“What Are You Gonna Do?”: “Justify My Love” Turns 25

The month of November 1990 may have been a cold one by normal standards, but luckily Madonna was there to keep things sweltering. Yes, it’s already been twenty-five years since the lead single from her first greatest hits collection, The Immaculate Collection, was released.

A departure from some of the, shall we say, less explicit moments of her career (though, of course, her 1984 VMA performance of “Like A Virgin” set the tone for a canon of work that would be characterized by scandal), “Justify My Love” marked Madonna’s initiation into the 90s as more relevant and controversial than ever. The video for the track opens with a distressed and aggravated Madonna walking through a seedy hotel in Paris, and suddenly looking as though she might burst into spontaneous orgasm at any second–especially with all the sexual stimuli around her.

From garden variety BDSM to androgyny, the characters inhabiting the world of the hotel play host to Madonna’s deepest fantasies, particularly the main object of her desire, played by then-boyfriend Tony Ward (best known for his bisexuality and occasional foray into porn). At the time, the video was considered an outrage, an over-the-top attempt on Madonna’s part to garner more attention. So enraged were conservatives and parental types by the Jean-Baptiste Mondino-directed video that it became the first video in MTV’s history to be banned, prompting Madonna’s own Nightline special during which she discussed the hypocrisy of media and its condoning of violence and the degradation of women, but not with adults engaging in consensual sex acts.

The ban, naturally, worked in Madonna’s favor as she became the first artist to innovate the concept of a video single, releasing “Justify My Love” on VHS to make massive profits off of sales in the tens of thousands. The single remains one of her most evocative, as well as the most emblematic of her overall message as an artist: sex as art, taboo and god. Indeed, it is a song that remains enmeshed even in her current work, with allusions made to it on “Best Night” and “Veni Vedi Vici” from her most recent album, Rebel Heart. Clearly, it’s left an indelible imprint on us all.

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