When Tool’s Powerful “Prison Sex” Video Was Banned By MTV, Then Nominated For a VMA

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Tool’s legendary full-length debut, Undertow, ushered in a new era of music. In a time when grunge reigned supreme and thrash bands began cutting their hair, the Tool brand of truly alternative metal helped keep heavy music from falling out of the public consciousness.

More than just music, the strength of the band came from an overall aesthetic of desperate pain and confusion. To this point, frontman Maynard James Keenan’s lyrical prowess was just as important as the accompanying instruments. In order to complete the devastating package, a fearless visual component was essential.

In 1992, Guitarist and art director Adam Jones worked in the art department for Hollywood blockbusters. Inspired by his time on set during movies like Terminator 2: Judgment Day, Adam sought to apply his cinematic acumen with his band.

In an interview with Revolver, Tool guitarist and art director Adam Jones explained: “When we got signed, the most important thing for us was to have creative control. We went, ‘OK, if we take less money can we have control of the music?’ And the label went, ‘Yeah, no problem!’ And we said, ‘If we take even less money can we have final say over the videos.’ And they went, ‘Sure.’”

It was an agreement that Tool’s label, Zoo Records, would both benefit greatly from and live to regret.

Tremendously inspired by the stop-motion works of the Brothers Quay, Adam Jones created the beautifully unsettling video for lead single, “Sober.” Although it proved to be the hit that brought the band mainstream attention, Zoo were wary to take what they believed to be an economic risk by repeating the process for Tool’s next video, “Prison Sex.”

“There was a lot of banging heads with the record company, because they still wanted to do things in the traditional way,” Adam recalled. “They’d go, ‘Well, if you’re not gonna be in your video, we’re not gonna pay for it.’ And we’d say, ‘What do you mean? We’re supposed to have creative control.’ It was typical, slimy shit, but in the end they gave in.”

Expectedly, “Prison Sex” caused a stir within the music industry and the public at large. Before a 1996 performance of the song in Montreal, Keenan told the crowd: “This song is about recognizing, identifying, the cycle of abuse within yourself. That’s the first step of the process: realization; identifying. The next step is to work through it. But, this song is about the first step in the process, which is recognizing.”

The lyrics boldly illustrate this sentiment, with Maynard singing: “I’ve got my hands bound, and my head down and my eyes closed, and my throat’s wide open”, before victim evolves into perpetrator with “I have found some kind of temporary sanity in this, shit, blood, and cum on my hands. I’ve come round full circle.”

When directing the “Prison Sex” video, Adam Jones sought to create an emotional depth to mirror Maynard’s psychic agony. Devoid of sex and graphic violence, his work resulted in a short film drenched in metaphor. An ominous leather clad monster keeps a doll in a cement drawer. Throughout the video, the doll is periodically terrorized by the monster with a paintbrush. In the end, the robot begins painting itself, revealing that the doll and the monster are one in the same. It is a brilliant illustration of the cycle of abuse.

The video was critically acclaimed for its profound vision and execution and received an MTV Video Music Awards nomination for Best Visual Effects. In an ironic turn of events, “Prison Sex” was banned by the network’s standards and practices department after only a handful of plays. Although not explicit, the metaphor enough proved to be too unsettling.

Ironically, the channel banned the clip after just a few plays, due to the station’s standards and practices department deeming it to be too unsettling even though it contained no blood or nudity.

Watch “Prison Sex” below:


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