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.''
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: