Sadomasochism. Voyeurism. Bisexuality. What was designed as an erotic dream turned out to be a nightmare for MTV when execs of the cable network screened the video for Madonna’s ”Justify My Love” single on Nov. 26, 1990. Finding themes more common to triple-X movies than to its video segments, MTV ruled that the Material Girl’s five-minute sexual fantasy had gone over the borderline. The next day, the network announced that it had rejected ”Justify My Love,” sparking a furor that took Madonna to the peak of her notoriety.
Emerging almost simultaneously in the early 1980s, Madonna and MTV had contributed substantially to each other’s success, both helping to form the rebellious legs on which popular song marched through the decade. Madonna helped make MTV ”as much as [MTV] helped make her,” says Mark Bego, author of Madonna: Blonde Ambition. And content debates had become familiar to them both: Her video for the 1986 song ”Papa Don’t Preach,” about a pregnant teen, raised eyebrows, while MTV tussled with bands like Aerosmith and Twisted Sister over risque visual imagery. Just a month before the ”Justify My Love” uproar, Madonna had appeared topless, draped only in the Stars and Stripes, in an ad on MTV.
Naturally, the controversy turned out to be a publicity and financial coup. ”Throwing a scandal Madonna’s way is like throwing gasoline on a fire,” says Bego. The ”Justify” single spent two consecutive weeks at No. 1 in early ’91, and The Immaculate Collection, on which the threadbare song appeared, peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard charts. (At 6 million sold, it’s Madonna’s third-biggest album.) The video was also a smash when 260,000 copies hit stores at $9.98 a pop.
Some applauded Madonna for a kind of bravery and a media mastery that seemed to spur the former Boy Toy to one steamy success after another: her explicit Sex book in 1992, the same year’s Erotica album and video, and a sexed-up portrayal of Eva Peron in 1996’s Evita that earned her a Best Actress Golden Globe. Others found her lewdness repellent, and a few critics blame the brazenness of ”Justify,” Sex, and Erotica for Madonna’s decline in the ’90s.
This September, things came full circle when Madonna’s Hindu-styled performance at the MTV Video Music Awards outraged yet another group. Undeterred, MTV awarded the now-40-year-old mom six trophies for her latest album, Ray of Light — justification, perhaps, for the pair’s ongoing love.
Time Capsule / Nov. 26, 1990
AT THE MOVIES, Home Alone, starring 10-year-old Macaulay Culkin, is well on its way to becoming the highest-grossing comedy in history. No longer alone, a 17-year-old Mac would wed actress Rachel Miner in July 1998. IN BOOKSTORES, Anne Rice’s occult novel The Witching Hour thrills readers. The author’s latest, The Vampire Armand, would debut at No. 1 on Publishers Weekly’s best-seller list eight years later. IN MUSIC, Mariah Carey’s ”Love Takes Time” is in its last week atop the Billboard singles chart. The song will appear on her upcoming greatest-hits CD, #1’s. AND IN THE NEWS, eight years before John Glenn’s celebrated return to space, scientists await a report on the nearsightedness plaguing another heralded cosmic experiment, the Hubble telescope. The glitch would be fixed in ’93 at a cost of $693 million plus.