“You put this in me, so now what?” Madonna purrs on “Justify My Love” as a slinky trip-hop beat oozes in the background. It is just one of many controversial lines Madge coos on the track, arguably her most overtly sexual to date. Now lauded as one of the best songs of her career, “Justify My Love” received its fair share of backlash when it debuted Nov. 6, 1990. (That means, yes, it turns 25 today.)
It was the track’s video, though, that really ignited a cultural firestorm. In the five-minute clip, Madonna—channeling a serious Marilyn Monroe aesthetic—arrives tired and disheveled at a hotel. She then finds herself indulging in some sexual healing with various suitors while other hot people get their freak on, too. Girl-on-girl! Sadomasochism! Voyeurism! The clip is a smorgasbord of X-rated tête-à-têtes, all shown explicitly in black and white.
Explicit is the operative word here. In 1990, the clip was viewed as too hot for airwaves, so MTV banned it. Ms. Ciccone herself criticized the censorship, saying, “Why is it that people are willing to go and watch a movie about someone getting blown to bits for no reason at all, and nobody wants to see two girls kissing and two men snuggling?” Of course, you see way more than just “snuggling” in “Justify My Love.” Exhibit A:
And we see way more than “Justify My Love” in 2015. Graphic sexuality is rampant in our entertainment, from Fifty Shades of Grey’s (2015) BDSM to Nicki Minaj’s celebration of big butts in “Anaconda.” Plus, contemporary pop stars rival Madonna’s sexual prowess with titillating videos of their own. (Christina Aguilera’s “Dirrty” or Lady Gaga’s “Alejandro,” anyone?) With this much sex at literally our fingertips, it begs the question: Is “Justify My Love” even provocative these days? Or does it look like a children’s TV show in comparison to Christian Grey’s Red Room and Ms. Aguilera’s leather chaps?
We decided to get to the bottom of this by showing “Justify My Love” to five twentysomethings who had never seen it before. Why millennials? Because we felt this generation consumes the most grab-my-pearls content than anyone else. Would five young people, who are exposed to so much tantalizing stimuli that it’s nauseating, find Madonna’s raciest work racy at all?
(Madonna discussed the “Justify My Love” controversy in a 1990 Nightline interview. Watch above.)
The answer, surprisingly, is not really. All five people we chatted with echoed a similar sentiment: The video is certainly envelope-pushing—especially in its ’90s context—but it’s nothing 2015 artists haven’t done (or even surpassed).
“I really don’t think it was that inappropriate,” Joseph Sewell, a 21-year-old psychology student from Florida, said. “That being said, if I had a young child, say under the age 15, I wouldn’t let them watch it. But compared to some of the stuff I’ve seen in my lifetime, I’d say it was a solid 6 of 10—10 being wholly inappropriate.”
Macy Hunter, a 22-year-old South Carolina history teacher, agrees with Joseph. “…these scenes [in ’Justify My Love’] are often in other forms of media, like TV and movies, so I am exposed to it some. Therefore, [it’s] not too shocking to me.”
“I’ve seen American Apparel ads that show more skin; we see couples having sex on TV and getting into all sorts of kinky s—t.” — Andrea Wurzburger, 22
New York City Starbucks barista Tyler Carolan, 25, actually sees “Justify My Love” as vanilla, especially matched against saucier offerings like Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball.” “….compared to some of today’s music videos and even ones from the early 2000s, this seems fairly tame, especially when you look at rap music videos,” he said.
University of South Carolina master’s student Andrea Wurzburger thinks the clip is definitely shocking—she ranked it an 8 on a scale of 1 to 10—but, again, views it as nothing deviant from today’s culture. “…I think that our society is sort of used to the hyper-sexualized content that we see in the video,” she said. “I’ve seen American Apparel ads that show more skin; we see couples having sex on TV and getting into all sorts of kinky s—t.”
The only millennial who expressed a slightly different viewpoint was 22-year-old Kalyn Oyer from Charleston, South Carolina. She replied “yes” when we asked if this video would get banned in 2015. (The other four didn’t think so.)
“…you don’t even really see this stuff today, because people are afraid to push boundaries like this—even though more people do now on a smaller scale,” she said.
Early ’90s Madonna and sex are synonymous. “Justify My Love” is the magnum opus of this NSFW era. However, our sample suggests “JML” is now—dare we say it—passé. Could it be that today’s music sphere has out-sexed the woman who published a book called Sex?
We’ll let you decide that in the comments. But one thing is definitely certain: “JML” is an untouchable, iconic pop moment, and even these fresh-eyed millennials know it.
“Miley’s ’Wrecking Ball’ has nothing on this,” Kalyn said. Damn straight.