Controversial Music Videos

Before the days of MP3s and music websites like Spotify, music videos were one of the only ways to hear your favorite songs. Children growing up in the 80s and 90s understand the struggle of watching music channels such as MTV, VH1, and The Box (woah, remember THAT?) all day before the video for our favorite song was aired. Some listeners didn’t care for the video and just wanted to boogey to their jam but a lot of us were intrigued by its content. Essentially short films, music videos come in all sorts of shapes and sizes and fixate the listener on something other than the music being played. Some songs are cast as a backdrop to concert footage of the artist, some tell a narrative using the song’s lyrics, and others showcase amazing cinematography and visual effects that test the limits of the medium. There were some videos though, that caught the eye of standards and practices and created controversy over the years, some even getting banned from any sort of airplay. Let’s take a look at a few, shall we?

Nine Inch Nails – “Closer”

I’m sure if we tally up which artist has gotten the most mention in any of my articles, Nine Inch Nails will receive the most. Trent Reznor and company seem to fit every subject I write about musically fairly well and this is no exception. It was 20 years ago when NIN released The Downward Spiral, their second album that launched them into superstardom. The first single from that record was Closer, a near-seven minute, heavy industrial tune that quickly became one of the group’s signatures. The song caught the attention of audience in part with the accompanying video causing all sorts of uproar due to its sexual and religious imagery including bondage and mock crucifixions.

Growing up, all I would remember is watching the edited clip of Closer whenever it would air on TV and my older brother constantly cranking the television every time it played. The PG version did it no justice as I didn’t see the entire, uncut video in all of its glory until I entered high school and was genuinely shocked to see full frontal nudity on-screen.

Watch the edited version of “Closer” HERE

The Prodigy – “Smack My Bitch Up”

Electronic Dance Music, or EDM, is all the rage in today’s music scene but in the 90s, a British electronic music group broke in the states by the name of The Prodigy. These guys looked more like traditional punk rockers or ravers than they do EDM faithful with their mohawks and numerous piercings. Their 1997 record, The Fat of the Land, contained several hard hitting, bass heavy tracks that mixed in industrial rock, techno, and dance. The LP’s more memorable songs included Breathe and Smack My Bitch Up, the latter of which was the subject of one of the most controversial music videos of all time. Dedicated music fanatics will never forget Kurt Loder of MTV News warning viewers of its graphic content right before the video’s premiere.

The video takes a first person view of an individual experiencing a night on the town degenerating into debauchery complete with explicit sexual activity and drug abuse. Even by today’s standards, Smack My Bitch Up’s raw vision still makes it one of the most innovative and unique videos of all time that deserves to only be seen in its purest form.

Watch the unedited version of “Smack My Bitch Up” HERE

Taco – “Puttin’ On The Ritz”
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What? You don’t know who Taco is?

Taco was a Dutch singer with a delicious name who scored a hit in 1981 with Puttin’ On The Ritz, a cover of a musical number from the 1930 film of the same name. In subsequent decades, it has been covered on the big screen by legendary golden age actors such as Clark Gable and Fred Astaire. Taco decided to put his own spin on the song and the video became a hit in the early days of MTV. The video had to be re-edited though due to actors wearing blackface which as you can guess, caused a bit of a stir. It’s a shame Taco seemingly disappeared off the face of the planet following his cover but don’t fret, he still takes the stage to perform his famous rendition mostly on international shows.

Watch the unedited version of “Puttin’ On The Ritz” HERE

Bjork – “Pagan Poetry”

Bjork is no stranger to controversy. Known for her elaborate stage outfits and overall quirkiness, the Icelandic sensation has turned heads outside of the studio as much as inside. In addition to her outspokenness, she famously attacked a reporter in a Thailand airport for videotaping her son. On the heels of her 2001 feature film debut in Dancer in the Dark, Bjork released a video for her song, Pagan Poetry, where her entire upper body is bare. That’s not all though as there are images of skin being pierced and distilled images of sexual intercourse. Needless to say, all music channels in the United States refused to play it. It wasn’t until many years later when MTV aired a top banned music videos countdown show that Pagan Poetry was finally shown in it entirety.

Watch “Pagan Poetry” in its entirety HERE

Madonna – “Like A Prayer”

Madonna has certainly had her share of controversial moments throughout her career and has seemingly made a living out of pushing the envelope. A lot of her music videos have been the subject of public scrutiny but I want to concentrate on my favorite one, her catchy 1989 song, Like A Prayer. The song’s video was met with sorts of protests due to its intense religion themes. A scantily clad Madonna is shown dancing in front of burning crosses outside of a church and cuts her hands, causing stigmata. Despite all the negative press the video got, it only made more money and accolades for the Queen of Pop. The subsequent album of the same name was a huge hit and spent several weeks at the number one spot on the Billboard Top 200.

