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MTV, Censorship, and the NSFW Music Video

Posted on: April 9, 2021

Warning: this article contains profanity and references drug use, violence, sex and nudity

By Brad Osborn, associate professor of music theory and affiliated faculty in American studies at the University of Kansas and author of Interpreting Music Video 

We cannot examine the history of censorship on MTV in the 80s and 90s without situating the cable behemoth within the broader context of The Culture Wars. On one side of this battle, you have artistic freedom and the need for musicians—especially musicians from marginalized groups—to air their truth about what conditions are like in places like Compton, CA. On the other side, you have conservative “family values” like those represented by the man who coined the term “culture war” in his 1992 bid for the presidency: a white-supremacist/homophobic holocaust-denier named Pat Buchanon, who viewed hip-hop music and music videos as a threat to society. 

Though censorship has many definitions, I adopt Michael Eric Dyson’s: that which “seeks to prevent the sale of vulgar music that offends mainstream moral sensibilities by suppressing the First Amendment.” Dyson was writing in response to a number of evangelical groups who amassed funds specifically for the purpose of buying up CDs by gangsta rap musicians and then publicly bulldozing them.

I’m specifically interested in how music videos play into this larger conversation about censorship and the contest between liberal and conservative values in America. To understand how and why MTV made the censorship choices it did, we have to start by following the money.

I. NIELSEN, AD TRACKING, AND CENSORSHIP IN THE MTV ERA

Nielsen, the ad-tracking agency, plays a surprising role in MTV’s censorship practices. When MTV just played random videos throughout the day in the early 80s, they had a harder time hooking an audience for a guaranteed half hour. And because Nielsen only measured viewership for programs lasting at least 30 minutes, MTV had an especially difficult time convincing advertisers of a guaranteed viewership that could be used to market targeted products.

So to bolster their Nielsen stats MTV created specialty programs such as Yo! MTV Raps (1988–1995) that concentrated Black and hispanic viewership into 30-minute segments so that they could advertise specialty products directly to this demographic. This put MTV on a thin wire: play rap videos by the day’s hottest artists without offending the delicate sensibilities of the average consumer to whom companies wanted to sell products during the commercial breaks.

Yo! MTV Raps coincides with the birth and sustained popularity of the gangsta rap video. MTV routinely censored gangsta rap videos for:

  • Explicit language
  • Depictions of violence
  • Product logos
  • Nudity

Most artists got around the language censorship by recording “clean versions” of their music to go along with the video. But they normally did not film separate versions of the video, meaning that it’s not at all uncommon to see videos that have horrendously bad lip-synching. Take, for example, the case of Dr. Dre’s “Nuthin But a G Thang” (1992), which put a then up-and-coming rapper named Snoop Doggy Dogg on the map. The original “dirty” version, never played on MTV and circulated primarily on VHS tape, was actually filmed to coincide with the clean version audio that MTV could air. This means that at 3:26 in the “dirty” video, for example, we hear Dr. Dre say “mobbin like a motherfucker but I ain’t lynching” while we see Snoop mouth the ending of the lyrics “mobbin’ with the Dogg Pound/bow wow wow.” Note Dre’s obvious attention to amending “curse words” in this clean version, but also a keen anticipation of MTV’s censorship of other words on the grounds of violence (e.g., “lynchin’”).

Because much visual censorship can be accomplished by simply adding image blurring, MTV had more flexibility as standards changed over time. Early in “Nuthin But a G Thang’s” tenure on MTV, the stylized marijuana leaf on Snoop’s ball cap (as well as the actual marijuana in Warren G’s hands) was blurred out, though both were eventually shown without blurs.

Warren G holds mmarijuana

This change unfolded alongside the constant blurring of trademarked logos, such as that on Dr. Dre’s Chicago White Sox cap, which were always blurred because artists didn’t secure the rights to use them. This practice was so widely acknowledged as to become satirized in The Roots’ 1996 video “What They Do,” which Chryons “No logos in the Shot.” 

blurred image of young men with the words no logos in the shot overlaid

Fast forward twenty years when artists would get paid handsomely to feature products with trademarked logos conspicuously in their videos. DJ Khaled’s 2018 “No Brainer” features more paid product placements—six in total— than it does featured artists (four).

dj khaled holds a bottle of ciroc vodka

Visual censorship in the era of gangsta rap was particularly concerned with violent acts. Cypress Hill’s “How I Could Just Kill a Man” (1991) was one of the first to be censored for gun violence; it depicted an armed robbery. MTV had no problem, however, showing a white officer with a gun to Ice Cube’s temple two years earlier in in N.W.A.’s “Straight Outta Compton” (1989).

