1/ STRINGER/AFP // Getty Images
For more than a century, the evolution of popular music has delivered stark parallels to Western society's own progression. One could even say that popular songs and styles partake in a tangible feedback loop, simultaneously responding to and informing cultural shifts. In turn, the best tunes make either purposeful or inadvertent statements about the era in which they're being recorded and released. Some of those statements, meanwhile, never lose their ability to resonate. Perhaps this is why songs like “We Shall Overcome” continue to be used as a rallying cry against oppressive forces.
Because music has the unique ability to both run with and shape the cultural tide, history's most groundbreaking works are often its most controversial as well. In the 1920s through the 1940s, songs of poverty, racism, and hard labor threatened to undermine various institutions of authority. That was followed by genres such as rock ‘n' roll and funk, which respectively enhanced the growing divide between young and older generations. Jump ahead decades and popular music is still influencing fashion statements, attitudes, and perspectives alike, sometimes within the same hit single. And someone is almost always angry about it.
Today, Stacker celebrates history's most boundary-pushing—and thereby controversial—songs. Taking a broad approach to the concept, Stacker selected musical milestones that either explored controversial subject matter or literally sparked controversy. To compile the list, Stacker scoured Billboard charts, music and album reviews, news articles, and primary documents found online. The resulting compilation includes protest songs, sociopolitical commentaries, scandalous music videos, and tunes that just plain rubbed people the wrong way. Each example provides a sonic document of society's past, while a few go to show just how little certain things have changed since the time they were recorded.
A brief disclaimer: Old music can be a slippery entity and some of the songs on the list were recorded or released well before they rendered any sort of impact. Along similar lines, many protest songs were written and performed by one artist and then passed down to others in the folk tradition, hitting the mainstream somewhere along the way. As a result, some entries might be best described as approximations with regards to when the song caused a stir or tackled a specific theme. Without further delay, here are controversial songs from the year you were born.
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2/ Alan Fisher/New York World-Telegram and the Sun // Wikimedia Commons
Artist: Fats Waller
Featuring lyrics like “my skin is my only sin,” this song of lament was originally composed for the musical revue “Hot Chocolates.” It was subsequently popularized by jazz legend Louis Armstrong, who recorded several versions throughout his career. Ralph Ellison also mentioned the song in the prologue to his seminal novel about race in America, “Invisible Man.”
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Artist: Lowe Stokes
America was in the midst of Prohibition by 1930, but that wasn't going to stop fiddler Lowe Stokes from getting his illegal drink on. He sings about guzzling moonshine in the mountains of Georgia, and then predicts that the ban on alcohol will be lifted by 1933. As it turned out, his prediction was right on the money.
4/ Fox Photos // Getty Images
Artist: Cab Calloway and His Orchestra
This jazz record was so successful that it continues to inspire bellows of “Hi De Hi De Hi De Ho” almost 90 years later. Moving beyond its most nonsensical and enduring line, the song is laden with cleverly concealed drug references. Words like “kokey” and phrases such as “kick the gong around” pertain to cocaine and opium, respectively.
5/ Unknown // Wikimedia Commons
Artist: Bing Crosby
At the height of the Great Depression, E.Y. Harburg and Jay Gorney wrote this provocative anthem for a musical revue. When crooner Bing Crosby delivered his take, it became the best-selling record of its time. In the song, a beggar addresses the nation that took his job and shattered his dreams.
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Artist: Ginger Rogers (and chorus)
Despite its timeless catchphrase and upbeat melodies, this classic song and its somewhat controversial title emerged from a grim economic landscape. Recorded by Ginger Rogers and a chorus for the musical “Gold Diggers of 1933,” it tells “Ol' Man Depression, you are through, you done us wrong!” A slew of hit cover versions would follow.
7/ The U.S. National Archives // Flickr
Facing overtime hours without extra pay, textile workers across the Southern states in 1934 went on strike. In Winnsboro, S.C., this song of protest and hardship emerged from the movement. Popular artists like Pete Seeger and Lead Belly would later record their own versions.
Artist: Cleo Brown
Famous jazz and blues vocalist Cleo Brown dreamed of a more inclusive Hollywood back in 1935. Singing over a catchy piano riff, Brown imagines legions of black performers heading westward in pursuit of fame and fortune. The song's upbeat vibe does little to mask the harsh racial realities of its time.
