When video killed the radio star, it also introduced a whole new vehicle for artists to convey their messages. The music video allowed our favorite musicians to express beliefs, set moods, and create their own worlds for their songs. And they could do that from anywhere in the world, inviting us in from our own living rooms.
But for every music video that is saccharin sweet, there’s another steeped in controversy. Many artists know the value of shocking their audiences. After all, it’s an art form – and artists can choose to express themselves in any way they want! Sometimes art is meant to push boundaries.
And push boundaries they did! These are some of the most controversial music videos that really got people talking, even if they got banned from broadcast.
“Like a Prayer” by Madonna
To most people, the music video for Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” seems pretty tame by today’s standards. But when that video was originally released, it certainly caused quite a stir. The video takes place in and around a church, and the contrast between religious imagery and Madonna’s blatant sexuality was just too much for many. I’m sure it didn’t help that there were burning crosses and scenes of Madonna with stigmata on her palms. Oh, and Jesus Christ is depicted as a Black man, and he’s seduced by her.
As you can imagine, it raised more than a few eyebrows. People were definitely shocked by the video, especially some folks in the Bible Belt. Pepsi dropped her immediately, and the controversy even led to Pope John Paul II calling for a boycott of her concerts.
“Heart-Shaped Box” by Nirvana
In recent years, we’ve seen a lot of wild, controversial subject matter come up in music videos. But back in the day, we didn’t have other means for artists to get their work out, like YouTube or social media. It was quite the gamble to release something that shocked audiences.
Nirvana didn’t care about that. “Heart-Shaped Box” is a classic look at grunge-era nihilism. An old man in a Santa hat puts himself on a cross, while a woman picks fetuses from a tree. The birds and butterflies are fake. There’s a six-year-old girl in a Ku Klux Klan robe who also borders looking like a Pope, which is a message all on its own. As you can imagine, this video didn’t sit well with a lot of people.
As it turns out, the video shocked another person in a very different way. Director Kevin Kerslake, who had worked with the band on previous music videos, sued them for copyright infringement. The band asked him to come up with ideas before they changed their mind at the last minute and decided to work with a different director. He claimed that many of the concepts they ended up using for “Heart-Shaped Box” were actually his ideas.
“WAP” by Cardi B featuring Megan Thee Stallion
We all know what WAP stands for, right? With a name like that, you already know it’s going to be controversial. This one definitely raised more than a few eyebrows, and probably some people’s blood pressure, too.
The song was toned down for the music video, with changes made to the lyrics throughout the song. Despite the changes, it’s still pretty raunchy! Graphic wordplay, hot costuming, and suggestive choreography all come together to make old conservatives sweat. Regardless of all the people who condemned it as a disgrace to humanity, it was all anyone talked about, and it spawned plenty of TikTok dance vids.
“Stan” by Eminem
Marshall Mathers, better known as Eminem, doesn’t stray from creating controversy. Apparently, he can even inspire the creation of new words, like “stan” – an overzealous or obsessive fan of a celebrity.
That’s because the song and video are about Stanley, or Stan, who is an overly obsessed Eminem fan. He’s played by actor (and real-life Eminem fan) Devon Sawa for the video, and his pregnant girlfriend is Dido, who is sampled in the song. So where’s the controversy? Well, it turns out that Stan is mentally disturbed, and winds up a homicidal maniac, puts his lady in the trunk of his car, and drives it off a bridge. The music video ended up heavily censored in order to air.
“Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” by Lil Nas X
The world fell in love with Lil Nas X as he mosied down “Old Town Road” with Billy Ray Cyrus, but they turned on him really quick when he dropped “Montero (Call Me By Your Name).” It probably had something to do with him pole dancing his way down to Hell to give the devil a lap dance.
The rapper knew he would stir up some controversy, I’m sure. But he probably didn’t know just how much controversy he was about to see. It was everywhere, and even government officials were voicing their opinions on the video. He also released his infamous “Satan Sneakers” around the same time, so clearly, he stoked the flames a little. It worked in his favor, though. The rapper won big at the 2021 VMAs.
