trends and social narratives for every decade, offering a window into the aspirations, dreams, and anxieties of each generation.

Defining the decades through visual analysis


These early music videos were raw, black-and-white slices of life, made from footage of backstage antics and onstage flamboyance. They captured a world of cigarettes, big hair, guitars and glamorous girls, defining an era of unapologetic rock ’n’ roll.

Videos analyzed:

Bon Jovi — Livin’ On A Prayer

Guns N’ Roses — Sweet Child O’ Mine

The Police — Every Breath You Take


The 1990s brought forth a powerful wave of rock and grunge, with introspective anthems for the displaced and disillusioned. Through visual and lyrical storytelling, the songs captured the struggle of a generation grappling with the aftermath of war, civil unrest, and existential despair.

Videos analyzed:

Nirvana — Smells Like Teen Spirit
Scorpions — Wind Of Change
The Cranberries — Zombie


The 2000s witnessed the rise of the pop diva — charismatic powerhouses that pushed creative boundaries with kitsch with commercial appeal. They redefined the concept of ‘diva’, showcasing diverse styles that celebrated female empowerment, from bold self-expression of Lady Gaga to the candy-coated world of Katy Perry and the relatable storytelling of Taylor Swift.

Videos analyzed:

Katy Perry — Hot N Cold
Lady Gaga — Bad Romance
Taylor Swift — You Belong With Me


The 2010s saw the emergence of cultural collaborations and alternative genres, paying homage to past and grassroots sounds like Latin, funk and hip-hop. Visually, artists stayed true to their roots as well, celebrating authenticity and the unassuming everyman as the unlikely hero. Their stories unfold against everyday backdrops, from the parking lot to the barber shop.

Videos analyzed:

Luis Fonsi feat. Daddy Yankee — Despacito
Mark Ronson feat. Bruno Mars — Uptown Funk
Wiz Khalifa feat. Charlie Puth — See You Again

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