July 15, 2001 12:00 PM

I want your sex

George Michael sent mixed messages in his provocative video

THE LYRICS OF GEORGE MICHAEL’S “I WANT YOUR SEX” ARE nothing if not direct, and yet the underlying message was widely debated. Fearing that the 1987 video—in which Michael blindfolds a scantily clad Kathy Jeung and writes “Explore monogamy” in lipstick on her bare thigh—encouraged casual sex, MTV didn’t air it until Michael had agreed to three rounds of edits and an added disclaimer. ” ‘I Want Your Sex’ is about attaching lust to love, not just to strangers,” Michael said. Explains MTV Networks exec VP of corporate communications Carole Robinson: “At the time, there was quite a hysteria about AIDS. We wanted to air that video, and with the clarification of the message from the artist, it was a great bit.”

Justify my love

And the banned played on for Madonna

SHE GYRATED FOR A LION IN “Like a Virgin” and bled from her hands in “Like a Prayer.” But with 1990!s “Justify My Love,” a racy black-and-white video with bare flesh and overtones of sadomasochism, Madonna pushed MTV over the borderline. “We had never aired any nudity before,” says MTV exec Carole Robinson. “We understood her to be unwilling to edit it at all.” Madonna was stunned by the ban. “She said to me, ‘MTV would never not play one of my videos,’ ” recalls her publicist Liz Rosenberg. The star even went on TV’s Nightline to defend the video, which sold briskly in stores. Eleven years and nearly 20 videos later, the network banned Madonna again. Last March, MTV yanked “What It Feels Like for a Girl,” directed by Madonna‘s husband, Guy Ritchie, after one airing, deeming it too violent.

Andrew Dice Clay

The shock comic’s lewd—and live—routine sparked a furor

THE BLEEPS COULDN’T COME FAST ENOUGH, SO ANDREW DICE Clay’s profanity-filled rant at the 1989 Video Music Awards aired live and uncensored. Angry about the time he was allotted, an unapologetic Clay, now 44, recalls, “I ignored the cue cards. I did some of my famous Mother Goose jokes and something about having sex with a fat girl.” Hundreds of viewers called to complain, and that night MTV announced that the shock comic was nixed for life. Nonetheless, he appeared on the VMAs three years later in a skit with David Spade. Clay’s cameo, says MTV’s Carole Robinson, who attended the 1989 show, was “sort of to poke fun at ourselves.”

Black or white

Jackson’s wild video stunned viewers

SOME FANS REMEMBER Michael Jackson’s 1991 “Black or White” video for the then innovative special effect of morphing. But today, the video is perhaps best known for its frenzied finale, when Jackson smashes a car’s windows and repeatedly grabs his crotch. “When we shot that sequence, I said, ‘Mike, what is this?’ ” says director John Landis, who also helmed “Thriller.” But, he adds, “Madonna and Prince had already done far worse, more explicit things in their videos.” “Black or White” drew so many complaints from viewers that Jackson had to issue an apology and excise the final four minutes from future airings on MTV. Nevertheless, the song soon shot to No. 1 on the charts.

Beavis and Butt-head

TV’s dopiest duo came under fire

IN MORAINE, OHIO, IN 1993, 5-YEAR-OLD AUSTIN Messner set a blaze that killed his 2-year-old sister. Their mother, Darcy Burk, claimed Austin began playing with fire after watching the network’s cartoon show Beavis and Butt-head, about a pair of idiotic fire-happy teens. “I can’t imagine anything worse happening,” says Beavis creator Mike Judge. “But it’s not MTV’s responsibility to babysit kids.” Under attack from parents and politicians, MTV moved Beavis to a later time slot and ordered Judge to stop making any more references to fire on the show.

Jackass backlash

Johnny Knoxville under attack

THE COPYCAT INCIDENTS HAVE SPREAD LIKE A BAD rash. Since the October 2000 debut of Jackass—featuring the often dangerous, always sophomoric stunts of Johnny Knoxville, 30—kids around the country have disregarded the warning “Do not try this at home.” Last February, Thomas Hitz, 12, of Lake Mary, Fla., sprayed his hand with bug repellent and lit it as a video camera rolled. He suffered severe burns over 15 percent of his body. Though there have been several reports of similar pranks resulting in injury, MTV stands by the show’s disclaimers, and in fact no lawsuits have yet been filed against the network. Says MTV Networks president Judy McGrath: “There are many, many people who watch it and get it.” Some get it a bit too late. “I think he’s finally learned,” says Thomas’s mother, Marjorie, “that he should never, ever aspire to be a jackass.”

Racism at MTV?

Charged with discrimination, the network changed its tune

WHEN MTV WOULDN’T AIR Rick James’s “Super Freak” video in 1981, the singer publicly declared the network racist. MTV execs denied the accusation—”We just didn’t have time to play everything,” says John Sykes, then director of promotions. Eventually, though, the network sought out more black artists. Smart move. Ratings spiked when Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” aired in 1983. Five years later, director Ted Demme created Yo! MTV Raps. As rappers like Ice-T and Run DMC (pictured with Aerosmith) became household names, says Demme, “They told me, ‘Man, it’s about time.’ ”

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