Music videos have always been the perfect vehicle for artists to convey that which their music cannot. In this list, we look at ten of the most controversial videos of all time, videos that were used not simply to sell records, but as grenades — thrown straight into the heart of the domestic sphere.
You’ll notice that many of these videos are from the last 40 years or so, and there’s a reason for that. The advent of MTV in 1981 completely revolutionised the way the public consumed music.
MTV heralded an age in which the music video became an art form itself, allowing artists to express political and personal beliefs in an expertly curated environment. Suddenly, you didn’t need to travel to see your favourite artist. Instead, they would come to you, taking you by the hand and inviting you into their weird and frequently lurid world.
So take us by the hand, as we look at the ten most controversial music videos of all time.
The 10 most controversial music videos of all time:
10. ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ – Nirvana
Let’s kick off the list with a classic. Nirvana loved tickling the soft underbelly of middle America, and this video does just that. The video for ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ depicts a bizarre landscape riddled with dystopian chimaeras.
It’s a masterclass in grunge-era nihilism, featuring shots of a crucified christ wearing a Santa hat, as well as a woman picking foetuses from a tree. It’s a video that takes great pleasure in dirtying all the things that conservative America holds dear.
9. ‘Wrecking Ball’ – Miley Cyrus
It’s funny to think now, but back in the 2010s, pop singer Miley Cyrus was possibly one of music’s most controversial figures. She’d already practically broken the internet with her performance at the VMAs, and decided to ride on the wave of that controversy by releasing ‘Wrecking Ball’.
The video features the once child star straddling a wrecking ball and licking a sledgehammer, sending both Christians and country music fans into fits of apoplectic rage. But in retrospect, it’s hard to remember what everyone got so worked up about. The controversy surrounding the video seems like just another example of society attempting to quash a woman who had been infantilised for her entire life from embracing her sexuality.
8. ‘Windowlicker’ – Aphex Twin
Aphex Twin is famous for pushing the boundaries, but ‘Windowlicker’ really is something else. It is a ten-minute pastiche of gangsta-rap music videos featuring 127 swear words and a sensual car ride on which Aphex Twin’s face is photoshopped over every single performer.
The video was restricted on MTV and replaced by a TV-friendly version in which the swearing is bleeped out and the opening dialogue removed. However, MTV still received a fine after airing the original on its European channel before 9pm.
7. ‘Smack My B*tch Up’ – The Prodigy
Directed by Jonas Åkerlund in 1997, the video for ‘Smack My B*tch Up’ ended up getting banned from MTV. Even today, the video is still censored on YouTube and trying to find a full version is still incredibly difficult. But, with a title like ‘Smack My B*tch Up’ it is perhaps to be expected.
On the surface, the video seems relatively tame. It is shot in POV style and follows a person throughout a night of indulgent hedonism, only to reveal that the individual engaging in all these sordid activities is (shock-horror) a woman.
6. ‘Born Free’ – MIA
Blending superficiality with extreme violence, Romain Gavras’ video for MIA’s hard-hitting banger, ‘Born Free’ depicts a world where red-haired people are rounded up and killed. Many TV networks simply refused to broadcast the video because of its overt depictions of a nation-state amid a fictional genocide.
It’s possible that this reaction was exactly what MIA was hoping for. it allowed the singer to draw attention to the bizarre nature of broadcast television, which will show footage of real-life genocides but will not depict a video designed to interrogate the power of the totalitarian state.
Just another day at the office for MIA.
5. ‘Prison Sex’ – Tool
As Tool got themselves ready to reach the pinnacle of their stardom in 1993, the industrial rockers were ready to shake things up a little. The second single from their new album Undertow would provide the perfect opportunity. ‘Prison Sex’ is, right off the bat, not a song you’d imagine had censors sleeping easy at night, but with their unique stop-motion video, they created quite a stir.
A thought-provoking set of visuals the video was directed and created by the band’s guitarist Adam Jones who is well-versed in the art of animation. As one might imagine, for its “disturbing content” the video was quickly banned from MTV’s rotation.
4. ‘Like A Prayer’ – Madonna
Although it seems pretty tame by today’s standards, when the video for Madonna’s ‘Like A Prayer’ was released, it caused quite the stir and sent the figurative torches and pitchforks to the hefty doors of Madonna. The video does open with a shot of a burning crucifix, as well as depicting Jesus Christ as a Black man, which certainly sent a certain section of the Bible belt into a frenzy. But more than anything, the contrast between the religious imagery and Madonna’s flagrant sexuality was the thing that enflamed people the most.
The director, Mary Lambert, said of the video: “I knew that we were pushing some big buttons, but I sort of underestimated the influence and bigotry of fundamentalist religion and racism in this country and the world. Using burning crosses to reference racism to religion. Why not a Black Jesus?”
3. ‘Blurred Lines’ – Robin Thicke
Here’s one we’ll all remember. Robin Thicke’s notorious ‘Blurred Lines’ was one of the most divisive songs of the 2010s. For some, it was a harmless (if utterly meaningless) pop tune. For others, it was symptomatic of society’s celebration of rape culture. The public’s initial adverse reaction was to lyrics such as “I know you want it”, which actively encouraged men to exploit the “blurred lines” of sexual consent. But attention quickly turned to the accompanying video, which, like so many songs of the era, features undressed models dancing around the fully-clothed singers.
More than being controversial, for many, the video was just plain seedy. Thankfully Thicke got his comeuppance when the estate of Marvin Gaye sued the singer for infringing on the copyright of Gaye’s song ‘Got To Give It Up’.
2. ‘Closer’ – Nine Inch Nails
The fact that Trent Reznor is now composing film scores for Disney Pixar films, makes this addition to the list all the more creepy. It’s certainly not one for animal lovers either. The video contains graphic depictions of, amongst other things, sadomasochism, animal cruelty, and verdant satanism.
It’s as if it was designed solely to upset the vegan Christians of America. Particularly disturbing highlights include a shot of the tongue being ripped out of a pig’s decapitated head and footage of the rotating bodies of two people who appear to have been stapled together. The whole video gives off the vibe that Nine Inch Nails like nothing more than spending rainy Sunday afternoons pickling kittens in formaldehyde.
1. ‘Lemon Incest’ – Serge Gainbourg
Yes, there’s no doubt that Serge Gainsbourg’s song, ‘Lemon Incest’ is still one of the most controversial music videos (and songs) of all time. The video caused controversy when it was released in 1984, but the song itself still managed to reach number two in the charts.
The video depicts a shirtless Gainsbourgh lying in bed with his daughter, Charlotte Gainsbourg, who was 13 at the time. The scene’s composition implies incestuous sexuality that viewers found disturbing, leading many to accuse Gainsbourg of normalising illicit and inappropriate relationships. Gainsbourg, who had always taken pride in being something of a provocateur, of course, denied these accusations.