Growing up in a house with two older sisters, I was subjected to Like A Prayer a lot and it actually frightened me a little. The part where the saint comes to life freaked me out as a small child. I didn’t appreciate the song when I was younger but grew to accept it and its video as important footnotes in pop music history.

Watch “Like A Prayer” HERE

Metallica – “Turn The Page”

I talked about this video briefly in an piece I wrote about cover songs last year. For the most part, Metallica managed to keep out of the trouble that heavy metal was often associated with on the video front. It wasn’t until the video they released for their cover of Bob Seger’s Turn The Page that they really got into hot water. The video tells a strong tale about life on the road and making ends meet through the eyes of a single mother parading as a prostitute. The woman explains her actions over the course of the video and is seen to be in a hopeless place in life. Critics particularly had a problem with the scene with the nude woman being abused by one of her clients. This was definitely one of the more personal videos Metallica ever filmed and showed a more vulnerable side to the band.

Watch the uncut version of “Turn the Page” HERE

Pearl Jam – “Jeremy”

The lead single off of Pearl Jam’s multi-platinum selling debut, Ten, was one of the most important tracks of the 1990s. It wasn’t without a cost though. The song is based off a true story of a young boy from Texas who shot himself one morning in front of his English class. An interpretation of this tale was portrayed in the video where the part of the boy offing himself had to be edited in order for it to receive airplay. Instead, an extreme close-up of the boy with the gun (which isn’t shown) in his mouth was shown instead before cutting to the aftermath. A lot of people appreciated its intense emotion and the gutsy move the band took to promote the single which resulted in Jeremy winning Video of the Year at the MTV Video Music Awards in 1993 (back when that sort of meant something).

Pearl Jam actually wouldn’t film another music video for many years after this. In fact, their next video wouldn’t even feature the band at all. An animated approach was used for their 1998 single, Do The Evolution, which was directed by Spawn creator, Todd MacFarlane.

Watch “Jeremy” HERE

The Smashing Pumpkins – “Try, Try, Try”

The Pumpkins were a driving force in the 90s alternative rock scene and wowed the world with their 1995 video for Tonight, Tonight. On the opposite spectrum, audiences became depressed and squeamish while viewing the video for their 2000 song, Try, Try, Try. The tune was actually the Pumpkins’ very last single before their hiatus during the early to mid 2000s. It’s video clip depicts a couple in a downward spiral of drug abuse and the lengths they go to for another fix. Pretty good song and no doubt, one of the most depressing videos ever filmed.

I actually didn’t learn of this video’s existence until many years later when one of my best friends, who is probably the biggest Pumpkins fan ever, had a VHS tape of the band’s videos and after we watched this one, I refused to watch it again until I relived it to research for this piece. Yeah, it got me. Hard.

Attempt to view “Try, Try, Try” by clicking HERE

Nas & Puff Daddy – “Hate Me Now”

There were a whole lot of layers to this one. Nas and a pre-Diddy Puff Daddy teamed up for a track on Nas’ third album, I Am…, in 1999. Nas decided to film a video to promote the single but the result wasn’t what either man hoped for. There’s a scene where Nas is crucified on a cross while Puffy meets the same fate. Puff Daddy reconsidered the scene as it conflicted with his religious beliefs so he asked that it be cut. Through a mix-up, the unedited video was broadcast on MTV and Diddy was so furious that he had a physical confrontation with Nas’ manager. Nas recalls in an interview with Rolling Stone that the video was in response to people not agreeing that Jesus should be played by an African American. The song would become one of Nas’ most popular hits. A damn good song to boot as well.

You would think that someone like Diddy would have loved being the center of attention when the controversy arose. I’m sure he’s singing a different tune about the clip today.

Watch “Hate Me Now” unedited HERE

Queen – “Body Language”

I don’t talk about Queen nearly enough when I discuss music here on CXF. They’re one of my favorite bands and no doubt Freddie Mercury was one of the most powerful vocalists ever. There was an era in their music though that I wasn’t too fond of and that was when they decided he wanted to make more accessible pop music in the early 80s with one of their experiments being the 1982 proto-dance hit, Body Language. While not a great song, the accompanying music video is significant for being the very first video banned from airing on MTV.

Why was it banned you ask? Sexual tension at an accelerated degree was depicted amongst both men and women. The icing on the cake was liquid resembling semen splattering against the bodies of women. One of the band’s silliest tracks but it produced one of the more memorable moments for them. Still, I guess you can say this phase from Queen wasn’t all that bad  considering it gave us Under Pressure, right?

Watch “Body Language” HERE


Written by Matthew Reine

is a New Yorker with a strong passion for film and television. Also the biggest Keanu Reeves fan you know.

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