Sex and pop music have walked hand in hand since the days of Elvis’ swiveling hips. But the 1981 launch of MTV made the relationship even more explicit – eye-popping videos like Duran Duran’s “Girls on Film” got the controversy started early, while the likes of Madonna and Prince built their pop empires on their willingness to break through boundaries. These 30 videos, which range from the earliest days of MTV through the era of YouTube-enabled smartphones, turned up the heat, as well as the chatter.
The leave-little-to-the-imagination fishnet bodysuit Cher wore in her 1989 video for “If I Could Turn Back Time” was definitely not military regulation, but that didn’t stop the shape-shifting pop icon and director Marty Callner from shooting the clip on the U.S.S. Missouri, where she was surrounded by thrilled crew members. The Navy, however, was officially less amused, and “moral outrage” ensued once the clip saw air. “The Navy worked closely with the producer to ensure the video would be in good taste,” Lt. Cmdr. A. J. Dooley wrote in a statement that came out after the video’s launch. “However, changes during the final stages of production, including Cher’s revealing costume, were unanticipated, and led to overtones that we had sought to avoid during our pre-production planning.”
Matthew Rolston, who directed TLC’s slinky video for “Creep,” was also behind the camera for this 1994 clip, which featured Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes as the matriarch of a brothel staffed by Boris Kodjoe (Brown Sugar, Real Husbands of Hollywood). “The first thing I pictured was a red strobe light flashing, and somebody doing stripper moves,” Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins, who plays strip poker alongside her bandmate Rozonda “Chilli” Thomas, told Vibe in 2013. “Whatever tricks there are – that’s my red-light special.”
FKA Twigs’ intense black-and-white clip for her 2013 single “Papi Pacify” is all limbs and longing, with the British electro-soul singer staring down the camera while she writhes against a lover. The scenes where he sticks his fingers in her mouth, she later told Britain’s Evening Standard, were also a callback to an “emotionally abusive” relationship she had been in; “In the relationship I couldn’t communicate. The person I was with was stopping me from explaining how I felt. So the physical manifestation is someone putting their hand in your mouth. But there’s an element, too, of liking that as well. It’s messed up. It’s addictive.”
This 1992 pas de deux between Michael Jackson and Naomi Campbell, directed by master of monochrome Herb Ritts and filmed at California’s Salton Sea during Jackson’s Dangerous era, smolders as the track – co-produced by Jackson and New Jack Swing architect Teddy Riley – pops and grooves, showing off new sides of the King of Pop both on screen and on record.
Usher cycles through multiple stages of relationship grief in this 2004 video, which was directed by Chris Robinson and which features the singer in conflicted flagrante with two women before being shown the door by his lover. He works himself into such a state that he flings off his shirt, revealing his chiseled abs in shots that recall a much more contrite version of D’Angelo’s “Untitled (How Does It Feel).”
The girl group En Vogue’s smoldering cover of Aretha Franklin’s 1976 seduction (written by Curtis Mayfield) received a 1992 video treatment that played off the quartet’s pure vocal power. As En Vogue, dressed in matching red gowns that paid homage to the Supremes-inspired flick Sparkle, shimmies and sighs its way through “Feel,” the men in the audience get more and more hot and bothered, casting aside their inhibitions (and, at times, their accessories) as the performance works its magic.
Cheeky boy-band alum Robbie Williams decided to go way beyond baring it all in his 2000 video for the winking “Rock DJ,” in which he builds upon a striptease by unpeeling his skin to reveal muscle and then bones, giving the women surrounding him the opportunity to feast on his flesh. The video, which was banned by the UK chart show Top of the Pops for its gore, was actually (and unsurprisingly) a commentary on the grueling nature of 21st-century fame: ”We’re all keen to see what lies beneath the skin while still venting disgust at the thought of it,” said Sacha Carter, spokeswoman for the video’s effects company Carter White FX. “‘Rock DJ’ is an unusual project that allowed us to push the boundaries of flesh and blood, how we see ourselves and the whole question of fame, with everyone wanting a piece of the action.”
