‘Pop-Up Video’ Revisited

An appreciation of the postmodern pop music series that put VH1 on the map.

For those unfamiliar with the format of VH1’s Pop-Up Video, this series featured old and new music videos, with a twist: As each video played, info text would “pop up” in bubbles, relating random nuggets of trivia about the video or artist, relevant pop culture factoids and sardonic postmodern asides (notably mocking Alanis Morissette’s misuse of “irony.”).

UK viewers with memories of presenter-less, caption-led video shows Boxpops (BBC2) and The Chart Show (Channel 4) may have found the format vaguely familiar, but Pop-Up Video took the format to an oh-so-‘90s postmodern height and was terrifically popular on both sides of the Atlantic and put VH1 on the map, quickly becoming one of the network’s most-watched original series.

Pop-Up Video’s creators dedicated hours of research into the fact bubbles on Pop-Up Video. And yet, despite all the hard work that went into researching and producing the series artists such as Mariah Carey and Billy Joel took exception at the show’s irreverent tone, as you would expect from the legendary self-reflective good humour that high profile celebrities are known for 🙄 It was also educational – for example, in the video for Men at Work’s Land Down Under, you learn that the fine for “torturing a koala” was $300 in 1996. The more you know…

In an era before social networking and Twitter, Pop-Up Video was, arguably, the original live-tweet, with each info bubble only big enough to hold maybe 120 characters as it provided running commentary on the videos viewers were watching. The way it met the need for pop culture trivia in concise form can also be said to anticipate the listicle trend of Buzzfeed and other ephemeral sites.

Many popular TV shows, from Sabrina the Teenage Witch (1996-2003) to Will and Grace (1998-2020) have referenced Pop-Up Video, confirming its cult status. Pop-Up Video was rebooted for a single year in 2011 with 60 new episodes populated with fresh nuggets of brain candy.

Availability: Pop Up Video (VH1, 1996 – 2002, 2011 – 2012) is unlikely to be released commercially, due to the expense involved in licensing music videos. The rebooted series can be viewed online.

❉ James Gent is the editor of pop culture webzine We Are Cult, and has previously contributed to volumes such such as 1001 TV Shows You Must Watch Before You Die, Blakes Heaven: Maximum Fan Power, You and 42: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to Douglas Adams and Scarred For Life Volume Two: Television in the 1980s. He is the co-editor of Me And The Starman (Cult Ink), available to buy from Amazon, RRP £11.99. UK: https://amzn.to/30ZE8KE | US: bit.ly/starmanUSA ISBN: 9798664990546.

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  1. VH-1 discovered that their contract with the music companies didn’t, notionally, allow for commentary over the videos. Several labels complained, as did a couple of groups (The Rolling Stones in particular, IIRC).

    The reality was probably that the record companies didn’t like the idea of establishing “fair use” for criticism and commentary under US copyright law. If that was true, the huge fees the labels charged for music videos would be rendered moot if they did pop-up-video style astons on every music video.

    Future contracts added penalties for playing out videos with any commentary on top of them, making it too expensive to do any more.

    The second series in 2011 only had videos with permission from the record company to have captions. The commentary got much less arch and fun.

    • Your comment is so helpful b.c I started a petition last fall to see if the show could be brought to a streaming service and even contacted one of the show creators who made me think it was possible. Honestly, I was only interested in the reboot being streamed vs. the original b/c I figured those seasons were more recent and the copyright laws were different. Do you think it is still worth pursuing? My aim is to see if Pluto TV will create a channel for the show since they are currently airing old music videos.

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