By Elysa Gardner, USA TODAY
Anyone who watches music videos on television knows we’ve come a long way from the days when Elvis Presley could be shown only from the waist up — even if the limit is now a fleeting glimpse of Rascal Flatts singer Joe Don Rooney’s backside, as seen on a video that is causing controversy on country channel CMT. But viewers in search of the naked truth are still looking in vain.
||Madonna’s Justify My Love video caused controversy when it was released in the early ’90s.
For all the sexual imagery and innuendo today’s pop stars pound into their visual presentations, they remain bound by certain guidelines, prominent among them that nudity is a no-no. Spokesmen for MTV and VH1 confirm that both channels eschew nudity as a general rule, while Marc Juris, president of Fuse Television, the U.S. version of Canada’s MuchMusic, says his network will air any videos that audiences deem acceptable “so long as they don’t violate FCC standards.”
Stephen Hill, senior vice president of music, talent and programming at BET, is more specific: “There can be no frontal nudity, no female nipples and no male or female genitalia.”
That means that although you can see Christina Aguilera writhing in S&M gear in her Dirrty video or watch the teens in T.A.T.U. as they frolic in rain-soaked schoolgirl outfits, you probably won’t see a body part remotely linked to procreation, unless it has been dutifully blurred or obscured.
Hill says context is also a significant factor. “We’ll ask for edits in a lot of hip-hop videos because while they don’t involve nudity, the situations may be too sensual, especially for daytime.” Late-night viewers can catch more adult-oriented videos on BET’s Uncut— just as in the early ’90s they could turn on MTV after midnight and see Madonna’s steamier fare.
Hill says he doesn’t think Madonna’s Justify Your Love video, featuring the scantily clad singer cavorting with men and women, would garner such controversy were it introduced today. “Madonna pushed the form, and other artists have continued to push it.” Hill points to the video D’Angelo released several years ago for Untitled (How Does It Feel) in which the R&B singer’s glistening torso was surveyed at close range. “It stopped just north of the line where, you know, we would have had issues.”
The restrictions faced by network executives are partly cultural in origin. MuchMusic “has always been more open to nudity and sexuality” than its U.S. counterparts, music programmer Craig Halket says. For example, late-night viewers can check out an unedited version of the Dandy Warhols’ Bohemian Like You video, in which “a girl imagines a guy naked, and suddenly you see him naked — the full monty, if you will.”
Yet despite the USA’s puritanical leanings — or, some might argue, because of them — images on American music video channels have grown increasingly provocative and prurient. And with spectacle-driven reality shows such as MTV’s Real World and VH1′s All Access series — which has featured programs titled Porn to Rock and Rap and Getting Naked— garnering interest, those images are no longer confined to videos.
“The whole point of Real World is for there to be some naughty nookie,” says Craig Marks, editor of music magazine Blender. “I mean, there’s a reason there’s always a hot tub in the house. And spring break is really nothing but booties and boobies. I think there’s very little that a Britney Spears or a Madonna could do to push more buttons than those shows already push all the time.”
Rolling Stone contributing editor Anthony DeCurtis agrees. “MTV and VH1, and MTV in particular, traffic in this sort of endless titillation that stands in bizarre contradiction to their not showing nudity. It’s as if anything that seems like a consummation is frowned on. Instead, there’s this kind of adolescent sexuality, with a lot of talking and looking and fantasizing.
“Through the years, MTV has done a very effective job of dancing up to the line without going over it. And that approach seems to work for them.”