9/ The Library of Congress // Flickr
Artist: Stuff Smith
Cult film “Reefer Madness” was released the same year as this catchy jazz song, which took a far less precautionary approach. Using the parlance of the times, Stuff Smith and his Onyx Club Boys describe the life of a “viper,” or an underground pot-smoker. Fats Waller later recorded his own version under the name of “The Reefer Song.”
10/ Alfredo Valente/Stage Publishing Company, Inc. // Wikimedia Commons
Artist: Harold Rome
Composer Harold Rome wrote this tune for “Pins and Needles,” a hit musical that starred real-life garment workers and took a pro-union stance. Rife with reactionary overtones (hence the name), the song was sure to make a few millionaires squirm in their seats. In 1962, Barbra Streisand performed a rendition for the show's 25th-anniversary studio recording.
11/ William P. Gottlieb // Wikimedia Commons
Artist: Lead Belly
After experiencing hostile segregation during a trip to Washington D.C., Lead Belly did just what a great blues singer would do: he wrote a song about it. Like an early ancestor to viral media, it spread awareness of the privileged elite and their racist practices. Due to the song's political associations, Lead Belly was reportedly invited to perform it at socialist summer camps.
12/ William P. Gottlieb // Wikimedia Commons
Artist: Billie Holiday
Billie Holiday's biggest-selling recording is also one of history's most unsettling songs, with lyrics about “black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze.” It began as a protest poem by Abel Meeropol (writing under the name of Lewis Allan), which Holiday and her team set to music. The song was so powerful and uncompromising in its depiction of lynchings that it was immediately banned by certain radio stations in the U.S.
13/ Al Aumuller/New York World-Telegram and the Sun // Wikimedia Commons
Artist: Woody Guthrie
Folk hero Woody Guthrie penned this timeless tune in 1940, though it wasn't released until years later. Originally titled “God Blessed America for Me,” it was composed as a sarcastic retort to Irving Berlin's overly patriotic “God Bless America.” Some of Guthrie's original lyrics were far more radical than the ones still sung in classrooms to this day—including the final verse, which says "One bright sunny morning in the shadow of the steeple / By the Relief Office I saw my people / As they stood hungry, I stood there wondering if / This land was made for you and me."
14/ The Library of Congress // Flickr
Artist: Josh White
Blues singer Josh White doesn't mince words in this poignant protest song about segregationist policies in the Jim Crow South. It was featured on White's 1941 album “Southern Exposure,” alongside a number of other anti-segregationist songs. While the music was highly controversial in the Southern states, President Franklin Roosevelt liked it so much that he invited the singer to perform at the White House.
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Artist: Woody Guthrie
Adolf Hitler was vying for world domination by 1942, but that wasn't the only fascism Woody Guthrie had on his mind. Addressing topical issues like the poll tax and Jim Crow Laws, he imagines “people of every color, marching side to side” against any and all forms of oppressive hatred. Considering that the message “this machine kills fascists” was scrawled across Guthrie's guitar, it's safe to say the artist meant every word.
16/ Franklin D. Roosevelt Library & Museum // Wikimedia Commons
Artist: Bing Crosby
As hard as it is to imagine, this iconic holiday tune was somewhat controversial during the year of its release. Record executives were worried that the line "I'll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams” would lower morale amongst the troops fighting overseas in WWII. The song was banned outright in England by the BBC for the very same reason.
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Artist: Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Updating a 19th-century slave spiritual for modern times, Sister Rosetta Tharpe dispenses with gospel references against a backdrop of big band instrumentals. The popular track was alternately titled “Ain't Gonna Study War No More,” in reference to its own chorus. During the Vietnam War era, it was resurrected as an ode to pacifism.
18/ Phil Wight // Wikimedia Commons
Artist: Slim Gaillard Quartette
The world's first nuclear weapons were tested and deployed in 1945, paving the way for horrific destruction and this ironically languid song. Delivered in the vein of a jazzy lounge number, it features lines such as “you're small as a beetle or big as a whale...BOOM...atomic cocktail.” For an extra touch of perhaps too-dark humor, it was released on Atomic Records.
