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Banned in the Middle Kingdom

Now that Lady Gaga's been ungagged, we look at ten musicians still blacklisted in China

Good news for Gaga! After languishing for three years on a government blacklist, Lady Gaga has finally been allowed to release her music in China. ARTPOP, her third studio album, will now come out in the country, albeit with a few modifications. The partially-nude Gaga on the album cover now dons a pair of opaque, censor-approved black tights, and "Sexxx Dreams" has been retitled "X Dreams".

The Chinese Ministry of Culture, which banned six previous Gaga tracks including "Born This Way", has not stated why the gag has been lifted. That's pretty much its M.O.: in China, every song must be submitted for mandatory government screening in order to weed out unsavoury lyrical content, and the government can ban songs at their discretion, periodically issuing updated blacklists of tracks deemed to be morally corrupt, with the official aim being to "protect the country’s youth from ‘poor taste and vulgar content’ online". 

In practice, a thriving trade in illegal downloads means that Chinese music fans can usually get their hands on banned songs, censors or not. Musicians bear the brunt of the damage – an official ban means they don't get an official crack at the market of world's most populous country, and don't see any profits from touring, either. 

Musicians like Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones have famously fallen foul of the censors and have been forced to cut songs from their live sets (if they manage to get into the country at all) – but the Ministry of Culture doesn't just go after trad rock. As this rundown of banned musicians proves, Gaga may have just gotten lucky – let's just say, Jay Z's not going to be big pimpin' with Communist Party officials anytime soon. 

Björk – "Declare Independence"

Björk hasn't toured China since her 2008 performance in Shanghai, when the Icelandic singer capped off a rendition of her song "Declare Independence" by shouting "Tibet" (you can watch the performance here). Suffice to say, the Chinese government is very touchy about anything even linking the word "independence" to Tibet. The Ministry of Culture accused the musician of breaking the law and "hurting Chinese people's feelings" (oops). Two months later, it tightened the regulations allowing foreign musicians to play in the country, saying that those who "threaten national sovereignty" and "whip up ethnic hatred" will be banned from entering. 

Pretty much everything by Jay Z

Hov tried to get into Shanghai for a gig way back in 2006 and was promptly shut down by the Ministry of Culture, which dismissed his music for "vulgar language" and references to drug dealing, pimps, violence and guns – which is basically 98% of everything he's ever recorded, right? This didn't stop a bunch of Beijing expats from filming a Jay Z homage called "Beijing State of Mind" (featuring the dubious rewrite "commie jungle where dreams are made of").  

Backstreet Boys – "I Want It That Way"

Another offender on the Ministry of Culture's blacklist. Despite touring China as part of their 20th anniversary celebrations last year, this number one single from Backstreet Boys still banned in the country. Incidentally, the song also spawned one of China's first viral hit: this (retrospectively, at least) incredibly lo-fi lipsync of the song by two Chinese university students in their dorm. 

Pet Shop Boys – "Legacy" 

The entire album Yes was almost banned based on the political nature of one track, "Legacy", which features the line "Time will pass/ governments fall/ Glaciers melt/ Hurricanes bawl" (emphasis added). The record label eventually reached a compromise by agreeing to issue the track as an instrumental, and the full vocal track is still unavailable for sale in China – legally, at least.

Everything by Miley Cyrus

Remember this moment in Miley's long and affirming relationship with racially questionable acts? The Chinese government did not take kindly to that photo of Miley posing with slant eyes in front of a nonplussed Asian friend. Like, at all. Since then, all music and films made by Miley Cyrus have since been banned from the country.

Beyoncé – "Run the World (Girls)"

Banned for the line "we run this mutha". We can only imagine what Chinese censors make of Beyoncé's new album ("let me sit this a-a-a-a-ass on you"), but given that "I Want It That Way" was released in 1999, we get the feeling they're not too hip to what's in the charts right now. 

Katy Perry – "E.T." and "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)"

It's pretty obvious why "E.T." got banned. Lines like "Imma disrobe you/ Then Imma probe you" (thanks, Kanye) and all of Katy Perry's incredibly off-putting references to being "infected" likely fell foul of the prudish censors. But just maybe, some songs deserve to be banned on account of how unpleasant they are. "Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F)", meanwhile, got the chop for references to threesomes, skinny dipping and other acts of sordid depravity. 

Britney Spears – "Burning Up (Nick Remix)"

There's no clue as to why this relatively obscure, unreleased Britney track (which is itself a cover of an existing Madonna song) was blacklisted. Britney's stage tour was also subject to rigorous censorship – specifically, her costumes – with a report declaring that "relevant departments [would] carry out strict reviews of Britney Spears' performance clothing".


In one of the oddest rationales ever given for banning a band, Kraftwerk has been barred from ever stepping foot in China because of a concert they never even played. The krautrock pioneers were scheduled to play a Free Tibet concert in Washington DC 15 years ago, but never actually picked up their instruments – they pulled out due to bad weather. But, as the Miley ban proves, the government does not forgive and forget. 

Super Junior – "Bonamana" 

Having a Chinese national among one of its founding members (that'll be Hankyung) didn't help K-pop band Super Junior's case – the title track of their fourth album, along with four other tracks, were banned as their label, S.M. Entertainment, had neglected to submit them for official perusal before seeking release. A bit of a PR disaster, considering that the label has been trying to crack the Chinese market with Super Junior-M, essentially a Mandarin version of Super Junior.