II. SEX, BODIES, AND THE “NSFW” MUSIC VIDEO

Depictions of sex, and the mere existence of women’s bodies, were also constantly policed by MTV’s censors. Madonna’s 1990 video “Justify my Love” is among the most famous videos banned from MTV. But it doesn’t actually show naked people, or even show people having sex. Like Ira Glass’s warnings to listeners on certain episodes of This American Life, Madonna’s video acknowledges the existence of sex. More specifically, the video acknowledges the existence of BDSM sex among gender non-conforming individuals.

still of two gay men from Madonna's Justify My Love video

Years later, “Pagan Poetry” was banned from MTV when Björk decided to liberate her breasts. Mind you, not in a necessarily sexy manner. In other words, MTV censored Björk’s body for merely existing.

image of Bjork from her Pagan video

MTV’s transformation from 24-hour music video network to reality show magnate was facilitated by the creation of separate, parallel cable networks that aired mostly or exclusively music videos. One of these networks, MTV2, began to play several previously banned videos late at night, including “Justify My Love,” as well as the director’s cut of Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer,” the later of which ran the gamut from naked women to animal mutilation.

As provocative as these videos were for their time, they pale in comparison to a later generation of what Mathias Korsgaard has called “NSFW Music Videos.” These are videos, mostly on Vimeo or YouTube, that, because they are often shared over social media or email links, must come with a warning to the viewer “Not Safe For Work,” as in, “don’t open these when your co-workers are looking!”

Standards change. Several videos that depict women’s bodies and the existence of all kinds of non-heteronormative sex acts, though they wouldn’t have passed muster on MTV two decades earlier, now give us relatively little pause. In “Money,” for example, Cardi B presents women’s bare breasts with the same nonchalance that got Björk’s video banned two decades earlier.

With the parallel roles MTV played in the 80s and 90s—not only censorship gatekeeper but also  popular tastemaker—removed, we now see a much wider diversity of artists producing music videos. “Pass It,” a 2020 music video by the Filipino/Black queer rapper MK XYZ, would definitely have been censored by MTV, not only for the Polaroids of naked women that XYZ holds up to the camera, but also for the cunnilingus she simulates throughout.

image of woman with metallic letters on her tongue spelling talk dirty

And yet, some videos go (or have gone, in the past) too far for YouTube. Rihanna’s video with the titilating title “S&M” was banned by YouTube when it was released in 2011 for not much more than was featured in “Justify My Love.” But few videos can hold a candle to the utter bedlam that is “Rub,” a 2015 video by the Canadian electronic artist known as Peaches. Kat George summarizes the narrative action of “Rub” as: “plus-sized bodies, hairy vaginas, sweaty orgies, same-sex cunnilingus, and all manner of other sex acts as well as hints of BDSM.” Korsgaard describes the video’s shock-value apex—the moment a trans woman presents Peaches with a “dickslap”—using a word I never imagined I would read in a scholarly paper.


III. CONCLUSION, OR, THE STANDARDS, THEY ARE ‘A CHANGIN’

That I can now access both “S&M” and “Rub” on YouTube—provided that my “age-restricted content” was disabled—speaks to just how quickly community standards can change in the age of the Internet. I can even access Bella Thorne’s “Shake It” now, which was banned by YouTube almost immediately upon its release in late February 2021. “Shake It” can be described as a hip-hop video that choreographs simulated sex while showing no actual nudity. In other words, it’s like most hip-hop videos—except that Thorne’s choreographed sex is between two women.

tweet by Bella Thorne

YouTube in fact quickly apologized for taking down Thorne’s video after the artist tweeted accusations of double-standards on the basis of sex. While changing social policies and public opinion won’t have much of an impact on videos that show excessive violence or animal cruelty, videos that once would have been banned for the depiction of non-heteronormative sex—such as “Justify My Love” in 1990—stand much more of a fighting chance at passing censorship standards today.

Ultimately, I predict we will see an increase in permissiveness from YouTube in the near future—particularly regarding videos that depict LGBTQ+ sex—and that this might, in actuality, have less to do with “changing community standards” than YouTube trying to avoid the nasty business of having millions of aggrieved parties calling out their censorship biases on Twitter and other social media outlets. Power to the people.