Following the 10 music video directors you should know, and The 5 Artists With the Most Expensive Music Videos of All Time, now we’ve turned our attention to five artists responsible for some of most controversial music videos ever.
Controversy in the visual arts is by its very nature ridiculous. It’s the idea that an action or situation being depicted is so ridiculous that some people can’t process that information in any way other than to be offended by it.
Sometimes that offense is misattributed, and sometimes it’s completely justified. In an ever-changing visual world that’s arguably becoming more and more desensitized, artists, filmmakers, musicians and writers intending to ‘shock’ with their content are having to push more boundaries than ever before, leading to a strange situation wherein pieces once labeled as shocking and controversial in the context of their time are comparatively tame now.
More controversy doesn’t always mean better artistic output, nobody in literature is suggesting that E.L James is superior to D.H Lawrence, for instance. In the world of music videos, sometimes a concept thrives on the controversy it’ll knowingly cause, because for all the amazing ideas, creative visuals and incredible talent that come out of it, the end-goal of any music video is to generate buzz around an artist, and nothing creates hype in the press quite like controversy.
Just as recently as last month, M.I.A. announced that she’d had a video pulled by her label for the potential controversy of cultural appropriation. Perhaps they were right to do so, (although M.I.A. would disagree), or perhaps the music industry is in a very sensitive place regarding this subject after the criticism that Mark Romanek’s video for “Shake It Off” by Taylor Swift received. The only sure thing now is that a lot more people want to see M.I.A.’s video than previously did.
With that in mind, here is a selection of music videos that at one time have been considered controversial, and a few more recent ones that maybe don’t make them seem as bad. This is by no means a definitive collection – there’s no measurable way to define controversy after all.
Oh, and I guess I should probably say that these videos will contain content that some people may find offensive. But that’s why we’re here, right?
Artist: Duran Duran
Track: “Girls On Film”
Controversy: Mild MDSM and Fetishism
The story goes that this now-classic 1981 Duran Duran song was doing okay in terms of radio play and chart positioning, but upon the video’s release the controversy surrounding it cemented the song’s place in the charts for weeks. The controversy: some mild BDSM, fetishism and a bit too much naked mud wrestling for an early ’80s censor to agree with. The video was banned by the BBC, and had to be heavily edited in order to be aired on a brand new channel called MTV. An uncensored version was played in nightclubs that were equipped with screens, and on a few TV channels that weren’t exactly strict with their censorship. Whilst the band embraced the controversy at the time for all the publicity it awarded them, Simon Le Bon has since lamented this attention for overshadowing the song’s message of the exploitation of models in the fashion industry.
Track: “The Motherload”
It’s been 34 years since the “Girls on Film video” was shot, and similar sorts of controversial themes are still cropping up left, right and centre. Take for example this video for “The Motherload” by Mastodon.
Billed as an absurd and satirical take on both the sexism that has been ever-present in rock and metal videos over the years, and the sexually charged nature of modern pop and hip-hop videos, this clip essentially features two starkly different sets of imagery combined. The band play along to their track, there’s some moody, sepia-toned imagery of a fake forest, some bald men wrapped in chains carrying a huge bell. Pretty standard metal video fare until out of nowhere the camera pans to an array of frenzied twerking. Twerking that only intensifies as the video reaches a psychedelic climax. This juxtaposition of imagery is very much on the nose. They’re not exactly hiding behind metaphor here (“you thought this would be a metal video? Ho-ho! More fool you, here’s a screen full of high-definition, slow motion asses! Just like a hip-hop video or something! Except it’s us! Mastodon! Oh, the fun we’ve had…”) but it doesn’t really dig deep into the issues it’s raising and just kind of brushes them off as a punchline. The video attracted about as much confusion as it did criticism, with a lot of fans not really understanding the point (some of whom posted racist and sexist comments on the video) and furious critics, including The Guardian, labeling it misogynist.
The flipside to this controversy came from one of the video’s dancers writing an impassioned blog post about how the video incorporates aspects of Atlanta’s various musical cultures, (Atlanta also being where Mastodon hail from). She argues that the video is not satirical at all and is in fact an inclusive celebration of women from a non-metal culture as being seen as equal and three-dimensional. It’s an interesting first hand account and well worth a read.