Nicki Minaj’s 2014 ode to her posterior, which samples Sir Mix-A-Lot’s “Baby Got Back” while ticking off her bodily attributes, was accompanied by an eye-popping clip that co-stars a knocked-over Drake and a banana. “At first I’m being sexual with the banana, and then it’s like, ‘Ha-ha, no,'” she told GQ in 2014. “That was important for us to show in the kitchen scene, because it’s always about the female taking back the power, and if you want to be flirty and funny that’s fine, but always keeping the power and the control in everything.”
2001’s fizzy yet determined “Escape” was accompanied by a clip that allowed Iglesias and his then-girlfriend, Russian tennis player Anna Kournikova, to let viewers in on how tough dating while famous can be. Stolen moments in a ladies’ room and a parking lot are steamy, but cut short by eagle-eyed security guards – until Iglesias’ concert ends and Kournikova sticks around for a long-awaited kiss. “It was my first video and it was pretty sexy,” Kournikova told the British Mirror, “but that’s not difficult when you’re acting with Enrique.”
A video with Colombian pop powerhouse Shakira and Barbadian megastar Rihanna would have been sexy even if the two stood completely still, but this 2014 clip, directed by Joseph Kahn, turns up the heat in glam locales outfitted with luxe beds that allowed for side-by-side writhing. “She’s the sexiest woman on the planet,” Shakira told Glamour of her co-star. “And at the end of the day, we’re both just basically Caribbean girls. The chemistry was so good and so real.”
George Michael’s decision to remove himself from the videos for his 1990 album Listen Without Prejudice, Vol. 1 paid off handsomely with this clip, in which a galaxy of supermodels – Cindy Crawford, Linda Evangelista, Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, and Tatjana Patitz – lip-synch his liberatory dance track while lounging about their houses. The David Fincher-directed clip showed the models’ everyday sides in a playfully sensual way, with Crawford getting down to Michael’s soulful track in the bathtub and Turlington channeling a cat while crawling across a floor to its rhythm.
Cycling through eye-popping outfits and booty-popping dance moves, Christina Milian puts on a master class for aspiring video vixens in her 2003 clip for the stuttering “Dip It Low.” “The song explains to a woman how to bring the flame back with your man when it goes out,” Milian told the New York Daily News, although the set piece where Milian, dipped in black paint and writhing on a white pedestal to make art out of herself, might be a bit messy.
New Jersey power-poppers Fountains of Wayne’s 2003 ode to a hot mom got a jolt from its video, which starred supermodel Rachel Hunter as the matriarch who’s “got it goin’ on.” “We somehow convinced Rachel Hunter to star in our video, which is a very good thing,” Schlesinger told The Washington Post that year, “She was a fan, she liked the song and the band, and she thought it was a good idea, and who are we to say no? She was absolutely perfect for it, she totally got the song and did the video in the right spirit.”
Paula Abdul’s videos often paid tribute to pop culture’s past, but 1988’s “Cold Hearted” took it to another level, saluting choreographer Bob Fosse’s slinky choreography for 1979’s All That Jazz with this temperature-elevating, David Fincher-directed clip. “I think more dancers injured themselves on this video shoot than any other,” Abdul told Rolling Stone in 2014. “Just a lot of things, like sliding on our knees, working with raw elements of scaffolding; nothing was very comfortable. We were working with real wood, metal, concrete. Because it had to be gritty.”
The White Stripes’ 2003 cover of this Burt Bacharach/Hal David lament made headlines for its video, which paired supermodel Kate Moss with director Sofia Coppola as she was on the verge of releasing Lost In Translation. According to The New York Times, the concept came easily to Coppola: ”I said, ‘I don’t know – how about Kate Moss doing a pole dance?’ I said that because I would like to see it. That’s the way I work: I try to imagine what I would like to see.”
Alicia Silverstone and Liv Tyler play pals on a rampage in this raucous clip for Aerosmith’s 1994 power ballad, which features cutting class, pole dancing, skinny dipping and strong hints that Liv got at least a few of her moves from her daddy, Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler.
