Maybe it was the lesbian kiss that did it. Maybe it was the man in the fishnet stockings. Maybe it was the close-up of Madonna's barely clad bouncing bum.
Whatever it was — and it was probably all of the above and more — it's made ''Justify My Love'' the most talked-about video of the year. MTV's decision on Nov. 27 to ban the clip from its airwaves set car phones buzzing throughout the music industry. Newspapers across the country ran front-page stories. Parts of the video, with the naughtiest bits snipped or scrambled, were broadcast on CNN, A Current Affair, Saturday Night Live (on ''Wayne's World''), and countless local newscasts. ABC's Nightline finally broadcast the unexpurgated version — but only after the Giants-49ers football game had pushed its airtime past midnight. And there was one more quietly startling aspect to the brouhaha. Almost nobody found it remarkable that one cable channel's decision not to show one five-minute video should command such widespread fascination — testimony to the clout of the two pop titans involved.
MTV has banned videos before, but this time the network was saying no to the world's most powerful recording artist. Madonna's sex-charged career has been carved out of controversy, and now, for the first time, the hippest cultural outlet on television was telling her to cool it. Not surprisingly, she wasn't wild about the idea. ''Why is it that people are willing to go to a movie and watch someone get blown to bits,'' she complained, but ''nobody wants to see two girls kissing or two men snuggling?''
You don't have to be Tipper Gore to see why the network had problems. Taped last November at the ritzy Royal Monceau Hotel in Paris, ''Justify My Love'' is a montage of steamy, hypererotic images that make Madonna's past forays into video kink look about as racy as This Old House. Madonna, however, rejects charges that the clip is nothing but glossy pornography. ''Listen to the words,'' she has implored. ''It's about a woman who's talking to her lover and she's saying, 'Tell me your dreams — am I in them? Tell me your fears — are you scared?' We're dealing with sexual fantasies and being truthful and honest with our partners.''
Every Tuesday morning MTV's Standards and Practices committee meets to review the 40 to 60 new videos that arrive each week. ''What we're looking for is nudity, profanity, blatant product pitching, excessive violence, and drug use,'' explains Marshall Cohen, MTV's executive vice president of corporate affairs and communications. (Cohen is a member of the standards committee, but he won't say who else is, or even how many others there are.) Videos with anything forbidden get bounced back to the record company that produced them, with a request to remove the offending segment. ''That only happens with about 5 percent of the videos,'' says Cohen. ''And in 99 percent of those cases, the edited videos come back and we put them on the air. There's usually no problems at all. Everybody ends up happy.''
But it's not the words that are causing problems. MTV executives are notoriously tight-lipped about how they determine which videos can be broadcast, but the controversy over ''Justify My Love'' seems to have smoked them out of their reticence. They're willing to reveal this much about how they decide what will get by and what won't:
Well, not quite everybody. Some video directors resent MTV's editorial suggestions, especially when the changes seem arbitrary or just bizarre. ''I've done about 120 videos, and I've had hassles on at least half of them,'' says Marty Callner, a heavy-metal specialist who's directed provocative clips for Cher (''If I Could Turn Back Time''), Aerosmith (''Love in an Elevator''), and Sam Kinison (''Wild Thing''). ''I did this one for Poison called 'Something to Believe In.' The bass player had a tattoo of his wife on his arm. You could barely see it. But I had to smear it out of the video because MTV thought it was naked. They thought you could see her breasts on the tattoo.'' Even Judy Collins can run into trouble: MTV told her to cut a shot from her current video, ''Fires of Eden,'' that showed her nipples through a white leotard.
It's not just sex that's disturbing to the MTV committee, however. Religion, politics, and sometimes just plain bad vibes can also get videos in trouble. MTV told the Dead Milkmen they couldn't blow up a miniature church in their satirical video ''Methodist Coloring Book.'' ''Who Cares Wins,'' by the speed-metal band Anthrax, was rejected because MTV thought it was ''too depressing,'' even though its point was to rally support for the fight against homelessness. And, in the most bitterly disputed video ban before ''Justify My Love,'' Neil Young's ''This Note's for You'' was turned away in 1988 because MTV bewilderingly misinterpreted its attack on rock stars who endorse products like Pepsi. The criticism, the network contended, counted as ''product placement'' because the products were mentioned by name.
''There's no rhyme nor reason to how MTV accepts or rejects a video,'' complains John Diaz, a video producer who's worked with such artists as Billy Idol. ''We constantly ask them to set forth specific guidelines as to what's acceptable, but they refuse. They're sending out confused signals.''
Cohen responds: ''We try to consider the entire context of a video. It's all done case-by-case. Sometimes the lines are grey. Sometimes we make mistakes. We try to err on the side of the video. But we're not going to air something that we feel is degrading to any group of people.'' Some video producers agree that MTV's procedures aren't all that bad. ''If they had a book of standards, we'd all end up with fairly generic videos,'' argues Marty Diamond, vice president of artist development and video for Arista Records. ''In one sense, the lack of specific standards works to your advantage. It allows more creative videos.''
Still, MTV clearly has a dilemma. On the one hand, it's supposed to be the rebel network, the coolest channel on the dial. But as part of everyone's basic cable service, it's beamed into 53 million households, some in conservative towns where MTV's rock & roll aesthetic might not be widely shared. As a result, the network has to police itself carefully, and, not surprisingly, may sometimes err on the side of safety. A much broader question is whether any operation as commercial as MTV can stay rebellious. ''The rock & roll consciousness has been domesticated by MTV,'' argues Mark Crispin Miller, author of Boxed In: The Culture of TV, and a well-known media commentator. ''MTV pretends to be rebellious, but it's really appealing to commercial instincts.''
Some cynical industry insiders have suggested that ''Justify My Love'' was actually designed to be banned — that the entire controversy was nothing more than a PR stunt by a singer whose ability to command attention has grown almost mythic. A prime piece of evidence for that view: the ''Justify My Love'' videocassette, the first video single ever released, arrived in stores at $9.98 on Dec. 6, just in time for Christmas. It could well become the best-selling video in history.
MTV's Cohen seems to share the suspicion that there was more here than will not meet the eye on MTV. ''I don't think for one second that Madonna had any intention of getting this video on MTV,'' he says. ''She knew we couldn't put this video on the air. She had to know.''
Madonna's spokeswoman Liz Rosenberg insists otherwise. ''That's just not true,'' she says. ''I talked with Madonna while she was making the video in Paris, and she felt that MTV would run it because they wouldn't want to look like censors. She thought they would bend the rules for her, like they always had in the past. I think she was genuinely shocked when she heard they were rejecting it.''
Madonna shocked? Perhaps. After all, MTV has been lenient with the Material Girl. The network barely flinched when she crawled on all fours and drank milk from a saucer in ''Express Yourself.'' They didn't complain when she stripped for strangers in ''Open Your Heart.'' They held their tongue when she kissed a black Jesus in ''Like A Prayer.'' Maybe Madonna really was surprised by MTV's reaction to ''Justify My Love.'' Maybe she honestly was shocked.
It's hard to imagine, but then with Madonna, anything is possible.