Charting the history of nudity in music videos.
Art and nudity have gone hand in hand for centuries, and as art forms - and the media by which they are transmitted - have evolved, so too has the use and depiction of nudity. Through painting, sculpture and photography up to magazines, film, TV and the internet, you can almost track the social mores of the day, and the level to which public nudity has caused offence, or been variously tolerated, celebrated or exploited.
It was therefore inevitable that, from its fledgling days in the 1970s, via its coming of age with the rise of MTV, and into the era of YouTube and downloads, that the music video, like other forms of visual media before it, would also embrace nudity - and use it as either a means of artistic expression, titillation or shock value.
Sex sells, and always has done, whether it’s in advertising, movies or the pop industry. And it now seems you can hardly view a music video without seeing naked bodies in some way - usually toned, tanned and more often than not totally gratuitous. Sometimes it’s little more than a fleeting glimpse, like the pert rear of the coquettish Katy Perry in 2010’s California Gurls (sic), or Britney Spears getting all steamed up in a sauna in Womanizer (2008). At others, it can be the main focus of the video, such as Kylie’s spaceship striptease homage to Barbarella in Put Yourself In My Place (1994), Rihanna taking a long and lingering bath in Stay (2013) or Miley Cyrus straddling her eponymous Wrecking Ball (2013). And for some artists, like Madonna and her pale imitator Lady Gaga, it’s almost become de rigueur. In fact, when was the last time you saw either of them in a video with their clothes on?
There are arguments on both sides of the body acceptance/unrealistic expectations debate as to whether this is a worrying trend or not, but you would be evoking the spirit of Mary Whitehouse if you really got offended by it all - and most naturists, simply by definition, are much more broad-minded than that. What might cause concern are those videos - usually made by the legions of untalented heavy metal thrashers or indistinguishable rappers that the USA seems to churn out - which can hardly be called good clean fun, and often feature arrays of uncredited, surgically-enhanced porn stars, strippers, prostitutes and exotic dancers as part of the video ‘storyline.’ But then again if you (or more likely your kids and grandkids) are listening to songs with titles such as Dirty Picture, Lapdance or Pussy, you can’t say you weren’t warned.
On the way to where we are now however, there have been several music videos over the years that have combined originality, a sense of humour and genuine film-making skills to remain memorable. Here are a few examples:
Song: Bicycle Race
Chart history: Number 11 in the UK
The video: It seems fitting that the group often credited with inventing the modern pop video with Bohemian Rhapsody in 1975 would release another ground-breaking classic three years later, this time featuring 65 naked women (count them), cycling around Wimbledon Greyhound Stadium. The video used clever special effects and camera angles to hide the actual nudity, allowing it to be played on Top of the Pops. As the girls were all professional models and over the age of consent, presumably most of the presenters weren’t that interested...
The verdict: The precursor to the World Naked Bike Ride?
Song: Sweet Harmony
Artist: The Beloved
Chart history: Number 8 in the UK
The video: Lead singer Jon Marsh is naked and seated, surrounded by a group of attractive naked females lip-synching the lyrics. Clouds, fog, white-out effects and the coy use of arms, legs and hair cover any overt nudity. Marsh pointed out that the video was “not intended to be sexual, and instead represent unity between humans.” Yeah, right. Eagle-eyed viewers will spot a young Tess Daly, several years before Strictly Come Dancing, in the right foreground.
The verdict: A ‘ten’ from Len!
Song: Thank U
Artist: Alanis Morissette
Chart history: Number 1 in Canada
The video: The song documents the singer's spiritual awakenings, so it seemed appropriate that she would be filmed naked in the street, a supermarket, and on a subway train, albeit with her long tresses covering her breasts and with her pubic area blurred out for the benefit of sensitive mainstream audiences.
The verdict: She doesn’t sit on a towel in the train sequences, proving she’s not familiar with true naturist etiquette.
Artist: Sigur Ros
Chart history: Number 9 in Iceland, number 55 on Rolling Stone's list of the 100 Best Songs of 2008.
The video: A group of young men and women take part in a range of fully nude outdoor activities including walking, running, dancing and swimming. There’s not a fig leaf in sight on the uncensored version on YouTube. The Icelandic rock band’s music is a bit weird, but what do you expect from the country that also produced Björk?
The verdict: Probably the nearest we will ever get to a true ‘naturist’ music video.
Song: Somebody That I Used to Know
Artist: Gotye featuring Kimbra
Chart history: Topped the charts in over 20 countries including UK, USA and Australia.
The video: This hypnotically catchy ballad from the Belgian-Australian singer-songwriter and his female companion, the New Zealand singer Kimbra, was accompanied by an equally clever video. It shows them naked throughout, and as they sing, his skin is gradually painted into the backdrop via stop motion animation.
The verdict: The video has been viewed over 630 million times on YouTube. You can’t say fairer than that.
Song: Thank You Very Much
Chart history: Number 1 in Poland
The video: The video for the Polish pop princess’s debut single was a clever twist on the norm. Whilst she remains fully clothed throughout, she is admonished by her naturist parents for her non-conformity, and looks increasingly uncomfortable as she is surrounded by naked guests at one of their parties. It’s heavily pixellated as you would imagine, but is wryly humorous, with a clever ending.
The verdict: Big in Warsaw, and should have been a hit elsewhere.