19/ Walt Disney Music Company
Artist: James Baskett
Due to its tactless depiction of negative stereotypes, the Disney movie “Song of the South” has been at the heart of various controversies. The film's signature tune might be too catchy for history to ignore, but it nevertheless remains a scandalous reminder of the country's once normalized racism. That's not to mention its origins as a minstrel show song.
20/ Motke Avivi // Wikimedia Commons
Artist: Pete Seeger
Few protest songs are more inspiring and enduring than this one, which continues to be a part of numerous resistance movements. Originally published in 1901 under the name "I'll Overcome Someday,” it was later adopted by tobacco workers during a labor dispute. Folk singer Pete Seeger put his own spin on the song in 1947, and it's been the stuff of epic unification ever since.
21/ Al Aumuller/New York World-Telegram and the Sun // Wikimedia Commons
Artist: Woody Guthrie
American gadfly Woody Guthrie was at it again in 1948 when he wrote the lyrics to this oft-covered protest song. He was inspired to do so after hearing of a deadly plane crash, which killed 28 unnamed migrant workers on their way back to Mexico. Composer Martin Hoffman provided the melody.
22/ The U.S. National Archives // Flickr
Artist: Paul Robeson with Lawrence Brown
Performer and activist Paul Robeson began adopting slave-era spirituals as early as the 1920s. On the cusp of the civil rights movement, he used the straightforward lyrics of this harrowing song to take a stand against rampant racism and injustice. Bob Dylan would later employ a very similar melody on his iconic protest tune, “Blowin' in the Wind.”
23/ Fred Palumbo/World Telegram // Wikimedia Commons
Artist: The Weavers
Pete Seeger and Lee Hays wrote this left-leaning song in 1949 and performed it for communist leaders at a testimonial dinner. Their concurrent folk group, The Weavers, released a new and more popular version the following year. For songs like this one and other progressive maneuvers, Seeger and Hays were later called in to testify for reported communist ties.
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Artist: Billy Ward and his Dominoes
A bona fide precursor to the burgeoning rock ‘n' roll genre, this naughty number from Billy Ward boasts of his bedroom exploits. Thanks to its double entendre and risque lyrics (for the time), the novelty song was banned on certain radio stations. Country duo Hardrock Gunter and Roberta Lee recorded their own version that very same year.
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Artist: Kitty Wells
A musical rebuttal to Hank Thompson's “The Wild Side of Life,” this controversial song helped make Kitty Wells one of country music's first female stars. Employing a similar melody to Thompson's hit, she argued that cheating husbands were the motivating factor behind cheating wives. Wells was banned from performing the song on the NBC network and Grand Ole Opry radio broadcast; neither did anything to stop the tune from soaring up the charts.
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Artist: Tom Lehrer
The talented Tom Lehrer unleashed his particular brand of satirical music upon the world in 1953, with the release of his debut album. Songs like “The Old Dope Peddler”—which puts a humorous spin on drug dealing—created instant scandals due to their edgy subject matter. It was merely the beginning of a long and controversial career for Lehrer.
Artist: J.B. Lenoir
Chicago blues guitarist and singer J.B. Lenoir didn't shy away from political subject matter throughout his career. Annoyed with the government for taxing him out of his hard-earned money, the artist wrote this charged tune for Parrot Records. When controversy ensued, label executive Al Benson forced Lenoir to re-record the song under the name “Tax Paying Blues.”
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Artist: Chuck Berry
Rife with clever wordplay and a dexterous combination of styles, Chuck Berry's first major hit single was a rock ‘n' roll revolution in the making. While the lyrics weren't necessarily subversive, the color of Berry's skin and the influence of his sound was enough to generate a degree of controversy. Mainstream music would never be quite the same.
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Artist: Elvis Presley
The same year he broke out across America, Elvis Presley found himself at the center of a major controversy. While performing "Hound Dog" on “The Milton Berle Show,” Presley swung his guitar aside and gyrated his pelvis before a legion of screaming fans. As overblown the scandal might seem in retrospect, his rebellious gesture and its adjoining shockwave were every bit as impressionable as Elvis' detractors might have feared.
