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.