Diane Martel directed Ciara through the mechanical bull rides and sultry gyrations that make up this 2010 clip, which was left off BET’s daily video countdown 106 & Park because of its sexual content. While initial reports claimed it had been banned, BET denied the allegation, saying that they merely were waiting on edits from Ciara and her camp. “I am definitely aware that my video has some very sensual moments in it,” Ciara told Rap-Up at the time. “I’m definitely more than willing to make an edit to make it suitable for whatever it is that would be more comfortable to the network.” Of course, by then, videos had become distributed online as well as on TV, so those who wanted to see Ciara could work around BET’s reticence.
David Fincher’s 1989 video for Madonna’s second Like A Prayer single is an homage to Fritz Lang’s dystopian Metropolis, although the eroticism is kicked up a notch or 10; while workers in an imposing building’s nether regions grind gears and drip with sweat, Madonna engages in a bit of a costume show, playing chilly diva, gender-bent orator, and rich man’s plaything. The happy ending – in which a vulnerable Madonna gives herself up to one of the beautiful, muscular men seen toiling down below – is liberatory and pretty hot, repurposing Lang’s epigraph “Without the heart, there can be no understanding between the hand and the mind” into a call for sexual freedom.
Alek Keshishian was no stranger to pop stars who wanted to push boundaries, having directed the Madonna documentary Truth or Dare – and that’s why Selena Gomez tipped him to direct the video for her minimalist 2015 single “Hands to Myself.” In it, Gomez plays a stalker so overcome by the idea of her fantasy life with model Christopher Mason that she breaks into his house. “I wanted the idea to feel like it was two different versions of being in this fantasy,” Gomez said in a making-of clip. “I think everybody can have those moments where they’re dreaming about what their life could be, especially if they’re girls with love, being obsessed with an idea and you can’t control yourself, because that’s what you want no matter what is happening.”
The 1981 video for Duran Duran’s grim portrayal of the model life gave MTV’s standards and practices department an instant jolt – the clip, directed by Kevin Godley and Lol Creme, features a parade of models in different outfits (cowgirl gear, nurses’ outfits, a fur coat/plastic underwear combo that seems to have limited utility outside of music videos) flaunting their stuff while also dabbling in light bondage. “Girls on Film” came together a few weeks before MTV launched in the summer of 1981, allowing both band and channel to bask in controversy.
When Beyoncé dropped her self-titled visual album in 2013, the video “Partition” stood out: Set in part at the Parisian cabaret Crazy Horse, where B and Jay-Z got engaged, its bored-housewife fantasy pivots on Beyoncé playing onstage seductress to Jay, undulating and staring him down as she sings about getting it on in the back of a limo. “I remember thinking, damn, these girls are fly!” Beyoncé said in the making-of documentary Self-Titled. “I thought it was the ultimate sexy show I’ve ever seen, and I was like, ‘I wish I was up there. I wish I could perform that for my man.’ So that’s what I did, for the video.”
Teyana Taylor’s Flashdance-inspired workout is the primary focus of Kanye West’s 2016 video for his Life of Pablo banger “Fade,” but once she hits the showers, things get a little weird. She’s joined by her husband, Cleveland Cavaliers guard Iman Shumpert, and animal instincts quickly take over. The scene fades from their water-assisted passion into a surrealistic family portrait; Taylor, cradling Shumpert, has been transformed into a sweaty, panting lioness, resplendent in her afterglow while her baby is held aloft by lambs.
The concept of Rihanna’s bondage-appreciating track “S&M” is pretty straightforward, but director Melina Metsoukas wanted to make the clip a little more high-concept. The brightly hued, occasionally goofy 2011 video is an allegory for the Barbadian singer’s “sadomasochist relationship with the press… it isn’t just about a bunch of whips and chains,” Matsoukas told Billboard in 2011, and while it does feature Ri in a host of latex outfits, it also shows her whipping reporters and bringing online gossip columnists to heel – a hint that she has more control over her image than reporters might think.
