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NSFW: The 5 Most...

NSFW: The 5 Most Controversial Music Videos

Ever since video killed the radio star way back in 1981, pop artists have been bringing their music to life through videos. Although ostensibly made to sell songs and promote albums, these five pieces of cinematic art pushed the limits of art and good taste by being provocative, evocative, daring, and disturbing. They may look quaint to us today, but when they were released, some thought they went too far.

Pearl Jam, “Jeremy” (1991)


The video tells the story of a quiet, lonely teenager who is ignored by his parents and classmates. At the video’s end, we see him standing in front of his class with a gun; then we see the class sitting in horror and covered with blood spatters. Many viewers thought the video implied that Jeremy killed his classmates. Not so. The song was based on a real-life incident in Texas in which a student shot himself in front of his English class. In the video, however, the ending was ambiguous since network standards would not permit a video in which a child committed suicide by handgun. The song was a smash hit, the video was an instant classic, and the album Ten became the group’s bestselling LP. However, in 1996, a high school student shot four classmates and said he had been influenced by the video. After 1999’s Columbine shooting and other school violence incidents, the video was pulled from MTV and VH1. Nowadays, it’s rarely aired.

M.I.A., “Born Free” (2010)


An interminable nine minutes–plus long, the video for “Born Free” is a political allegory against genocide and ethnic cleansing that features explicit violence, sex, and hardcore drug use. It alludes to the Irish Republican Army, the Palestinian Intifada, and the Sri Lankan Tamil Tigers militia. Critics found it powerful and artful, although lurid, and drew parallels between it and current world affairs like the United States’ immigration battle, the bombing of Gaza, and the treatment of terrorist detainees in Iraq. Some viewers were shocked and upset by the graphic images of war, but in interviews, M.I.A. expressed surprise that people were more upset by the video’s simulated violence than they were about real violence in the world. 

Madonna, “What It Feels Like for a Girl” (2001)


Madonna’s female revenge fantasy, in which she steals a car, picks up an elderly woman from the “Ol Kuntz Guest Home,” goes on a crime spree, and eventually commits suicide, was meant to reflect the injustice and oppression women face every day. The song discusses the pressure women feel to be nice, beautiful, and feminine, while the video depicts women acting out in ways that are none of those things. The video was banned from MTV except for late-night airings, but many women observed that the video’s violence was nothing more explicit than images seen on television and in movies. Ironically, many surmised that the video’s female-driven violence was the reason it was considered so shocking, which in effect proved Madonna’s premise.

The Prodigy, “Smack My Bitch Up” (1997)


Told in first-person perspective, the video depicts the protagonist snorting cocaine, drinking alcohol, groping women in a nightclub, vomiting into a sink, getting in fights, vomiting again, picking up a stripper, driving drunk, and then having sex with the stripper (the unedited version also features heroin use). In a twist, the video’s final shot revealed that the protagonist was actually a woman. Women’s groups protested the video, claiming that it glorified misogynistic violence. Others applauded the video for showing that women could be abusers, too. But aside from the violence, the video was gross and full of nudity, which was enough to get it banned from MTV. Partly bolstered by the video’s notoriety, “Smack My Bitch Up” became The Prodigy’s biggest worldwide hit.

Duran Duran, “Girls on Film (1981)


Filmed just weeks before the launch of MTV, the video for “Girls on Film” was the first to be criticized as too erotic. (To be fair, the unedited version did feature full-frontal nudity.) Judged against today’s explicit videos, it’s positively tame, featuring only suggestive pole dancing and massages. But at the time, it was the subject of a massive controversy, which the members of Duran Duran enjoyed and used to bolster their reputation as cutting-edge artists.

Madonna, “Like a Prayer” (1989)


If the Material Girl wanted to ignite a scandal, making a video where she has sex with Black Jesus and then dances in front of a field of burning crucifixes was the way to do it. Religious groups blasted the video as being anti-Catholic, although the video actually told a story that was very positive toward God and the church. (And, by the way, it wasn’t a black version of Jesus—it was the Catholic Saint Martin de Porres.) The video is now recognized as one of the most groundbreaking moments in music, and it marked a turning point in Madonna’s career. At the time, however, the outrage was so severe that Madonna lost a $5 million contract with Pepsi over it.

In the end, we don’t remember the videos that are safe, tame, and expected. We remember the outrageous, the boundary-pushing, and the risky (not to mention the risqué …). The fact we’re still discussing, analyzing, and celebrating these videos, even thirty years later, is proof that notoriety is always better than anonymity.

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