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31/ Adam Jones // Wikimedia Commons
Artist: Link Wray
In 1958, the fuzzed-out and reverb-drenched tone of Link Wray's guitar was all it took to get the old guard up in arms. Fearing that the suggestive title and sexy swagger of “Rumble” might incite gang violence, radio stations in New York and Boston kept it off the airwaves. Artists like Jimmy Page and Iggy Pop point to this particular instrumental as a major influence.
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Artist: Bobby Darin
Modernizing an old musical number by way of a jazzy swing beat, Bobby Darin delivered this #1 hit in 1959. Beyond the catchy melodies are dark lyrics about bodies “oozin' life” and cement bags “just a droopin' on down.” Both New York's WABC radio station and the BBC banned the song, fearing it would inspire real-life knife attacks.
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Artist: The Shirelles
The first #1 single to come from an all-black female group, “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” is another song that might seem controversy-proof to today's audiences. However, it's sexual innuendos were enough to get it banned from radio stations back in 1960. Numerous cover versions would follow, including one from original co-writer Carole King.
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Artist: The Tokens
It would take decades for the true controversy to catch up to this ubiquitous pop song, which earned doo-wop outfit The Tokens its only #1 Billboard hit. Like so many others before and after, the group actually stole the song; failing to acknowledge it was originally created by a Zulu migrant worker named Solomon Linda. In 2006, Linda's descendants sued the Disney company over royalties and walked away with an undisclosed sum.
35/ Beat Publications/Prestige Publishing-Cinnamon Cinder // Wikimedia Commons
Artist: The Crystals
Some controversial tunes seem downright mild in retrospect, but not this one from The Crystals. Featuring a title that pretty much says it all, the song takes a gravely misguided approach toward the subject of domestic abuse. To make a creepy thing that much creepier, future convicted second-degree murderer Phil Spector produced the track.
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Artist: Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan's early folk albums are jam-packed with so many great protest songs that it's hard to choose just one. That said, the apocalyptic tone of “A Hard Rain's a-Gonna Fall” gives it an element of perennial prescience in today's fragile landscape. Rumors persist (thanks in part to Dylan himself) that the song was directly inspired by the Cuban missile crisis, but he reportedly performed it live a month before the nuclear showdown took place.
37/ RCA Victor Records // Wikimedia Commons
Artist: Sam Cooke
This bone-chilling classic was reportedly written just a few months after Sam Cooke and his entourage were turned away from a Holiday Inn in Shreveport, La. The song was also said to be inspired by Bob Dylan's civil rights anthem “Blowin' in the Wind,” which Cooke often performed live. Delivered with palpable passion, it punctuates brooding despair with moments of hope and inspiration.
38/ Nambassa Trust and Peter Terry // Wikimedia Commons
Artist: Barry McGuire
Condemning hatred and violence the whole world over, this veritable hit was widely perceived as a protest song against the Vietnam War. While the lyrics are devoid of curse words or drug references, they were nevertheless deemed obscene by a number of U.S. radio stations. Lines such as “you're old enough to kill but not for votin'” continue to resonate.
39/ Ron Kroon/Anefo / Wikimedia Commons
Artist: Nina Simone
In telling the story of four African-American women, music legend Nina Simone conjured up a storm of vivid associations. Bringing slavery, trauma, and exploitation into the fold, she unleashes a cathartic howl. A legion of young and inspired women was listening.
40/ APA-Agency for the Performing Arts // Wikimedia Commons
Artist: The Doors
It's no secret that 1967 represented a year of cultural upheavals, but someone forgot to tell “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Upon booking The Doors for a live performance of “Light My Fire,” producers requested that the word “higher” be replaced with the word “better.” Lead singer Jim Morrison forged ahead with the original lyrics and got the group banned from the show posthaste.
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Artist: James Brown
Keeping both feet squarely in the funk arena, James Brown imparted with this socially conscious anthem in 1968. Released on an album of the same name, it addressed issues of racism and the ongoing need for black empowerment. Brown rallied behind Democratic presidential nominee Hubert Humphrey that same year.
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Artist: Plastic Ono Band
John Lennon coined the phrase “give peace a chance” during a highly publicized bed-in, and then recorded this tune with Yoko Ono on the event's final day. Released in the midst of the Vietnam War, it delivered a raw and powerful plea for love and understanding. It also gave Lennon his first #1 single outside of The Beatles.
