Madonna is one of the greatest video artists of all time - and also one of the most controversial. Sex, religion and sexuality have all featured prominently throughout her video career, sparking debate, bans and opening up conversations in their wake.
1984: ‘Like A Virgin’
On her debut album, Madonna bagged herself a decent-sized fanbase thanks to her catchy tunes and unique sense of style, as showcased in the videos for ‘Borderline’ and ‘Lucky Star’.
It was in the video for the title track from her second album, ‘Like A Virgin’ that she’d show the world what she was really about, though. Filmed in Venice, the video sees Madonna singing and dancing provocatively in a gondola, while flirting with the ideas of sexuality and religion, which as we all know would go on to become recurring themes in her videos and photo-shoots.
If only the people up in arms knew what she would have in store just a few short years later…
Watch the ‘Like A Virgin’ video in full here.
1986: ‘Papa Don’t Preach’
Conservatives in America were unimpressed when they discovered that the biggest star in America was planning to release a track sung from the perspective of a pregnant teenager, a theme which carried over to the song’s music video.
In the song’s accompanying clip, Madonna acts out the message of the song, playing a young woman struggling to pluck up the courage to tell her father she’s pregnant.
Well some critics suggested the track and video promoted or encouraged teen pregnancy, it wound up being at the centre of a debate about whether or not it had anti-abortion sentiments, which Madonna herself refused to be drawn in on at the time, with her long-suffering publicist Liz Rosenberg insisting: “She’s singing a song, not taking a stand. Her philosophy is people can think what they want to think.”
Watch the ‘Papa Don’t Preach’ video in full here.
1986: ‘Open Your Heart’
The ‘Open Your Heart’ music video sees Madonna playing a stripper working in a peep show, dressed in one of the most memorable outfits of her career, a black bustier and fishnet tights, which would eventually go on to become one of her signature looks.
While MTV was initially reluctant to air the video because of its sexually suggestive content, it also sparked a debate among feminist critics about whether or not her portrayal of a sex worker was objectifying or empowering, because of the way it subverted the male gaze.
At the end of the video, Madonna befriends a young boy, with whom she runs away with, though the inclusion of a child in such a sexual setting also proved divisive.
Watch the ‘Open Your Heart’ video in full here.
1989: ‘Like A Prayer’
When it comes to Madonna’s music videos, none have brewed up a controversy in the same way as ‘Like A Prayer’. Performing in a negligee in front of burning crucifixes and having sex on a literal altar, interspersed with images of stigmata and crying saints, it’s no wonder the video was condemned by the Vatican and famously cost Madonna a deal with Pepsi (which she was still paid for, even thanking them when ‘Like A Prayer’ scooped the Viewers’ Choice at the 1989 VMAs).
What’s often lost in the discussion about religion, is that the video also deals with racial tensions, depicting a black man who is falsely accused of murdering a white woman, who he had been trying to help.
Watch the ‘Like A Prayer’ video in full here.
1990: ‘Justify My Love’
In ‘Justify My Love’, Madonna is seen exploring a hotel - in which many guests are seen in a variety of sexual poses, including suggested BDSM and orgies - in a dream-like state, wandering the corridors and laughing as she goes.
The racy video was clearly too much for MTV, who announced that they would not be airing the clip, with many other networks following suit.
Madonna took the controversy all the way to the bank, though, releasing it on VHS as a “video single”, commenting at the time: “Why is it that people are willing to go and watch a movie about someone getting blown to bits for no reason at all, and nobody wants to see two girls kissing and two men snuggling?”
Watch the ‘Justify My Love’ video in full here.
We think Madonna might have sensed she was onto a winner with ‘Justify My Love’, and as the 90s continued, so did the singer’s pushing of the envelope when it came to sexual imagery and themes.
All of this came to a head with the release of her polarising photo book, ‘SEX’, which was accompanied by the album ‘Erotica’ and the music video for its title track.
Like ‘Justify My Love’, ‘Erotica’ ended up being banned by MTV after being played just three times, of which Madonna - who performs the song as her alter-ego, Mistress Dita - said: “MTV plays to a huge audience and a lot of them are children, and a lot of themes I’m exploring in my videos aren’t meant for children, so I understand that they say I can’t show it.”
Watch the ‘Erotica’ video in full here.
1995: ‘Human Nature’
By the mid-1990s, Madonna’s public profile was at an all-time low, with her ‘Erotica’ album, the film ‘Body Of Evidence’ and the documentary ‘Truth Or Dare’ (or ‘In Bed With Madonna’, as it was referred to in the UK) turning off a lot of casual fans.
What followed was a touch of image overhaul for the singer, which included the release of softer ballads like ‘I’ll Remember’, ‘Secret’ and ‘Take A Bow’, as well as the more experimental Björk co-write ‘Bedtime Story’.
Once the dust was settled, though, Madonna stirred things up once again, lampooning the whole debacle in the track ‘Human Nature’ and its latex-heavy music video.
Watch the ‘Human Nature’ music video in full here.
2001: ‘What It Feels Like For A Girl’
After ‘Human Nature’, Madonna went through some big professional and personal changes. Work-wise, she bagged a Golden Globe for her lead role in ‘Evita’, as well as her first ever Grammy for ‘Ray Of Light’, heralded by many critics as her best ever album.
Meanwhile, she also became a mother, and began living in the UK with husband Guy Ritchie, then best known for gangster films like ‘Lock Stock’ and ‘Snatch’.
The two collaborated just twice, once on the ill-fated remake ‘Swept Away’ and a second time in the music video for ‘What It Feels Like For A Girl’, which saw Madonna picking up an elderly woman from a retirement home and giving her the car ride from hell, eventually crashing the car on purpose.
Like ‘Erotica’ and ‘Justify My Love’ before it, the video wound up being banned by MTV, while Madonna said she intended for it to “open dialogues”.
Watch the ‘What It Feels Like For A Girl’ video in full here.
2003: ‘American Life’
Even Madonna clearly felt she’d crossed a line with the original cut of the ‘American Life’ video, which centred around a fashion show laden with imagery relating to war and disaster.
Eventually this supposed staged disaster becomes real, when the star crashes her car through the catwalk, wreaking chaos and eventually hurling a grenade onto the runway, which is eventually caught by a George W Bush lookalike (in one of two versions of the video which have since leaked online), who uses it to light a cigar.
Due to the political climate at that time, Madonna eventually decided to cancel the video altogether, saying at the time: “Due to the volatile state of the world and out of sensitivity and respect to the armed forces, who I support and pray for, I do not want to risk offending anyone who might misinterpret the meaning of this video.”
Watch the leaked director’s cut of the ‘American Life’ video here.
2012: ‘Girl Gone Wild’
Even into her 50s, (or, you might argue, because she was in her 50s) Madonna was still sparking debates about censorship with her use of sexual imagery, as she discovered when she released the ‘MDNA’ cut ‘Girl Gone Wild’ in 2012.
The video, which depicts nude men in various situations, as well as imagery relating to S&M and the Catholic church, was censored not by MTV this time, but YouTube, who allowed only users over the age of 18 to watch it.
Even 20 years after ‘Justify My Love’, Madonna was still being forced to defend her provocative videos, saying of the backlash: “I’m supposed to be a ‘Girl Gone Wild’ in the video… how can I go wild and not grind?”
Watch the ‘Girl Gone Wild’ video in full here.