Our Lady of Perpetual Hype has struck again.
MTV has opted not to show Madonna's new video for her hit single "Justify My Love," saying that "this one is not for us."
The one that's not for MTV shows Madonna -- lots of Madonna at that -- going into a hotel room and practicing safe foreplay with her real-life boyfriend of the moment, Tony Ward, as well as with a woman who becomes a man who is in real life a woman. Directed by Jean-Baptiste Mondino and shot in black-and-white, the video looks like a Helmut Newton lingerie catalogue come to life, or something you might come across in a cheap motel with cable.
The reason MTV chose not to air the video: several brief moments of nudity (not even Madonna), which go against MTV's standards. For those who weren't aware that MTV had standards, they prohibit not only nudity but also profanity, portraying violence against women or groups identified by racial, sexual or religious characteristics, and product placement.
Madonna -- who might never have become the world's most popular female singer (80 million albums sold) without the incessant exposure provided by MTV -- knew the standards, and chose not to make the minimal cuts requested by MTV. The network had been hyping the world premiere of the video as part of its weekend (and subsequently weakened) "Madonnathon," showing snippets that had been sent in earlier. The completed video showed up Nov. 26. It survived one cut -- MTV's Acquisitions committee approved it -- but was killed by Standards, MTV's taste police.
Thus did "Justify My Love" become "banned."
The "ban" begat news reports, and a hyped showing on "Saturday Night Live," whose own standards group approved only 90 seconds of the five-minute video. Last night, "Justify My Love" was the focus of ABC's "Nightline," which aired the video in full, uncut form, with Madonna on hand to discuss "freedom of expression."
"We showed it to our lawyers," says "Nightline" spokeswoman Laura Wessner, "and they determined that because of its news value, because the focus of our show is censorship in the arts and because of the lateness of the hour, they would allow us to air it."
On "Nightline" Madonna told Forrest Sawyer that MTV had banned the video for the "whole tone" rather than just nudity. Conceding that the video dealt with assorted sexual fantasies and that MTV had let her wear a see-through dress in the "Vogue" video, she said, "I thought once again I was going to be able to bend the rules."
MTV rejects 80 percent of the videos submitted to it each week. Most of those rejections come because the videos don't fit the network's format, but there have been numerous instances in which content has kept a video off the air.
But none of this will keep "Justify My Love" off the market: On Dec. 18, it will be available for $9.98 as a video single -- an industry first. When Sawyer asked her whether she would end up making even more money now, Madonna replied, "Yeah? So lucky me."
Call it coincidence, but Madonna also has a new album, a greatest hits package that includes two new songs, one of which is the Lenny Kravitz penned-and-produced "Justify My Love."
"I don't think it's coincidental that all this hubbub is happening when the album is in its second week on the charts," says Paul Grein, a columnist for Billboard.
"Madonna is a very smart and very shrewd artist and she realizes that controversy, generating a lot of publicity, is the key to staying on top," Grein adds. "If you look at Madonna's career, every year there are a couple of big events. Her career events are as carefully choreographed as the GOP convention -- down to the minute."
For instance: Just last month Madonna made headlines by posing in a bikini and draping herself with an American flag in a "Rock the Vote" public service takeoff on her "Vogue" video. Last year the title cut of "Like a Prayer" featured Madonna's seduction of a black saint in a video that mixed sexual and religious imagery in ways that had nothing to do with the song. Pepsi, which had paid Madonna $5 million for an endorsement deal built around the song, went into corporate shock when her version came out; the company quickly canceled the deal (Madonna reportedly kept the money).
Then there was "Papa Don't Preach," which dealt with teenage pregnancy and ignited fiery debates between feminists and antiabortion activists (and fueled sales of the "True Blue" album as well). And this year's "Blonde Ambition" tour, which brought out Toronto's Morality Squad, responding to complaints of lewdness and obscenity, mostly focused on the live version of "Like a Virgin."
Throughout (and this includes "Justify My Love"), Madonna has always had a flair for visual satire and irony -- witness the outrageous bras fashioned for her by Jean-Paul Gaultier -- but her real gift is for marketing and media manipulation, a credo expressed on one of her earliest songs, "Burnin' Up":
Unlike the others, I'd do anything
I'm not the same, I have no shame.
"Justify My Love" is directed by the same man who directed "Open Your Heart," a straightforward song about love transformed into a stunning video in which Madonna becomes a stripper in a seedy peep show. As she often does, Madonna uses sex to sell herself, even when the images are at odds with the song. She can do this with humor, as with "Material Girl," or with blatant eroticism, as on "Express Yourself."
"It's harder and harder for Madonna to shock us," suggests Grein, who feels the new video is "pretty extreme. But then you think that just six years ago she shocked us with 'Like a Virgin,' which now seems tame, almost quaint. Year by year, little by little, she's pushed further. In the earlier ones, people were outraged by the boy-toy imagery and the fact that a female artist had the audacity to play with sexual roles and expectations."
Is it possible for Madonna to go too far? Can she ever go so far that she will offend American sensibilities and cause a backlash? Grein doubts it.
"Controversy's always been what Madonna's been about, and it will be impossible for her to go too far," he says.
There's also the possibility that Madonna is looking to cut loose the younger part of her fan base. "Maybe," says Grein, "she wants an adult audience like Prince has, as opposed to a Culture Club/Cyndi Lauper audience, where a lot of it is preteens and young teens. Given how smart and savvy Madonna is, I would think it's deliberate and she's maybe in a three-year repositioning strategy of evolving from half and half to a total adult audience."
"Justify My Love" helped boost last week's "Saturday Night Live" to its highest overnight ratings this season. The full video was shown Saturday night on "The Howard Stern Show," a New York television show known for its puerile sexual content. And on NBC's "Friday Night Videos" last week, comedian and well-known singer Roseanne Barr and her husband, Tom Arnold, opened the broadcast by watching the video and giving crude play-by-play descriptions to home viewers, who only saw cleaner portions of "Justify My Love."
Madonna may be raising eyebrows in the near future with several mixes for "Justify My Love." One, called "The Beast Within," combines her lyrics with lengthy quotes from the Bible (Madonna told the Village Voice that "the beast within" is Saddam Hussein and that the mix was inspired by "the impending war in the Middle East"). The "Hip Hop Mix" ends with Madonna's self-directed obscenity, a hard-core variation on "kiss me." Fortunately, this collection of mixes is separate from "The Royal Box," a limited edition box set available next week. It will include "The Immaculate Collection," her greatest hits package; a 13-video compilation; a full-color poster; and five Madonna postcards -- just in case you wonder why Madonna's in the news.