43/ CMA-Creative Management Associates/Atlantic Records // Wikimedia Commons
Artist: Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young
Four unarmed student protestors were shot and killed by members of the Ohio National Guard in 1970, and an angry Neil Young wanted to do something about it. The result was this iconic protest song from CSNY, which calls out President Nixon by name and tries to invoke a revolution. Due to its blatant political overtones, the song was banned by a number of mainstream AM radio stations.
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Artist: Gil Scott-Heron
Inspired by a popular slogan from the 1960s Black Power movement, Gil Scott-Heron first delivered this radical spoken word poem in 1970. A year later, he brought in a full backing band and re-recorded it as a B-side to his first single. At its core is a call for grassroots activism and a warning against media brainwashing, two things that are as relevant now as they ever were.
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John Lennon might have been the designated bad boy among former Beatles, but ex-bandmate Paul McCartney also experienced his fair share of controversy. Reacting to the events of “Bloody Sunday”, he and wife Linda churned out this political tune in about a month's time. It was greeted with a blanket broadcast ban in the UK, where relations with Northern Ireland remained a highly sensitive subject.
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Artist: Stevie Wonder
Child-prodigy-turned-Motown-legend Stevie Wonder began exploring deeper themes in the early 1970s, as evidenced by this illustrative song. Featuring unforgettable hooks and a perceptible narrative about inner city life, it's considered one of the earliest soul music hits to tackle systemic racism head on.
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Artist: Lynyrd Skynyrd
A radio staple to this day, Lynyrd Skynyrd's Southern ode takes shots at Neil Young and makes reference to racist Governor George Wallace. However, those who think the band was siding with Wallace's politics or legitimately feuding with Young would be mistaken. Fun fact: none of the song's three writers were actually from Alabama.
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Artist: Loretta Lynn
Taking a bold and semi-comical approach toward birth control, country singer Loretta Lynn released the most controversial hit of her career. Belting lines like “this incubator is overused,” Lynn encouraged married women to take the pill if they wanted to stop having babies. Country radio stations and at least one Kentucky preacher wasted no time in either banning or condemning the song, which only helped to fuel sales.
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Artist: Bob Dylan
Bob Dylan had strayed from writing protest songs by the 1970s, but this one proved that there was plenty of fight in him. Taking a literal approach to its subject matter, the song chronicles the unfair trial and subsequent incarceration of boxer Rubin Carter. It would be nearly a decade before Carter was granted a petition of habeas corpus on procedural grounds and released from prison.
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Artist: Sex Pistols
Banned from the BBC for “gross bad taste,” this seminal punk song equated British royalty to a “fascist regime.” Released on the album “Anarchy in the UK,” it presented the Sex Pistols and the punk movement at large as a genuine force to be reckoned with. Some sources have dubbed “God Save the Queen” as the most controversial song in history.
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Artist: Tom Robinson Band
The Tom Robinson Band called out British hypocrisy and mistreatment while celebrating gay culture in this groundbreaking tune. A gay man himself, Robinson originally wrote the song for the London Gay Pride Parade before releasing it on an EP. BBC Radio 1 refused to play the song, which became a massive hit on rival station Capitol Radio.
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Artist: Pink Floyd
A choir of children chanting the words “Teachers! Leave those kids alone!” was bound to draw its detractors. British Minister Margaret Thatcher was just one among the legion of authority figures who absolutely hated Pink Floyd's mega-popular song. When South African students later used the catchy chorus as a rally cry against an apartheid-era education system, local radio stations banned it altogether.
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Artist: Bob Marley
Reggae legend Bob Marley was behind a slew of powerful protest songs, including this acoustic ballad from his ninth album. Preaching for emancipation from both physical and mental slavery, it seeks redemption through the pursuit of pure freedom. This was Marley's last single as well as the last song he performed in concert.
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Artist: Ian Dury & The Blockheads
Polio survivor and punk rock singer Ian Dury was not impressed or amused when the UN designated 1981 as the Year of the Disabled. In direct response to the superficial gesture, he and co-writer Chaz Jankel crafted this purposefully offensive tune. The BBC reacted just as Dury expected it to, by banning the song and trying to derail his career.