A chronicle of a wood-paneled basement hang that turns into something much more charged, the 1997 video for Fiona Apple’s “Criminal” transformed the amateur-porn aesthetics of Calvin Klein’s controversial 1995 ad campaign into a steamy, overlit gathering of entangled bodies that matched its song’s regret-filled mood. (The uncomfortable lighting, director Mark Romanek told The New York Times, was the result of him attaching a cheap halogen lamp to his camera—”so dumb it worked,” he told the paper about the inspiration that led to “Criminal” winning the 1998 Video Music Award for Best Cinematography.)
Any video for “Untitled (How Does It Feel),” the simmering come-on from funk auteur D’Angelo’s 2000 masterpiece Voodoo, would have been sexy – the song’s a slow-burn seduction that draws inspiration from Marvin and Al, filtered through the musical genius’s thoughtful style. But the single-shot clip, in which D wears nothing but a crucifix, gives the full-body treatment to the track, leaving little to the imagination while daring it to run wild. “D’Angelo is singing about being intimate with a woman that he loves,” Star Jones told The New York Times in 2000. “And it’s just basic voice and body, and when you’re in an intimate situation with a man, that’s really all that’s there – the voice and the body and the light hitting the body in a way that makes you know that this is your man.”
Janet Jackson’s fantasy life gets top billing in 1994’s video for “Any Time, Any Place,” although the lyrics’ ideas of getting it on in public are brought indoors, where the R&B superstar and her across-the-hall neighbor engage in erotic play that includes strawberries and steam on their terms. The clip also doubled as an ad for the ways that safe sex could be fun – “any time, any place ……be responsible,” the screen admonishes after the final lingering image of Jackson fades out.
“I think if you keep challenging yourself to do something different,” Britney Spears told the UK’s Observer in 2001, “people will see that and like that. But it’s up to me to change.” The video for “I’m A Slave 4 U” – the first single from that year’s Britney, a laser-gun pop-funk track produced by then-on-the-rise duo The Neptunes – showed how far Spears was willing to go, at least in terms of potential dehydration. It’s a sweaty romp in a dance club that looks fashioned out of a sauna, where Spears and her backup dancers fall under the spell of the song’s skeletal beat.
A four-minute homage to French cinema that snuck its way into the pop charts, the black-and-white clip for Madonna’s woozy devotional “Justify My Love” featured bondage play and group sex amidst its dreamy tableau. “I didn’t have any concept at all, except the idea that [Madonna] was arriving in the hotel tired, broken; and when she was going to leave the hotel, she was full of life, she was full of energy, full of everything,” director Jean-Baptiste Mondino told Rolling Stone. Madonna’s “energy source” proved to be so outré for 1990 that MTV refused to show it, leaving ABC’s Nightline – and the revived concept of the “video single” – to pick up the slack. “Why is it,” Madonna told The New York Times as the controversy blew up, “that people are willing to go to a movie and watch someone get blown to bits for no reason and nobody wants to see two girls kissing or two men snuggling? I think the video is romantic and loving and has humor in it.”
The polymorphously perverse Prince probably deserves his own “sexiest videos” list. Like Madonna, his boundary-testing clips helped push MTV’s standards and practices departments into new directions. But the video for 1986’s jittery funk come-on “Kiss” stands out, as it shows off Prince’s moves – and his midriff – alongside guitarist Wendy Melvoin and dancer Monique Manning, whose playful rapport with the singer gives the clip an extra erotic charge.
The ingredients that make up Chris Isaak’s 1990 video for his soul-plumbing ballad are pretty simple: a man, a woman, a beach. But under the guidance of director Herb Ritts, that equation added up to the steamiest video of all time, a black-and-white clip in which Isaak and supermodel Helena Christensen seductively (yet strategically – Christensen was topless, although her nudity was well-hidden by camera angles and edits) lolled about in the sand while waves lapped and Isaak sighed over a sparse guitar line inspired by the most wounded pop of the Sixties. The smoldering passion exhibited by Isaak and Christensen had a vulnerability about it that still makes the video’s simple concept eye-popping decades later.