Still from Justify My Love

nsfw: the most sexually subversive music videos of all time

Ahead of the release of her book, ‘Justify My Love: Sex, Subversion and Music Video’, Ryann Donnelly celebrates the erotic iconography of her favourite provocative music videos.

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10 April 2019, 7:00am

Still from Justify My Love

“Oh, they were like contraband, magic secret things,” Ryann Donelly sighs over the phone. We’re discussing music videos, the subject of her first book Justify My Love (named after the Madonna song, obviously). In Justify My Love, Ryann combines her PhD on sexual subversion in music videos with a tender girl-in-the-band style memoir which charts the author’s own sexual coming of age.

“I remember when I was really young, Tom Petty’s Mary Jane’s Last Dance coming in really fuzzy, totally snowy, on the TV. I vividly remember that and No Doubt’s Don’t Speak video. I had to consult with school kids that had cable about what these things were and who these people were. MTV was this special thing I didn’t have access to when I was a kid.”

These were the 90s, the pre-YouTube years, when music videos had truly come into their own as an art form hybrid of music and film. It was these years spent sitting in front of the TV, waiting for that one Hole video or one No Doubt video to come on every few hours, that turned Ryann into something on a music video aficionado. It also kick-started her own music career as the lead singer of the alt punk Seattle band, Schoolyard Heroes.

As someone who was put in music videos herself, Ryann brought her own experience to her analysis of the form: in the memoir, she voices frustrations she felt as a young artist being filmed as a sexual object, something her male peers didn’t have to go through. “To me, subversion is an act of protest but it’s quiet and it replaces the thing in question violently, and in that way, it really strips it off its power,” she explains. “It doesn’t protest the thing that is wrong by maim, it just replaces it. It’s to displace normative gender roles, to displace heterosexist norms by rewriting what womanhood or any sort of gender iteration is.”

Ryann considers this subversion to be the reason why women and queer people have historically been at the forefront exploring what music videos can do as an art form. “It’s really hard to get cis men to play with gender identity,” she laughs. “I really didn’t find strong iterations of that. There’s a few exceptions in the goth genre but even within that, they’re not challenging to patriarchy or challenging to – there’s just not a lot of rewriting.”

As an expert, i-D asked Ryann to pick for us her favourite subversive music videos.

TLC — Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg
“I think I would have been too young to have seen the Ain’t 2 Proud 2 Beg video when it first came out. I found it via my PhD research and it became clear that I wanted to look at what these music videos are actually doing and what they were responding to in a particular moment. In the video, it’s very clear TLC are responding to the AIDS crisis in that moment. They’re talking about safe sex, they’re wearing condoms. And yet they’re also completely expressive about a non-committed sexuality, a sexuality that doesn’t have to do with monogamy. They’re not too proud to beg for sex and I love that. I love how they’re simultaneously displacing homophobic tropes and talking about safe sex. It seems very directly a response to this moment which Let’s Talk About Sex by Salt-N-Pepa is as well.”

Nine Inch Nails — Happiness in Slavery
“This one was banned. When I started looking at responses to the AIDS crisis, it seemed clear to me that if there was someone saying have safe sex and protect yourself, they were collapsing morbid and sexual imagery at the same time. I loved that they used [American performance artist] Bob Flanagan; it’s an exceptional example of the performance art and music video worlds colliding. In the video, there’s sex and death, but also masochistic, BDSM practices that are also in videos like Madonna’s Erotica where pain is the sexual experience. Bob Flanagan and his art is about that. He had cystic fibrosis so his performances were really about reclaiming his own pain.”

Madonna — Erotica
“I think Madonna should be credited with sexualising the music video. She’s been doing it since Like a Virgin. But she was also in the right place at the right time; maybe Debbie Harry would have done the same thing if the music video had been blowing up at exactly the same moment as she was. Madonna made some very classic hyper sexual videos and it’s hard to distinguish if her videos are responsible for her career, her general persona, or her music. But it’s definitely an interesting example where the music is quite tame actually. And yet that allows the visual to be more provocative because you’re enticed by the repetition and the catchiness.”

M.I.A. — Bad Girls
“It’s a very unexpected, really compelling, collision of femininity and danger. I’m talking about these unexpected car tricks and how aggressive and sexy M.I.A. made all of that. There are so many examples of people seducing the camera and taking off their clothes and being really sexy in music videos but this was just something completely new. I can’t think of a comparable example where it collides with cinema in that way. It’s like a macho car movie but completely undoing the toxic masculinity of that or completely appropriating it.”

Beyoncé — Formation
“In the video, temporal drag is to dress in clothes of periods gone. So Beyoncé reinvokes the aesthetics of Antebellum South and inscribes those aesthetics with this really powerful feminism. Even when she’s going back to the Katrina moment and on top of the police cruiser sinking, she’s glaring into the camera the whole time, completely casual, completely relaxed. Beyoncé’s essentially playing roles from different time periods and playing with their meaning or confronting the backwards meaning that might have been inherent in those moments in history previously.”

Arca — Reverie
“I love this one. With post-humanism and cyborg theory, part of it is looking at imagery that completely obscures masculine/feminine aesthetics and therefore obscures male/female genders. Arca really simply accesses that post-humanism in two ways: by drawing on these ultra feminine versions of masculine icons with the bullfighter jacket and then the bull. They’re accessing this aggressive bull imagery with the shape of their leg but they’re chosen to do that in this nearly robotic aesthetic that fuses machine and animal, and altogether it accesses a post-human feminist iteration. They do this live by applying all of those aesthetics onto their body and acting and performing through them.”

Justify My Love: Sex, Subversion, and Music Video is published 16th April by Repeater Books.