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Artist: Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five
Hip-hop pioneer Grandmaster Flash tackles the stress and struggle of inner-city poverty in this influential rap song. Its vivid style of street reporting would open the floodgates for a bevy of subsequent acts, including N.W.A. and Public Enemy. Lines like “you'll grow in the ghetto livin' second-rate” continue to resonate in the age of Black Lives Matter and other social justice movements.
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Artist: Frankie Goes to Hollywood
This sexually charged single from Frankie Goes to Hollywood barely penetrated the mainstream when it first debuted. Rolling out alongside a cheeky ad campaign and explicit music video, it gradually began to gain steam. A ban by the BBC gave the song an unintended boost, sending it to the top of the UK pop chart and keeping it there for five weeks.
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Artist: Bruce Springsteen
By employing bouncy instrumentals and a fist-pumping chorus, Bruce Springsteen created one of the most misunderstood anthems in music history. What was actually a song about despair among war veterans became a patriotic rally cry, used by President Ronald Reagan during his 1984 re-election campaign. “Born in the USA” is still commonly perceived as a song of “cheerful affirmation,” to quote columnist George Will.
58/ Manhattan Records // Wikipedia
Artist: United Artists Against Apartheid
South African apartheid had been in place for 37 years by 1985. Hoping to change the brutal system of racial segregation, Steven Van Zandt and Arthur Baker assembled "the most diverse line up of popular musicians ever assembled for a single session.” The result was this epic protest song and album, which featured Joey Ramone, Miles Davis and just about everyone in between.
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One way to guarantee controversy in America? Write a cheeky anti-religious song and then put it on the radio. That's exactly what XTC's Andy Partridge did with “Dear God,” which prompted angry calls, bomb threats, and a hostage situation.
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Artist: Midnight Oil
With this global hit single, Australia's Midnight Oil issued a kindly reminder that the continent was founded on mass genocide. The infectious protest song also demanded reparations for the remaining members of an Aboriginal group known as the Pintupi. In 2009, it was re-recorded and rebranded as a climate change anthem.
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Hip hop outfit N.W.A took its First Amendment rights to dangerous extremes in 1988, with the release of this massively controversial track. Sparing no detail or lyric in its depiction of police harassment, the song predictably infuriated various law enforcement agencies. The drama culminated in 1989 when the group was arrested after performing it live in Detroit.
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Artist: Public Enemy
Lyrical maestro Chuck D. and hype-man Flavor Flav joined forces on some of hip-hop's most searing protest songs, including this one from 1989. Alluding to various aspects of the African-American experience, it calls out decades of racism and invokes the primal spirit of resistance. The song first appeared on the soundtrack to Spike Lee's “Do the Right Thing” and then again on the 1990 album “Fear of a Black Planet.”
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A year after shocking the world with the music video for “Like a Prayer,” Madonna upped the ante with the steamy video for this (far) less iconic song. Depicting various forms of explicit eroticism, the controversial video was swiftly banned from MTV. It was then sold on VHS in huge numbers, bringing Madonna's potential endgame to fruition.
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Taking inspiration from a tragic newspaper article, 2Pac delivered a stirring narrative on his first major hit single. It chronicles the story of a teenage mother named Brenda who lives in the ghetto and struggles to support her newborn baby. The song was featured on the debut album “2Pacalypse Now,” which Vice President Dan Quayle publicly denounced.
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Artist: Rage Against the Machine
As the band name suggests, Rage Against the Machine took a no-holds-barred approach toward various political and social injustices. This lead single off the group's major label debut endures as one of its quintessential tunes, putting institutional racism and police brutality in its crosshairs and hitting the bullseye. Loaded with “F” bombs and released in the wake of the L.A. riots, the song was alternately censored or banned by various outlets.
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Artist: Bikini Kill
Released in three different versions, “Rebel Girl” was among the foremost works to emerge from the riot grrrl movement. Emanating with feminist empowerment and punk attitude, the song is delivered from an unabashedly gay perspective. Legendary rocker Joan Jett produced the single, providing additional guitar and backing vocals on it as well.
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Artist: Nine Inch Nails
True to its grim industrial vibe, this Nine Inch Nails classic was all kinds of disturbing when it first debuted. The music video was akin to a body horror short film, while the lyrics delivered a line so explicit that it's remained the stuff of legend. Both the video and song were censored for airplay, though surely that didn't stop a number of suburban parents from complaining about the content.
