It's easy to get the wrong idea about Madonna's "Justify My Love" video.
Some people think the fuss is about sex -- which makes sense, since Madonna's dust-ups are always about sex. Others think it's about money -- which also makes sense, since the singer has an uncanny ability to turn a profit on virtually any kind of trouble.
To a certain degree, both sides are right. MTV wouldn't have banned the video clip if it hadn't been deemed too steamy for broadcast. Nor would Madonna stand to have made quite so much money off the song had the ensuing controversy not left millions of Americans eager to see the banned video (which, as a $9.98 video single, will turn up in record stores Dec. 18).
But the furor surrounding "Justify My Love" cuts far deeper than mere sex or marketing. In truth, what's at issue here isn't whether or not Madonna should cavort on screen with boyfriend Tony Ward and a host of androgynous extras; the real question being raised is what constitutes acceptable sexual behavior in our society.
And the answer may seem more shocking than anything in the video.
Let's start with the clip itself. Directed by Jean-Baptiste Mondino, who also did Madonna's "Open Your Heart" video, and shot in grainy black and white, the video is presented as an
exercise in erotic imagination and sexual gaming. In addition to some steamy make-out sequences between Madonna and Ward, the video contains intimations of bondage, bisexuality, voyeurism and cross-dressing.
Needless to say, this is not everybody's cup of romance.
Nor is it intended to be. Madonna isn't interested in playing down to her audience, in finding some sort of common denominator. Nor, for that matter, is it intended as a document of her own private pursuits, since most of the kinky bits are presented in fantasy sequences.
But she does make the point that sexual fantasy itself is real, and that there are kinky thoughts lurking within almost any lover's imagination. As she put it in an interview on ABC's "Nightline" last week, "We're dealing with sexual fantasy, and [with] being truthful and honest with our partner. And these feelings exist. I'm just dealing with that truth."
Perhaps that's why MTV told the singer that there was no specific sequence in the clip that went over the line. After all, there's very little in "Justify My Love" that hasn't already been seen on MTV in some form or other.
Bare breasts? Put a black bar across 'em, and they'll easily make the cut. In fact, when R.E.M. had a shirtless Michael Stipe lip-syncing along with three topless women for "Pop Song 89," not only were the women's nipples masked, but Stipe's were as well.
Androgyny? Obviously, Boy George blazed a good bit of ground in that department. But even more to the point was Aerosmith's heavily-played "Dude (Looks Like a Lady)" clip, which featured an abundance of gender bending.
Voyeurism? It's hard to know where to begin on this one, since ogling women is a standard practice in most rock vids. But Winger's "Miles Away," which features numerous shots in which the lonely singer imagines someone else in bed with his woman, is the current heavy-rotation favorite.
And though bisexuality is generally kept in the closet, lesbianism continues to be a favored spectator sport, as the sequence in George Michael's "Freedom '90" clip makes plain.
In fact, it could very easily be argued that almost any sort of sexual content is acceptable on MTV, so long as it respects the conventions of heterosexual male desire. That not only explains such run-of-the-mill pandering as Warrant's "Cherry Pie" video, with its thinly-veiled innuendo and wet T-shirt scene, and Robert Palmer's breast-obsessed "You're Amazing," but also such high-concept clips as Jane Wiedlin's "Hot," which intercut steamy bedroom scenes with such heavy-handed symbols as an ejaculating tube of toothpaste.
Does this mean, then, that what disturbs people most about "Justify My Love" is that it appeals to a sensibility other than standard male heterosexuality? Yes and no. Certainly, the video wasn't helped by a scene near the end showing three heavily made-up men entwined on a hotel couch.
What really makes "Justify My Love" seem subversive, however, is its suggestion that bisexuality of that sort is a perfectly acceptable subject for fantasy. And even though it has been decades since the "Kinsey Report" claimed that humans are by nature bisexual, and are socialized -- not born -- into heterosexual behavior, most Americans are still extremely uncomfortable with such ideas.
"Sexuality is something that Americans would really rather just sweep up under the rug," was the way Madonna summed things up for "Nightline." And she's absolutely right -- it's hard to imagine "Justify My Love" causing anywhere near this much consternation in Europe. (In fact, the uncut video is already being shown in Britain, although the Independent Broadcasting Authority there has barred broadcast before 9 p.m.)