How much controversy can you cram into five minutes? If you’re Madonna, enough to make your new single a hit. On Nov. 6, 1990 – 25 years ago this week – Madonna released the first single from The Immaculate Collection, “Justify My Love.” In the month that followed, Madonna filmed a video for the song, submitted it to MTV (which promptly rejected it), and then rode the resulting controversy all the way to the bank. The video was ultimately sold as a “video single,” and it sold well.
Today, the incident is remembered as one of the biggest controversies in Madonna’s career, which is saying a lot. In case you didn’t shell out for the VHS tape back in the day, watch the video below. (And yes, it and other videos in this post may be NSFW. Obviously.)
In celebration of the song’s 25th anniversary, we’ve compiled a list of factoids you may not know about the tune, the video, and the associated fallout.
1. The video is actually pretty tame by today’s standards
Given all the controversy about Madonna using the video to promote sex, sadomasochism, cross-dressomg and whatever else critics perceived in it, it just doesn’t seem quite so racy 25 years later. It’s all about sex, sure, and it’s very sexy, but the most scandalous thing in it is a woman who’s topless except for a pair of suspenders that (mostly) cover her nipples. Of course, the female nipple is still a controversial body part today, but give the video a spin now and decide for yourself if you should be offended – and if changing sexual mores are a good thing or a bad thing.
2. And the controversy helped propel the single to the top of the charts
Isn’t it crazy what free publicity can do? In just two months, “Justify My Love” was No. 1 on the Billboard Top 100. It stayed there for two weeks, only to be displaced by Janet Jackson’s "Love Will Never Do." By February 1991, “Justify My Love” went platinum.
3. The VHS single sold over 1 million copies
And they weren’t cheap: The initial retail price for the illicit video was $9.98, according to Entertainment Weekly.
4. The European release of the video actually gave a nod to MTV
As an extra, the video included Madonna’s performance of “Vogue” at the MTV Music Video Awards, which aired just weeks before the channel banned “Justify My Love.”
5. Madonna, of course, had opinions about the ban
Being interviewed on Nightline on Dec. 3, following MTV’s official rejection of the video on Nov. 27, Madonna pointed out that MTV’s ban on nudity in music videos might be inconsistent. “When I did my ‘Vogue’ video, there’s a shot of me where I’m wearing a see-through dress, and you can clearly see my breasts. They told me that they wanted me to take that out, but I said I wouldn’t, and they played it anyway,” she said. “I thought that I was once again going to be able to bend the rules a little bit.”
She also claimed that the sexual content of the video wasn’t as dangerous as other themes more readily accepted on television. “I would like to address the whole issue of censorship on television. Where do we draw the line in general?” she said. “I draw the line in terms of what I think is viewable on television. I draw the line at violence and humiliation and degradation.”
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6. It wasn’t any one scene that got the video banned
Per Madonna in the Nightline interview, the censors didn’t cite any scene in particular as grounds for banning it. “When we gave it to MTV, we asked if they would play it. They came back a while later and said no,” she said. “I asked them, ‘Is there one scene or another that you specifically object to?’ They said, ‘No, it was the whole tone.’ So we didn’t even really get a chance to try to make it viewable. They rejected it completely.”
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7. The financial advantages of the ban were not lost on her
In the Nightline interview, Madonna smiles when it’s pointed out that she has a reputation for being an ace self-promoter, but when asked if making a video likely to be banned was a publicity stunt, she says no. “It may seem like it was a publicity stunt, and I was very lucky, I must say. But I did not plan on selling this video The controversy just happened. It wasn’t planned,” she said. “So lucky me.”
8. Madonna also spoke the phrase "sexual fannies" on Nightline
She said it accidentally while trying to say “sexual fantasies,” but given that it happened during her discussion of how she’d previously tried to slip more risqué content past MTV’s censors, it’s a notable Freudian slip.
9. Strangely enough, Nightline aired the video in its entirety
And that might seem surprising, since ABC is a broadcast network, not a cable channel like MTV. In the above clip, you can see that the video was prefaced by anchor Forrest Sawyer with the following message: “Obviously we are broadcasting it late at night, and only adults are watching. You should know that this video includes graphic portrayals of sexuality and nudity.”
10. Madonna’s co-star in the video was her real-life boyfriend at the time
But her relationship with actor-mode Tony Ward had ended by April 1991. A PEOPLE report from 1991 noted, “It may be a coincidence, but [Ward] seems to have dropped from her arm at about the same time tabloids revealed that he had married an old flame, Amalia Papadimos, 23, in a quickie ceremony in Las Vegas on Aug. 21, 1990 – after he had begun dating Madonna.”
11. There was a famous Saturday Night Live parody
The May 11, 1991, episode of SNL had Delta Burke hosting and Chris Isaak as the musical guest, but it also featured a surprise appearance by Madonna in a pre-taped “Wayne’s World” bit that introduced the phrase “Wow, look at the unit on that guy” to the pop culture lexicon.
12. It’s an homage
According to the book Madonna as Postmodern Myth, the video is a tribute to the 1963 French film Bay of Angels, which starred Jeanne Moreau.
13. There’s a Public Enemy connection
“Justify My Love” samples a beat that had previously appeared in the Public Enemy song "Security in the First World." The response to Madonna’s use of the beat was artistic: In 1991, the group’s producer, Hank Shocklee, commissioned the rap group Young Black Teenagers to use the beat again in a response song, “To My Donna.”
14. There’s a James Brown connection
The Public Enemy beat is, in turn, based off the one in Brown’s 1970 track “Funky Drummer,” which means it is a kinda-sorta grandparent to “Justify My Love.”
15. There’s a Lenny Kravitz connection, too
Kravitz cowrote the song with Ingrid Chavez (who co-starred in Prince’s Graffiti Bridge), and he also co-produced the track. At the time, it was rumored that Madonna and Kravitz were in a relationship, but Kravitz, who was still married to Lisa Bonet at the time, denied that their interaction had been anything other than professional.
16. The song was based on a letter Chavez had written for Kravitz
As Chavez recalled to Vibe in 2013, the creation of the song was surprisingly simple. “Andre [Betts] got a beat going, Lenny recorded a synth line, and then he asked me if I had something I wanted to say. I had a letter on me (my letters are like poems), and so I got on the mic and basically read the letter. One take and the rest is history,” Chavez said.
17. Chavez also sued Kravitz over the song
Chavez sued on grounds that she’d been denied a songwriting credit for “Justify My Love.” On Jan. 29, 1992, Chavez and Kravitz settled out of court. Payment details weren’t disclosed, but Chavez did eventually get an official credit and a chunk of those royalties.
18. There’s a remix of the song that’s arguably even better designed to be controversial
Titled “Justify My Love (The Beast Within Remix),” this version ditches most of the lyrics and replaced them with passages from the Book of Revelations.
19. Jay-Z put his own spin on the song
The 2003 track “Justify My Thug” is a hip hop re-working of “Justify My Love.”
20. In the end, the video aired on MTV2
In 2002, the spinoff channel to MTV aired “Justify My Life” as part of a late-night countdown of the most controversial music videos. So all that hullaballoo turned out to be for nothing, just twelve years down the line.