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Artist: No Doubt
Ska band No Doubt broke out big time with this massively popular single, on which singer Gwen Stefani strikes the perfect balance between irony and frustration. Railing against the modern patriarchy, she dismantles sexist stereotypes from the inside out. “Oh, am I making myself clear?” she asks in the song. The answer was a resounding yes.
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Artist: Sheryl Crow
Sheryl Crow was a national darling by the time she released her eponymous second album, but not everyone was digging this particular song. The lyric about children killing each other with “a gun they bought at Walmart discount stores” might have had something to do with it. As a direct result, the retail giant refused to stock Crow's album on its shelves.
70/ Matt // Flickr
Always ready and willing to voice his opinion, former Smiths frontman Morrissey can be quite the rabble-rouser. With this 1997 effort, he took on the theme of immigration by adopting a harsh nationalist tone. Some will argue that the song is overly xenophobic, to which Morrissey might say that's the entire point.
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Artist: Billy Bragg and Wilco
Folk legend Woody Guthrie was so prolific in his time that he left behind thousands of lyrics, many of which had never been turned into songs. Enter Billy Bragg and Wilco, who added melodies and arrangements for the 1998 album “Mermaid Avenue.” Among the album's more socially conscious tunes was “Eisler on the Go,” about Austrian composer and lifelong communist Hanns Eisler.
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Artist: Dixie Chicks
Shining a darkly comedic spotlight on issues of domestic abuse, this country tune was written by Dennis Linde and then popularized by the Dixie Chicks. It centers on two former best friends named Mary Ann and Wanda, who team up to murder Wanda's abusive husband Earl. The song debuted in 1999 and broke out the following year when various radio stations refused to play it.
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Rapper Eminem rode in on a wave of controversy and kept that momentum going throughout his second album, which featured this smash hit. What starts as a series of fan letters develops into something far more demented, as the song spirals into a bad case of life imitating art. By the time Eminem responds, it's far too late...
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Artist: Sage Francis
Rhode Island's Sage Francis took a trip to Ground Zero just five days after 9/11 and recorded this underground hit a month later. Lambasting exploitative media tactics and other capitalist crutches, Francis emphasizes the real tragedies at hand. Many of the lyrics do seem downright sage in retrospect.
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Artist: Christina Aguilera
Christina Aguilera went from coy girl next door to scandalous sex queen with the release of her fourth studio album, “Stripped.” Leaving no room for doubt was the adjoining music video for this lead single, which depicted plenty of bare flesh and a variety of fetishized images. The public outcry that followed was swift, sexist, and widespread.
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Artist: Marilyn Manson
Marilyn Manson was no stranger to controversy by the time he self-financed the explicit music video for this predictably grim song. Directed by Asia Argento, it left virtually no sin or graphic image to the imagination. Manson's own record label didn't even wait for the blowback, placing a domestic ban on the video back in 2003.
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Artist: Green Day
Mischievous pop punk outfit Green Day underwent an evolution of sorts when it released this scathing single. Asking if listeners can “hear the sound of hysteria,” it derides media fear tactics and their mind-controlling effects. And while the lyrics aren't overtly aimed at politicians, that didn't stop Britain from using the song for political ends in 2018.
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Artist: System of a Down
Picking up where Rage of the Machine left off, metal band System of a Down has skewered various social and political targets throughout its long career. This angry and award-winning protest song was released two years into the Iraq War when the country was sending thousands of troops to fight for a cause they didn't fully understand. Amidst a flurry of breakneck tempo changes, lead singer Serj Tankian howls one question over and over again: “Why do they always send the poor?”
79/ Wasted Time R // Wikimedia Commons
Artist: Dixie Chicks
When lead singer Natalie Maines made disparaging remarks about George W. Bush in 2003, it sent the Dixie Chicks into a widely publicized tailspin. By 2006, the country group was still “Not Ready to Make Nice” and neither were its fans. This unapologetic comeback song remains the group's biggest domestic hit to date.
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Forged visas and border crossings might sound like the stuff of potential controversy, but it was the chorus of loud gunshots that gave outlets pause. MTV and various radio stations responded by muting out the gunshots during airplay, thereby squeezing some life out of the song. This was just one among a series of controversial benchmarks for outspoken British rapper M.I.A.
