More than any other artist who emerged in the MTV era, Madonna‘s songs are inextricably bound to the images she created for them. From “Papa Don’t Preach” to “American Life,” controversy has been a recurring theme in her visual oeuvre.
The new video for her disco-gospel anthem “God Control,” from her album Madame X, which debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, finds the Queen of Pop taking aim at America’s gun epidemic with an explicitness that’s shocking even for her.
It’s been a minute since a Madonna video has pushed the envelope like this, which made us think about some of the artist’s most controversial video moments.
“Papa Don’t Preach” (1986)
A mere four years into her career, Madonna was already infamous for her innuendo-laced lyrics and sexually provocative performances, but “Papa Don’t Preach” was the singer’s first bona-fide video controversy. Madonna portrays a pregnant teen from a working-class neighborhood in Staten Island who tells her father (played by veteran actor Danny Aiello) that she’s decided to keep her baby.
Ironically, it wasn’t right-wing groups who were up in arms over “Papa Don’t Preach,” but Planned Parenthood, who urged radio stations to boycott the then-No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 because it allegedly promoted teen pregnancy. When asked about the decades-old controversy in an iHeartRadio interview in 2019, Madonna quipped, “I don’t get it. Everything I do is controversial. Nothing’s changed – I’m still in trouble.”
“Open Your Heart” (1986)
Hot on the heels of “Papa Don’t Preach,” Madonna released one of her most visually striking and sexually provocative videos up to that point. The highly stylized clip for “Open Your Heart,” the fourth single from her 1986 blockbuster album True Blue, found the singer striking a more assertive pose. Madonna plays an exotic dancer who performs for a series of (mostly male) spectators, while an adolescent boy lingers outside the theater, hoping to sneak a peek. A deconstruction of female empowerment and the male gaze, the video is a testament to Madonna’s power as a performer, commanding attention with little more than her body and a wooden chair.
“Like a Prayer” (1989)
The video for Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” holds the unique distinction of having inspired the ire of both the religious right and cultural critics on the left. A modern morality tale that, 30 years later, feels more relevant than ever, the video sees Madonna dancing in front of burning crosses, kissing a black saint in a church pew and fighting racial injustice. Madonna may have received criticism for placing herself in the role of a white savior, but it’s clear she and director Mary Lambert understood the oppressive social structures that still exist to this day.
Religious groups called for a boycott of Pepsi (even Pope John Paul II lashed out), who’d just launched a massive ad campaign with the artist, including a TV spot featuring “Like a Prayer.” The company ultimately caved to the pressure and the commercial was pulled after airing two times in the U.S. Naturally, Madonna pocketed her $5 million fee.
Ultimately a blip in her canon of controversy, Madonna reportedly refused to edit the iconic video for her smash hit “Vogue.” MTV allegedly asked the singer to remove shots in which her breasts are clearly visible through a sheer lace blouse. By 1990, however, Madonna effectively owned the “M” in MTV, so the network conceded and she got her way. The black-and-white Art Deco-inspired video, directed by David Fincher, was nominated for nine MTV Video Music Awards, while the song became her eighth No. 1 single on the Hot 100.
“Justify My Love” (1990)
Directed by photographer Jean-Baptiste Mondino, who previously worked with Madonna on “Open Your Heart,” the video for “Justify My Love” was infamously banned by MTV for its explicit nudity and frank sexuality. The gritty black-and-white clip, which pays homage to the French New Wave, finds Madonna frolicking with model and then-boyfriend Tony Ward and an assortment of androgynous characters in a Parisian hotel.
Madonna appeared on ABC’s Nightline to discuss the controversy, criticizing MTV — and society at large — for their hypocritical embrace of violence and degradation of women while at the same time censoring images of sex between consenting adults. “Justify My Love” was released to retail on VHS and became the first-ever “video single,” selling a quarter of a million copies; the song went on to spend two weeks atop the Hot 100 in January 1991.
Assembled from Super 8 footage shot during the making of her infamous Sex coffee table book and inspired by Andy Warhol’s Factory films, 1992’s “Erotica” pictured Madonna and a handful of famous friends (Naomi Campbell, Isabella Rossellini, Vanilla Ice) in a series of explicit sadomasochistic scenarios. Perhaps exhausted by the thought of another public battle with the pop star, MTV agreed to air the video – but only after 10 p.m. It was removed from rotation after just three plays.
“What It Feels Like for a Girl” (2001)
After a period of relative calm in Madonna’s often button-pushing career, the video for “What It Feels Like for a Girl” received criticism for its apparent glorification of extreme violence. Directed by then-husband Guy Ritchie, best known for his action-packed gangster movies, the video follows Madonna on a nihilistic crime spree through L.A. as she smashes up cars, tasers and robs a man and crashes her car into a telephone pole. An ostensible gender-flip of hyper-masculinity, the clip was effectively banned by MTV, airing only once during a news segment.
“American Life” (2003)
After having been banned by MTV three times already, Madonna voluntarily censored her own video in the lead up to the Iraq War in 2003. In the original version of “American Life,” directed by Jonas Åkerlund, the queen and her band of unconventional beauties storm a fashion show, pummeling the paparazzi with water from an industrial-size hose while the audience hoots and hollers at the Middle Eastern children and limbless American soldiers on the catwalk. Fearful about the response in such a reactionary political climate, the singer yanked the video, a comment on the obscenity of war as an American spectacle, replacing it with a completely sanitized version for public consumption. Footage from the director’s cut ended up in Madonna’s Re-Invention Tour the following year and is now widely available on YouTube.
“God Control” (2019)
Directed by frequent collaborator Jonas Åkerlund, “God Control” is a ’70s period piece that doubles as a commentary on our present-day politics. The eight-minute mini-movie opens with unsettling images of bodies lying on a dance floor, evoking 2016’s Orlando Pulse nightclub shooting in which 49 people were killed, before flashing back to earlier in the night, when Madonna — who dons a gold pantsuit and a blonde wig à la Michelle Pfeiffer in Scarface — is attacked at gunpoint on the street. The video juxtaposes scenes of club revelers living their best lives with the destruction wrought by a lone shooter, ending with a call for viewers to “wake up” and demand gun control.