Some cynical industry insiders have suggested that “Justify My Love” was actually designed to be banned — that the entire controversy was nothing more than a PR stunt by a singer whose ability to command attention has grown almost mythic. A prime piece of evidence for that view: the “Justify My Love” videocassette, the first video single ever released, arrived in stores at $9.98 on Dec. 6, just in time for Christmas. It could well become the best-selling video in history.
MTV’s Cohen seems to share the suspicion that there was more here than will not meet the eye on MTV “I don’t think for one second that Madonna had any intention of getting this video on MTV,” he says. “She knew we couldn’t put this video on the air. She had to know.” Madonna’s spokeswoman Liz Rosenberg insists otherwise. “That’s just not true,” she says. “I talked with Madonna while she was making the video in Paris, and she felt that MTV would run it because they wouldn’t want to look like censors. She thought they would bend the rules for her, like they always had in the past. I think she was genuinely shocked when she heard they were rejecting it.”
Madonna shocked? Perhaps. After all, MTV has been lenient with the Material Girl. The network barely flinched when she crawled on all fours and drank milk from a saucer in “Express Yourself.” They didn’t complain when she stripped for strangers in “Open Your Heart.” They held their tongue when she kissed a black Jesus in “Like A Prayer.” Maybe Madonna really was surprised by MTV’s reaction to “Justify My Love.” Maybe she honestly was shocked.
It’s hard to imagine, but then with Madonna, anything is possible.
It’s bad. But is it good?
It isn’t so shocking that this hyper-hyped new video from Madonna includes suggestions of bisexuality, group sex, and voyeurism. Much less from our lady of perpetual outrage would itself be a scandal. What is shocking is how Madonna manages to transform all this pawing and drooling into something both erotic and wryly witty. For all the sensuality of her past videos, this is the first Madonna clip to mix kink with camp, and the result is genuinely whimsical.
The song “Justify My Love” — some vague, tuneless phrases chanted in Madonna’s most breathless voice over a minimal house groove — serves mainly to justify the visuals. And in those visuals, Madonna goes over the top right from the start, stumbling woozily down a hallway, a la Camille, ready to expire from sheer lust. When a stud — none other than her current toy boy, actor-model Tony Ward — appears to revive the stricken blond, his kisses send her into a reverie of erotic desire, allowing us to see a few of the acts that seem to send Madonna over the borderline.
Judging by what we see, she likes to watch and be watched. And she likes to pair boys with boys, girls with girls, and herself with everybody — maybe. Ambiguity and androgyny are so highly prized here that the video could double as a new game show, Guess My Sex.
There’s no mistaking this piece for porn, because it carries such a firm point of view. Madonna uses her portrayal of blurred genders to amuse and to liberate, as well as to exploit. Her cheeky S&M fantasies wind up asserting the independence of the individual, and to make sure we don’t miss the point, she spells it out with the lyrics printed on-screen at the clip’s close: “Poor is the man whose pleasures depend on the permission of another.”
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