Remembering Madonna At Her Most Controversial, Provocative, And Shrewdest

These days, when people talk about Madonna, there is usually cringing involved. Her act feels played out, like that of a woman striving to remain relevant or provocative in the modern music landscape. Madonna is so used to being on the vanguard, to courting controversy, that being staid just won’t cut it for her. Meanwhile, music videos, having broken free from the strictures of television, have become increasingly intense and out there. Provocateurs like Rihanna espouse the “NSFW” nature of their videos, dominating the internet conversation through the promise of blood and breasts. Back in the day, though, it was Madonna pushing the envelope and courting controversy, highlighted by her 1990 music video for “Justify My Love.”

By 1990, Madonna was arguably the biggest pop star on the planet. She had racked up a plethora of hits, and already found herself engaging in controversial behavior along the way. Even back in the days of “Like a Virgin,” she garnered a bit of ardor over her sexual frankness. Then there was “Like a Prayer,” which had a music video with burning crosses and Madonna kissing a black saint. It cost her a contract with Pepsi, but didn’t cost her any of her popularity, maybe because “Like a Prayer” is such a good song.

In fact, Madonna was so established by 1990 that she released her first greatest hits album, The Immaculate Collection. It featured 15 previously released hits, plus two new songs, including “Justify My Love,” which was released as a single on November 6. The song is co-written by Lenny Kravitz and, in truth, that may be the most interesting thing about it when you divorce it from the music video. It’s not one of her top 10 – hell, her top 20 – songs. It’s slow and boring and too ethereal. Madonna works best as a pop artist. Had this song not been given a music video, it may have been forgotten.

Oh, it got a music video, though – a music video that was too hot for MTV. To make the video, Madonna joined forces with French fashion photographer and music video director Jean-Baptiste Mondino. Mondino had worked with the likes of David Bowie, Sting, and Prince. He directed the video for Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer,” which won a bunch of MTV Video Music Awards in 1985. It’s a pretty big jump from that to “Justify My Love,” though. Mondino had also previously worked with Madonna on her “Open Your Heart” video, which featured Madonna as an exotic dancer, and which got an MTV Video Music Awards nomination of its own. Madonna lost to her own video for “Papa Don’t Preach.”

When Madonna and Mondino reunited for “Justify My Love,” they decided they’d take it to the next level in terms of sexual provocativeness. “I didn’t have any concept at all, except the idea that she was arriving in the hotel tired, broken; and when she was going to leave the hotel, she was full of life, she was full of energy, full of everything,” Mondino said in discussing the video with Rolling Stone. The concept, in the end, turned out to be “SEX!” The video features Madonna, her then boyfriend Tony Ward, and a collection of other men and women in various states of undress. There’s some S&M, and Madonna makes out with a lady, and, you know, sex stuff happens. You also see Jesus on the cross a bunch, for reasons that are assuredly laughably pretentious. It’s all not even on the level of a Cinemax style softcore porn, but it’s more than the music video for “Boys of Summer.” It’s all very clearly evocative of black-and-white arthouse film, more Playboy than Hustler.

However, this was still too much for the folks over at MTV. The video was banned, which, in the days prior to the internet, was a problem. Madonna went on the offensive, asking, “Why is it that people are willing to go and watch a movie about someone getting blown to bits for no reason at all, and nobody wants to see two girls kissing and two men snuggling?” Mondino, in Rolling Stone, also offered up, “I mean, porn for me is when people are killing each other.” So, clearly, the feeling they have is that sex is good, and violence is bad, and, you know, that’s not exactly an unusual statement. On December 3, about a month after the song was first released as a single, Madonna appeared on Nightline, where the video was also shown in its entirety. Being that it was “news,” they got away with it.

During her Nightline interview, Madonna was asked whether or not she stood to potentially make more money selling the video than playing it on MTV. Her response was a terse, “Yeah, so? Lucky me.” Lucky her, indeed. On December 18, “Justify My Love” was released on a VHS single. Yes, people were expected to spend a few bucks on a VHS featuring one five-minute music video from Madonna… and it worked. The video went platinum five times over. One can only assume that the fact it was banned from MTV helped stoke the flames. Here was Madonna, a huge pop star, and a sex symbol, with a music video that was so sexually explicit that MTV wouldn’t dare play it. That’s a recipe for success.

The question that Nightline seemed to be dancing around was, did Madonna know that? There’s justification to wondering that. One would think Madonna would realize that the video’s content was going to pretty much eliminate “Justify My Love” from MTV’s potential rotation. It would be unfair to assume Madonna’s plan was to get her video banned so that she could use that for publicity for her VHS single. Now, that wouldn’t be a bad plan, but it would be a logic leap on our end to assume that to be the case. However, it does feel plausible to think that she knew there was a chance this would happen, and she had a backup plan just in case. You don’t become the biggest music star in the world without being a shrewd businessperson, especially when you aren’t the most musically gifted person in the world, with all due respect to Madonna.

To call “Justify My Love” tame by modern standards would be overstating it. It’s still quite sexual, and there is nudity. It certainly isn’t likely to shock or alarm or stir up controversy these days, though. You can watch it on YouTube without any advisory note or parental warning. A Wendy’s ad played before it the last time I watched it. It must seem strange to a younger audience that doesn’t remember Madonna when they see her clinging herself to the likes of Miley Cyrus or Katy Perry. They don’t recognize Madonna as the woman who was too hot for television, and who turned that fact into a financial coup. Pepsi couldn’t stop her. MTV couldn’t stop her. Only the cruel passage of time has managed to stop her.