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Twenty years on … Justify Your Love

December 4, 2010

In 1990 Madonna was interviewed on ABC’s Nightline defending her song  Justify My Love.

According to the then 32 year old popstar, the video – banned by MTV due to its ‘graphic portrayal of sexuality’ wasn’t in bad taste or solely about generating a revenue stream. Instead, it was a demonstration of artistic expression, highlighting on one of society’s taboos: sexual fantasies.

Twenty years on, how does the song, the video, the reaction against it and her defence hold up?

Madonna was 6 years into her mainstream career by the time she came to release a compilation album of her greatest hits. The Immaculate Collection would go on to sell 30 million copies worldwide and contained only two new tracks – Rescue Me and Justify My Love. Listen to both now and it’s difficult to not to see how they must have seemed like the poor relation to all the ‘best ofs’.

Rescue Me sounds like the epitome of the old school Madonna. Jaw-dropping ideas expressed through period daring lyrics accompanied by the highly and plausibly produced Madonna-esque sound. Twenty years on it sounds ham-fisted and vacuous.

Justify My Love is a musical challenge of a different kind. There’s nothing there. Listen to the track on its own and you’re left wanting by the end. If Rescue Me is the last chapter in Madonna’s first phase in pop stardom, then Justify My Love is the first experiment in maturity. Twenty years on, I’ve tried listening to it on its own. It leaves me cold.

Its video however elevates the song from a bonus track to a talking point. Maybe that was the point. As a piece of video – even twenty years on – it is breathtaking. It is beautifully shot and contains snippets of humour. Even so, its portrayal of sexuality still makes for difficult viewing.

What are the acceptable limits of eroticism? What are our expectations when we watch a music video? How do they differ from a drama presenting the same drama within its framework? Or … in my case … is it OK to be thinking about your own fantasies at three o’clock in the afternoon when there are chocolate brownies cooking in the oven?

As it happens, Justify My Love is beautiful. Not only do I have a weakness for beautiful men with strong jawlines, taut physiques and smoldering looks but I’m a sucker for the French art-house cinematic style too. Waist high cameras mounted on greased up camera dollys make the resulting video not only imply and champion sex and sexuality. In this multi-layered visual treat, judgment is left behind. Impartiality and objectivity presented as an aspiration. Oh yeah, and it’s erotic.

When Madonna sits down on the bed and signals to her lover to get started on things, the viewer is unwittingly led into a trick. Who’s doing what to her? Is that a drag queen? Oh .. and isn’t he watching both of them doing whatever they’re doing? Whose fantasy is whose? And when did the chocolate brownies go in the oven? Can I smell burning?

The point is that the video doesn’t date and that twenty years on it communicates something far greater than the actual track was ever going to. It is a shining example of every music or TV producer’s dream. A triumph of the visual compensating for the audio. Only in this particular example it possibly eclipsed the track. It provoked debate amid what lazy journos commonly dismiss with the cliche ‘a media storm’.

Let’s not get carried away however. Madonna is in no way the victim here. The video may have been banned on MTV, but ABC still transmitted it albeit with all the appropriate warnings to viewers ahead of the Nightline interview. The video gets the airtime.

Madonna gets a considerable amount of airtime too. So much so you’re left yearning for the time when the media had a bit more time to explore ideas and discussions.

In these two clips, the singer benefits. Indeed, she accepts she’ll probably make lots of money from the debate surrounding the song saying, “so, lucky me!” Self-deprecation goes a long way during the two clips to play down any suggestion that she’s a stroppy superstar reluctantly and nonchalantly defending her creation. Her responses fuel a robust discussion about the bigger picture as she sees it. A video which is no more than “a visual that describes a song about sexual fantasies” poses serious questions about what’s good taste, where the boundaries are and how flimsy they are.

Madonna comes off well. She’s well informed. She gives a hint of her political views. She’s feisty. And she has a sense of humour about herself. She shines as the person she projects herself to be: an artist. More evidence of the generational gap and the present day trap too many are too eager to fall into: wanting to be famous merely for being famous. And she demonstrates integrity, backing up the presentation with her values on honesty about sexuality and her desire to celebrate sex.

And she’s 32. She’s either got brilliant PR behind her – long before the rest of us were even able to detect what is real news and what’s PR – or she’s the mistress of her own destiny. I’m going for the latter.

If the Nightline interview acts as a piece of historical evidence, one rather trite question remains. To what extent are the issues the video raised twenty years still issues today?

Five years later Madonna was pushing the same line – perhaps even more suggestively – with an excursion into fetishism peppered with campery in Human Nature. The message is clear when she sings the line, “Oops, didn’t know we couldn’t talk about sex.”

Looking back on the Nightline interview now however, there is a creeping sense that no time has passed at all. The issues don’t seem like curiosities. We’re not laughing at the idea that to talk about one’s sexual fantasies – or indeed to use the mainstream media to encourage others to do so – is a bad thing. Clearly we’ve all got a bit of Catholic guilt inside of us – even those of us who haven’t had a Catholic upbringing.

Maybe 20 years is too soon. Guilt is the tough one. It’s the emotion which creates the taboos. Given that Madonna’s Justify My Love video holds up well after twenty years, maybe that’s a good thing. Because that means artists of today will have plenty of inspiration to draw upon.

Mind you, given the arrival of the internet and that airplay (or lack of it) doesn’t necessarily translate into column inches nowadays, present-day artists are going to have to find new ways use their art to provoke debate.

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