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Artist: Katy Perry
Turning away from her Christian music roots, Katy Perry launched her pop career by way of this smash hit single. While some might see the lyrics as being problematic among certain groups, it was actually Perry's appropriation of gay culture that drew the most scorn. The singer herself later admitted that the song incorporates “a couple of stereotypes.”
82/ Kristopher Harris // Wikimedia Commons
Artist: Britney Spears
Global phenom Britney Spears made it abundantly clear that she was not a girl, and most definitely a woman, with this not-so-subtle tune. Released as the third single from her sixth studio album, it has quite little to do with looking for someone named Amy. The American Parents Television Council was definitely not amused.
83/ Jason Persse // Flickr
Artist: Foster the People
The indie pop veneer of this 2010 single makes its core theme of anti-gun violence all the more unsettling. To explore the lyrics is to discover a twisted take on mass shootings, which comes from the perspective of a homicidal teenager and remains relevant to this day. Foster the People felt MTV was being supremely hypocritical when it censored the song for airplay.
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Reportedly inspired by Bob Marley's “I Shot the Sheriff,” this song and its cinematic video saw Rihanna taking on the role of a vengeful assault victim. Turning the tables on her assailant, the singer's alter-ego hunts down and kills him. In response to a flood of complaints, Rihanna took to Twitter to defend the song's controversial narrative.
85/ Makeip // Wikimedia Commons
Artist: Pussy Riot
The same year the members of Pussy Riot were sentenced to prison for "hooliganism motivated by religious hatred,” the group released this scathing response. In true band fashion, the song boldly proclaimed, "seven years is not enough for us—give us 18!" The group's members were lucky that Russia's government didn't oblige.
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Artist: Miley Cyrus
In 2013, former Disney darling Miley Cyrus took just about every conceivable measure to distance herself from her G-rated past. Among her many efforts was this sultry dance track, which came loaded with drug references. Keeping the controversy alive is an ongoing copyright infringement lawsuit from Michael May, who claims that the song lifted his lyrics.
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Artist: Bruce Springsteen
By the time this protest song appeared on Bruce Springsteen's 2014 album “High Hopes,” it had already generated more than a decade's worth of controversy. Inspired by the police shooting of Amadou Diallo, the song debuted during a concert at Madison Square Garden in 2000. In response, the New York City Police Department Patrolmen's Benevolent Association called for a public boycott of Springsteen's music.
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Artist: Pussy Riot
By 2015, Pussy Riot was out of prison and unwilling to let a little hard time get in its way. Shaking things up on American soil, the band dedicated its first English tune to anyone who's been feels choked to death by war and police violence. The song is named in honor of police brutality victim Eric Garner, whose last words were “I can't breathe.”
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Until 2016, Beyoncé had expressed little interest in using the struggles of African-Americans as a thematic basis for her music. That all changed with the release of “Formation,” a super-charged anthem sprung from the collective well of black female empowerment. On the heels of a controversial video, Queen Bey added fuel to the fire by way of a militarized Super Bowl performance.
90/ Kenny Sun // Wikimedia Commons
Artist: Kendrick Lamar
Compton rapper Kendrick Lamar took on a slew of new targets with the release of this hotly anticipated track. Representing the fourth installment in his “The Heart” series, it calls out Donald Trump and makes reference to ongoing beefs with other rappers. It also sees Lamar declaring himself as the “greatest rapper alive,” which might very well be true.
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Artist: Childish Gambino
Arguably the most talked-about music video of the 21st century, “This is America” provided an instant jolt to the pop culture zeitgeist. Bridging the gap between past and present, it packs more than a century's worth of racial struggles into its near-five minute runtime. Contemporary milestones often come and go at the blink of an eye, but this one remains too powerful to forget.
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Artist: Ariana Grande
Ariana Grande may be a perennial fan favorite these days, but that doesn't mean she's impervious to the occasional controversy. Despite setting a Spotify record for the most streams in a 24-hour period, this #1 single and its video rolled out to accusations of cultural appropriation. When asked not to perform the song at the 2019 Grammys, Grande responded by skipping out on the ceremony altogether.