So perhaps the controversy lies in a lack of clarity in regards to the video’s intentions. Was this video a parody or a celebration? Was it a misogynist piece? Was it a video so unexpected that it was just taken that way by fans and critics, thus exposing their own prejudice? It seems that the answers to these questions will differ depending on who you ask, which I suppose is what keeps controversy alive.
Artist: The Prodigy
Track: “Smack My Bitch Up”
Controversy: Class A drug use, drink-driving, violence, nudity, sex.
Here it is, the video that MTV considered its “Most Controversial” and it’s not exactly hard to see why. The intense, red and green saturated, warped POV video directed by Jonas Åkerlund looks at first glance like a pretty shocking advocacy for all sorts of debauchery; drink-driving, class-A drug use, sex and The Three V’s (that’s Vomiting, Vandalism and Violence). What’s even worse is that it looks to be glorifying violence against women. Groups such as the US National Organization for Women criticized it for exactly that reason, whereas some of the music press praised the video for subverting gender stereotypes and highlighting that women can also be abusers.
This praise comes from the video’s ending (spoiler alert on an eighteen year old music video) in which the audience discovers that the coked-up-fight-and-fuck protagonist is actually a woman – playing into an audiences “male until proven female” bias. Wherever you stand on the video’s outlook, it’s still got ‘The Male Gaze’ written all over it; it’s a video made by a man for a band full of men that depicts and attractive woman go to a strip club and then have sex with another attractive woman. However, as ultra-banned as it might have been at the BBC, it eventually got onto MTV late at night and has been featured in countless lists of this nature ever since.
Artist: Lady Gaga ft. R. Kelly
Track: “Do What U Want”
Controversy: Sexual abuse, themes of rape
Getting on TV is more than can be said for the abandoned Lady Gaga ft. R. Kelly video for “Do What U Want”. The video, directed by Terry Richardson, (who stands accused of sexually assaulting several models), and heavily featuring R. Kelly, (who is himself a sexual predator), plays out like a scene in a bad porno; R. Kelly is a doctor, Lady Gaga is a patient. There’s wooden dialogue wherein Kelly prods and pokes at Gaga’s naked body whilst he asks, “How does that feel?” Gaga responds with moans that prompt Kelly to say, “sounds like that medicine is starting to kick in”.
On paper it’s incredibly creepy, but to watch it is downright mortifying. From there, Gaga’s unconscious body is subject to essentially whatever Kelly feels like doing, and according to the NY Post there’s even more hideous dialogue: “Will I ever be able to walk again?” Gaga asks. “Yes, if you let me do whatever I want with your body.” Kelly responds, before adding “I’m putting you under, and when you wake up, you’re going to be pregnant.”
Although this is allegedly alluding to Gaga’s hip injury, it’s no surprise that the video was completely abandoned after being described as “literally an advert for rape.” The full video has never seen the light of day and frankly I hope it stays that way, as the 30 seconds of footage leaked to TMZ is just too much already. An official video for the song was never released, although some fans have scoured the internet and edited together fake-official videos featuring the leaked TMZ clips and live performances which makes for some quite unsettling viewing. This one in particular.
Track: “Born Free”
Controversy: Violence, genocide.
Moving away from sexual violence now and onto the much cheerier subject of genocide. Proving that M.I.A. is no stranger to brilliant, controversial videos, this Roman Gavras-directed 9 minute short film depicts a world in which redheaded kids are taken by military force and killed en masse. It’s an incredibly powerful and deftly executed video that delivers a strong message about the oppression of minority groups around the world. Inspired by the imagery of Tamil men and boys being murdered by Sri Lankan police and filmed on their mobile phones, the video is graphic in its depiction of violence. In one scene the youngest of the group of redheads is shot in the temple at point blank range before the rest of the group is chased through a minefield with fatal consequences. It’s a disquieting and effective film. So effective, in fact, that it was removed from YouTube within a day despite opening an international dialogue and receiving widespread critical praise.
This selection is brief and by no means definitive. As far as politically charged controversy goes, Erykah Badu’s video for “Window Seat” could just as easily belong in this list. Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” and Sia’s “Elastic Heart” both caused massive controversy upon release (for very different reasons) and who could forget Madonna’s “Like A Prayer“? The takeaway from this is that whether right or wrong, the medium of music video is always pushing boundaries and forcing a lot of uncomfortable, but sometimes necessary, discussion. What one person finds controversial, someone else could find liberating and no matter what, there will always, always be someone in the comments section on any article who thinks they can find a more controversial video.