“Jeremy” by Pearl Jam
If you have ever watched the music video for “Jeremy” by Pearl Jam, you probably misunderstood the message behind it. That’s because MTV and Epic Records rejected the original music video for going against restrictions on violent imagery. Just the removal of one clip changed the entire interpretation of the video.
The song – and subsequently the video – was based on a newspaper article about a boy who took his own life in front of his classmates. While I understand why that clip was removed from the video before airing on national television, it does change the entire message. It left audiences to assume the video’s protagonist slays his classmates instead. Not only did it cause a stir with audiences, but it also left Pearl Jam upset and frustrated, too. It wasn’t until 2020 that the band released the original version on their YouTube channel, to mark National Gun Violence Awareness Day.
Basically Anything From Marilyn Manson
Marilyn Manson made a name for himself as a shock rocker, so you were probably betting on him being on this list somewhere. Here he is! And because his entire career has been built on shocking people, it’s nearly impossible to pick one of his music videos to put here.
Where to begin? People were pretty weirded out by the band’s extra creepy take on Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory with “Dope Hat,” but the band definitely didn’t turn it down. I don’t think anyone was ready for “The Beautiful People,” with Manson wearing metal hooks pulling his mouth open, prosthetics and laboratory equipment everywhere, and grotesquely tall people in long gowns. I remember people losing it over “The Dope Show,” when Manson wore prosthetic breasts and white grease paint, looking like an androgynous alien wandering around the Hollywood Hills. And surprisingly enough, people were really upset about cops wearing pink.
But if none of that was enough to jolt audiences, Manson decided to pull out another shocker. In 1999, the video for “Coma White” features Manson portraying John F. Kennedy in a twisted reenactment of his assassination. Then-fiance Rose McGowan is Jacqueline Kennedy in her signature pink outfit and hat, and eventually, Manson ends up on a cross.
Really, there are dozens of other videos I could list here, but we just don’t have that kind of time!
“Closer” by Nine Inch Nails
These days, Trent Reznor is composing film scores for Disney Pixar films, but let’s not forget all his less-than-family-friendly days back in the ‘90s. Nine Inch Nails pushed the envelope plenty of times, but viewers were definitely shocked by the music video for “Closer.” It’s full of all kinds of disturbing imagery, all smashed into one gritty piece. There’s a little bit of everything here: rotting animal parts, adult toys, nudity, blasphemous imagery, twins stapled together… you get the picture.
MTV said “no way!” to airing the video as is, and it needed to be edited for TV. Frontman Reznor, being the artist he is, refused to sensor his unsettling vision. MTV had no choice but to add those “scene missing” title cards over the most shocking stuff.
“Born Free” by M.I.A.
British artist M.I.A. is no stranger to controversy, as she mixes politics into her music and everything else she does. She had already turned more than a few heads before 2010, but then she dropped the music video for “Born Free.”
The nine-minute music video depicts a world in which redheads are rounded up and savagely slain. It portrays military force, violence, and brutality – as an analogy for the real-life brutal military force used during the Sri Lankan Civil War. It’s pretty graphic, and most networks and websites refused to air it. It was yanked from YouTube and only allowed a few weeks later with a disclaimer added at the beginning.
“Happiness in Slavery” by Nine Inch Nails
I know I already mentioned Nine Inch Nails, but we can’t talk about controversial music videos without mentioning their other very controversial project: “Happiness in Slavery.” The video features performance artist Bob Flanagan being tortured and then killed by a machine. At the end, frontman Trent Reznor enters the room to perform the same ritual.
Although the band’s performance of “Happiness in Slavery” at Woodstock ‘94 earned them the Grammy Award for Best Metal Performance, the video was almost universally banned. It basically didn’t see the light of day. Until its inclusion on the Closure video album years later, the only way to see it was through bootleg copies. And to this day, you still won’t find it on YouTube…