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Top Ten Music Video Controversies


Radio and television have always had a tenuous relationship as far as music is concerned. The television was to herald the death of radio, though radio had one saving grace which TV didn’t: Man’s innate capacity to be offended by moving pictures. One can scarcely turn on the goggle-box in 2015 without being offended to some degree, whether it’s sultry dancing or outright claims of profanity.

Since last year YouTube views have counted towards sales on Billboard’s Hot 100, which has pressurised some musicians to scramble for YouTube views like a University student scrambling for the last teabag. For this reason we have seen the ‘viral’ success of Nicki Minaj’s ‘Anaconda’ and Robin Thike’s ‘Blurred Lines’, where scantily clad women, and controversial behaviour have become almost as lucrative in selling records as say accomplished lyricism, or a sense of rhythm.

This however is not a modern occurrence, way back in 1981 Duran Duran started the trend with the release of their music video for ‘Girls on Film’, which showcased a whole shopping list of profanity which would probably make the censors blush even in the 21st Century.


Sia – Elastic Heart

Australian singer-songwriter Sia has been accused of pandering towards the YouTube market, with consecutive videos off her 2014 album 1000 Forms of Fear staring the juvenile talents of Maddie Zeigler. The twelve year old garnered fame as the star of Lifetime’s Dance Moms, a show in a similar vain to Toddlers in Tiaras; which in itself has harboured hate from conservatives across the world.

The premise of Sia’s ‘Elastic Heart’ is difficult to access, however the young dancer and actor Shia LaBeouf dressed only in leotards mock-fight in a strange dance routine, whilst imprisoned in a gigantic bird cage. The video has been called suggestive amongst other things, with Lolita-esque undertones, and an apparently strained working relationship offset between the two.

The release of the video has followed Shia’s own media controversy, having gone full Charlie Sheen in an attempt to derail his career, in what has been a very public meltdown.


Frankie Goes to Hollywood – Relax

Relax was famously banned from the air, with the BBCsMike Read refusing to play the track due to its homosexual undertones. Unlike their modern counterparts however, Frankie re-shot a more appropriate and stripped down video, more akin to the bland one room videos of the time.

Nevertheless the video has gone down in infamy for its display of a gay S&M parlour, festooned with an array of leather clad gentlemen in their best weekend attire. The fun didn’t end their however, incorporating bleach blond drag-queens, glutinous roman emperors and the famous golden shower.


Madonna – Like a Prayer

The Queen of Pop has never shied away from a good controversy, putting the likes of Lady Ga Ga to shame in her crib. When the video for ‘Like a Prayer’ was released in 1989 the entire Christian world blushed. With scenes depicting not even vaguely veiled Christian symbolism, from burning crucifixes to the offending article, intercourse with black Jesus.


The Prodigy – Smack my B**** Up

Depicting rampant drug and alcohol abuse, drink driving, excessive violence, vandalism, and scenes of a sexual nature, Prodigy took the game one step further with their Jonas Akerlund directed mini-film. The video was banned on mostmusic channels for all the obvious reasons, the censors couldn’t quite censor enough of the video, so much that a later-than-the-watershed certificate was never given

The video narrates the average night of their protagonist in first person, from the first splash of cologne to ogling women in clubs, to vomit-encrusted bathrooms and back home again. The video is famous for its twist ending *Spoiler Alert* with the protagonist being reviled to be a woman all along, shedding light on the misogynistic undertones of the video, whilst reflecting on 90s sexuality in a format about as subtle as a pie to the face.


Nine Inch Nails – Closer

Playing host to rampant sadomasochism, the abuse of animals (no animals were hurt during its production), Christian symbolism, in depth diagrams of the female anatomy, and much more. One of the iconic / disturbing images from the video is a monkey lashed to a crucifix. If the lyrics are any suggestion towards the direction of the piece then it is no wonder NIN’s ‘Closer’ upset the censors; with lyrics which skip sexually suggestive and move straight for the most frank of introductions.

Frontman Trent Reznor has had an uneasy relationship with controversy; as ‘Closer’ is by no means an anomaly in NIN catalogue. A close contender is their 1992 follow-up ‘Happiness is Slavery’ which incorporates performance artist Bob Flanagan and S&M machine, the rest is best left unspoken. 

M.I.A. – Born Free

The best cultural export from Sri Lanka since cricket, M.I.A. is a one woman controversy machine, best known for ‘Paper Planes’ which was said to glamorise violence and the use of firearms, despite M.I.A. being a prominent anti-gun activist. Her music video for ‘Born Free whether a social commentary on the slaughter of Tamil people or just authorial wish-fulfilment, M.I.A.’s 2010 ‘Born Free’ portrayed a world where redheads are a persecuted minority, hunted like foxes for sport, and where harbouring a redhead is a capital crime.


Nas – Hate Me Now

Long before Kanye West declared himself Jesus Christ our Lord and Saviour, Nas crucified himself for your viewing pleasure. In a similar respect to Madonna’s ‘Like a Prayer,’ Nas ‘Hate Me Now’ enraged Christians like pork at a bat mitzvah. The track was Nas’ return to rap following his multi-platinum selling album ‘Illmatic’. The idea for the video came from a Broadway play portraying Jesus as a black man, which itself had been ringed with controversy. 

The video came with a hefty disclaimer stating that ‘Nasbelieves in the Lord Jesus Christ and this video is in no way a depiction or portrayal of his life or death.’ Regardless, contributing artist on the track Puff Daddy decided the video was in poor taste, joining the cries for the video to be band. If only Puff had been so subtle. Instead on learning the of the videos release, and the quite catastrophic implications of his connection to the track, he burst into the offices of Nas’manager, Steve Stoute and smashed a bottle of champagne over his head.


Pearl Jam – Jeremy

Pearl Jam’s 1992 track Jeremy’ stumbled into controversy for portraying a high school shooting. Frontman Eddie Vetter stated in an interview that the inspiration for the track had come from a newspaper article regarding a high school student who had shot himself in front of his English Class.

MTV restricted segments of the video, including the final scene where Jeremy puts the gun into his mouth and pulls the trigger. Several other scenes employed mirroring trickery which made the pledge of allegiance look strikingly similar to the Nazi salute. Director Mark Pellington defended the technique, stating that the juxtaposition showed the alienated mind of the protagonist.

Arguably ‘Jeremy’ launched Pearl Jam from a relatively unknown band to a world-wide sensation. However, many linked it to the rising rate of school shootings across America. Similarly Marilyn Manson came under fire years later with many connecting his lyrics to the Columbine massacre.


Justice – Stress

French DJs Justice known for their Euro-centric vaguely Daft Punk-esque brand of electronic music, walked into controversy with the music video for ‘Stress’. Outcries of gratuitous violence concluded that such images condoned and even glorified gang culture and inner city violence.

The video depicts rival Parisian gangs going tooth and nail. The band defended the video, stating that clashes between gangs were a regular occurrence in Paris and all across France. Their depiction of gang violence was a depiction of the real France which many were trying to supress.


Nirvana – Heart Shaped Box

The music video for Nirvanas ‘Heart Shaped Box’ is a surrealist image of drug use, using psychedelic imagery and contrasting symbolism to create a strangely hallucinogenic feel. Amongst the complaints which followed the video’s release were scenes portraying a crow-ridden crucifix, an abortion tree, an angel winged gluten, and members of the KKK.  Realistically it was unlikely this video would go down in anything but infamy.

T. Keane

Editor of LLR since 2005

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