The outrage at Lil Nas X's new offering sparks memories of other controversial music videos that got conservatives all riled up in their day. Here are the top 10 most controversial music videos.
1. Madonna, “Like A Prayer”
March 1989 Ahead of the album release of the same name, the video for “Like A Prayer” was pivotal for Madonna’s music career but spiked controversy among the Christian community for its sacrilegious imagery. With intimate visuals of Madonna kissing a Black saint figure as he came to life, her wild dancing in a field of burning crosses and her savior getting arrested after getting jumped by a group of white men, the music video tackles issues of racism, physical abuse and the artist's experience with Catholicism. It's no wonder the ambitious music video stirred a particular audience in the late 1980s.
In her book Madonna: An Intimate Biography, she said, “Like a Prayer is about the influence of Catholicism in my life and the passion it provokes in me. In these songs I’m dealing with specific issues that mean a lot to me. They’re about an assimilation of experiences I had in my life and my relationships.”
2. Nine Inch Nails, “Happiness in Slavery”
According to Tom Bryant from Louder magazine, “Reiss came up with a concept based on Octave Mirabeux’s The Torture Garden, a French novel in which a sadist visits a Chinese prison and orgasms while inmates are flayed and whose blood then feeds the beautiful gardens in which they are tortured.”
The full-length uncensored version of the music video was taken off YouTube and is only available to watch on the band’s Vimeo account. Reiss ended up shifting the video's direction to make Bob Flanagan, an American performance artist, and his torturing machine have a mutual relationship that shortly turns into an industrious garden of splattered blood and guts. The video features full-frontal nudity by Flanagan as well as graphic close-ups of body torture.
3. Eminem, “Stan”
Eminem has never shied away from controversial topics such as domestic violence, substance abuse or suicide. His iconic track “Stan” from his sophomore album, The Marshall Mathers LP, explores the audio narrative of an obsessive Eminem fan who commits acts of self-harm and aggression to show his love and commitment to the rapper. The music video paints the world of Stan by showing his basement riddled with Eminem memorabilia, highlighting an unhealthy obsession that ultimately leads to him drunkenly driving off a bridge with his kidnapped pregnant girlfriend after months of not receiving recognition from Eminem.
The word “Stan” made its mark and became an official word in the Oxford Dictionary back in 2013 as “an overzealous or obsessive fan of a particular celebrity.”
4. Erykah Badu, “Window Seat”
April 2010 The social-political performance in Erykah Badu’s music video for “Window Seat” was sudden and unexpected for locals who might've caught a glimpse of her filming in the middle of the day in Dealey Plaza in downtown Dallas. In the video, Badu gets out of her car and begins to walk down Elm Street in slow motion before slowly taking off her clothing. This leads up to the final moment when she’s fully nude and falls to the pavement to the sound of a single gunshot next to the spot where JFK was shot.
After the video (which, Badu tweeted, was shot in one take without a crew) was released, the Dallas Police Department cited Badu for disorderly conduct with a fine of $500. Although the music video's explicit nudity was censored, the filming of the video itself, and the lack of filming permits, got her hands tied pretty quickly. Badu, however, understands that one's art is priceless.
5. Tyler, The Creator, “Yonkers”
February 2011 One of Tyler, The Creator’s most infamous tracks from his 2011 debut album Goblin drew massive attention for its violent and aggressive lyrics that took shots at artists such as B.o.B, Bruno Mars, Stevie Wonder and others. Although people are now more familiar with his work and have come to learn that he was imitating a back-and-forth internal struggle with his alter-ego Wolf Haley, the video's initial release caused controversy because of its dark, unsettling visuals, which included scenes with the artist eating a cockroach, his vomiting silhouette, creepy animated movements and a staged depiction of him committing suicide.
6. Lady Gaga,“Judas”
May 2011 Lady Gaga’s music video for “Judas” is a modern reimagining of the biblical story, and it didn’t take long before religious folk took offense when the music video released on Easter 2011. The music video portrays Gaga as Mary Magdalene following Jesus as he leads his 12 disciples in a motorcycle gang. Norman Reedus stars as Judas.
“This is a girl who gets dressed up as a nun to get raped, who swallows the rosary, who's been dissing Catholics on and off," said the president of the Catholic League, Bill Donohue, in a 2011 Fox News interview. "She’s one of these ex-Catholic girls who have a problem with old religion, and for some reason they have to use Holy Week, don’t they?”
The song explores Gaga’s struggle between light and dark before she ultimately falls for Judas, because apparently, deep down, he still has a supposedly pure heart.
7. Kanye West, “Famous”
July 2016 The Kanye West and Taylor Swift drama was heightened with the release of the track “Famous,” from his seventh studio album, The Life Of Pablo, which included the infamous line “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that bitch famous.” The track lays thick the idea that Swift's career only took off after Kanye interrupted her win at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, and the video adds insult to injury. The music video displays life-like, full body-sized wax figures of celebrities such as former President Donald Trump, Bill Cosby, Amber Rose, Kim Kardashian and others, along with Swift and West, all lying in bed together — graphic nudity and all.
Although Kanye says he drew inspiration from the works of American realist painter Vincent Desiderio’s piece “Sleep,” the image of all these people in bed together is truly disturbing. No one, not even Ted Cruz, deserves the misfortune of seeing Trump naked.
8. Childish Gambino, “This Is America”
May 2018 The standalone track and music video for “This Is America” is Donald Glover’s dark vision of a journey through a corrupt, violent and destructive country. In the video, Glover (aka Childish Gambino) shoots a Black guitarist who's handcuffed with a bag over his head and aimlessly guns down a church choir with an assault rifle. The visuals reflect violent acts that have occurred nationwide for years and offer a commentary on American identity, consumerism, entertainment, gun violence, racism and other all-American themes. Glover himself represents a caricature that entertains the viewers away from the wild corruption and a jaw-dropping, disturbing reality.
9. Billie Eilish, “all the good girls go to hell”
The video for the song “all the good girls go to hell,” from Billie Eilish’ debut album WHEN WE ALL FALL ASLEEP, WHERE DO WE GO?, was spawned from the young artist's creative, vividly dark imagination. Eilish crafted a visual narrative of a fallen angel on Earth — one that's sprung up in hellfire — where she rises from a dark tar-covered pit.
While these visuals may have come off as satanic to the Christian community, the larger meaning for Eilish was to allow the audience to see the destruction we are creating through pollution. Ellish must've anticipated California's burning and those large oil-filled sinkholes.
10. Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion, “WAP”
August 2020 “WAP” was undoubtedly one of the most talked-about songs of the last year, and since nobody had much going on because of the pandemic, the world tuned in heavily on Cardi B and Meghan The Stallion's collaboration.
To set the tone, the music video draws us into a mansion through a water fountain spitting water out of its statue's breasts. Cardi and Meghan didn’t hold back from enhancing the sexual pictures they painted in the song, (the title stands for "Wet-Ass Pussy). Every parent and politician made it their mission to cancel this song due to its "toxic influence" on young women, but it still remained one of the top songs of the last year.
Even Saturday Night Live savored the opportunity to mention "WAP" during a presidential debate skit. Jim Carrey and Alec Baldwin played candidates Joe Biden and Trump, respectively, and SNL actress Maya Rudolph, portraying Vice President Kamala Harris, said, "I think if there's one thing we learned tonight, it's that America needs a WAP: Woman as President.”