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What’s With All the NSFW Content in Music Videos?

Back in March, R&B artist Robin Thicke released a music video for his song “Blurred Lines” that raised more than a few eyebrows (and heart rates) across the world. His NSFW video featured Thicke singing among a bevy of topless females throughout the song (allegedly filmed with the prior approval of his wife…but still). The video was banned from YouTube, and was replaced with a clothed-model version, but the “unrated” version is still available for viewing on Vevo. Currently, “Blurred Lines (feat. T.I., Pharrell)” is sitting atop the Billboard Top 100 chart.

Not to be outdone, already-superstar Justin Timberlake apparently decided it was his turn to jump on the NSFW bandwagon, and last week released a video for his single “Tunnel Vision”, depicting J.T. “admiring” a number of dancing topless women throughout the song, which clocks in at a whopping 7 minutes. The video was banned from YouTube, then re-instated under the “artistic context” disclaimer. (No official word on what wife Jessica Biel thinks about it.)

Granted, NSFW content (that’s “Not Safe For Work”, for the uninitiated) has become more and more common in music videos in the past several years. And indeed, nudity has been surprisingly prevalent in music videos since the dawn of music videos, dating back to an uncensored version of the 1978 Queen music video for their song “Bicycle Race.” In short, both indie and major artists have made a habit of releasing NSFW videos for different reasons through the years, but in most cases, few people saw the unrated versions due to censorship (at least, here in the U.S.).

But these two videos in particular push a couple of envelopes, leaving many wondering how far is too far. In the first place, these videos don’t feature an occasional “flash” of nudity; rather, nudity is a central theme, and the frequency of it pushes the limits of an R-rated or soft-porn feature. Secondly, these videos mark perhaps the first instances in which major label artists featuring such prevalent nudity in their videos have gained a solid level of mainstream acceptance for doing so. Other artists have stirred controversy and gotten attention with these types of antics in the past—perhaps most notably Madonna during her Sex and Erotica days of the early 1990s—but the videos themselves were either not seen or largely rejected by the mainstream. This is the first time (in my memory, at least) that such videos have been generally accepted as commonplace by a larger audience. In simpler terms, it seems that NSFW music videos have become a “thing.”

The sad thing is, the tactic appears to be accomplishing its goal. J.T. really didn’t need to do this, because his record is already the top seller so far this year. But it’s questionable whether Robin Thicke would have a number one hit if people weren’t talking about the naked women he has in his video.

This phenomenon, of course, is intensified by a new, major player in the music industry, one that was not present in other cases where earlier artists tried to push the sexual envelope: namely, Internet video streaming.

Nowadays, far more people view music videos via the Internet than by watching television music video stations. And even when YouTube bans a video, there are usually several other places where it can be seen online. In short, when an artist releases a NSFW video online, a much larger number of people have access to view it, and it is virtually impossible to censor it, even from the young. When you look at the view counts for some of these videos, you can see the impact they are having. In some cases, the number of people who have seen a particular music video exceeds the entire viewing audience on any given evening of prime time television. That is staggering.

Now, I’m no prude. I come from a family of artists, and am no stranger to artistic nudity. But I see a real danger on a couple of fronts from the mainstreaming of NSFW music videos. On one, very obvious front—when you realize that the majority of listeners to popular music is under the age of 18, you get an idea how many young people have access to view this nudity—how many children. Yes, the danger has been there the whole time due to Internet porn, but in this case we are seeing the musical idols of young people openly endorsing nudity and sex and sharing it with a public audience, exposing an already over-exposed generation of youngsters to a caliber of adult content they are certainly not ready for.

The second danger is a bit more subtle, but it is there nonetheless. The vast majority of nudity depicted in music videos (as well as film and television) is female nudity, and this points to an increased exploitation of women. Despite any and all arguments that the women appearing in these videos are doing so voluntarily, all you need to do is have a few meaningful conversations with up-and-coming actresses—find out how many of them still feel pressured to bare their breasts (and sleep around) in order to “get ahead”—and you’ll begin to see that there is a deeper problem at work. In reality, I see no difference between this and the sexual harassment that used to be so prevalent for women in the work place in the 1960s and 1970s; it’s just taken on a different, more subtle disguise. But make no mistake—it’s still exploitation.

So where am I going with this? I’m not a huge believer in government over-regulation, and I’m not calling for censorship boards or anything like that. But I think it’s reasonable to expect musical artists (especially high-profile artists) to exercise a bit of personal responsibility, and govern themselves, knowing who their audience is—and it’s completely within bounds to call them out when they cross the line. Justin Timberlake is admired by far too many younger listeners to release a nudity-filled video into the mainstream, and it was completely unnecessary to his career. Same with Robin Thicke. He may have a number one hit because of this, but he is talented enough to hit number one without this kind of thing. If these artists truly felt they needed to express themselves in this way, there were ways to do it that would have protected their younger fans. Just saying.

Beyond that…let me just say that as a music fan myself, it is not unnecessary for any artist to flash my eyes with nudity to get me to listen to his/her song. In fact, such images alienate me, and make me less likely to listen and more apt to turn it off—and I don’t think I’m the only music fan who feels this way. I’m not eager to try and squelch anyone’s freedom of expression. I just think this trend is completely unnecessary to the future of music, especially when it actually has the potential to do harm.

Where will it go from here? Is this the beginning of the end of the world? Not likely. This is not the first time that mainstream media has had an obsession with nudity, and won’t likely be the last. In previous times, the trend’s newness simply wore off as other things came into vogue. I personally think that over time, people will grow tired of seeing naked bodies on film and music videos, and the media will pick up on that and move on to something else.

But that does not mean that NSFW content is not doing damage. And my concern is that by the time the trend has run its course, the damage will have been done.


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About the Author

on MUSIC IS MY OXYGEN WEEKLY.

David Tillman is an independent composer/arranger whose primary work involves writing jingles for commercials for radio and television, with several film and television placements to his credit as well. David has a fascination for all things related to the music business and the music industry in general, an obsession which his wife finds to be mildly unhealthy at times. His personal tastes in music are in electronica and industrial rock, and include The Chemical Brothers, Daft Punk and Nine Inch Nails (he loves that Trent Reznor is writing soundtracks!). When not in his office or in his man-cave, David enjoys skiing, hiking, the occasional game of golf, and sometimes just lounging by the pool. David lives with his wife and three children in Los Angeles, CA.

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