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The most controversial tracks of all time

Blood, sex and cocaine – we chart the musical creations that thrilled and disgusted the world

What exactly makes a track “controversial”? Lyrics about sex, drugs or violence? Or the way a track is used afterwards, and the amount of people it manages to offend? Whether something shocks or delights, controversy is dependent on the time, place and cultural landscape that a work of art emerges, and whether it manages to shake existing ideas about what’s acceptable. From N.W.A spitting about shooting cops, to Pussy Riot sticking a middle finger up to the Orthodox Church in Russia, controversy is as old as ideas themselves. Following on from our roundup of controversial music videos we thought we’d take a look back at the tracks that provoked, thrilled and shocked their listeners.

TYLER, THE CREATOR – "TRON CAT" (2011)

I mean… where do we even start? There’s a reason Tyler, the Creator’s 2011 track “Tron Cat” caused people’s jaws to drop. With lyrics like “I fuck bitches with no permission” and “this is the type of shit that make Chris Brown want to kick a whore”, the former Odd Future member makes Robin Thicke look like a strident feminist. The rapper has since been banned from both Australia and the UK, with the latter stating that his presence “would not be conducive to the public good” and that his mentally unstable alter ego glamorises “physical abuse, rape and murder.”

LADY GAGA – "DO WHAT U WANT" (FT. R.KELLY) (2013)

Aside from the fact it's quite catchy, this 2013 track from pop provocateur Lady Gaga caused controversy for all the wrong reasons. If you have a chorus that features the line “do what you want with my body,” it’s probably not a great idea to feature an artist who has been subject to several sexual assault lawsuits. To add to this, the track’s video (which was thankfully never released) was directed by Terry Richardson, a photographer who has been accused of sexually exploiting models. The leaked video shows R.Kelly playing the role of doctor while doing “whatever he wants” while Gaga is passed out on the operating table. Bad ideas all round.

MARILYN MANSON – "GET YOUR GUNN" (1994)

Maybe the Pale Emperor has mellowed out in recent years, or maybe we’ve just got used to him, but back in the 90s he was the king of controversy. Absurdly, his first official single “Get Your Gunn” was blamed by far right America for inspiring the Columbine Massacres, a claim that Manson responded to by saying: “people tend to associate anyone who looks and behaves differently with illegal or immoral activity” and “In my work I examine the America we live in, and I've always tried to show people that the devil we blame our atrocities on is really just each one of us.”

THE PRODIGY – "SMACK MY BITCH UP" (1997)

The reason this 1997 track from The Prodigy caused so much controversy is pretty much there in the title. It wasn’t just the shocking lyrical refrain that raised eyebrows though, but the accompanying music video, which was full of violence, cocaine, vomiting, vandalism and sex. Defending the misogynistic lyrics, the band explained that the track had been misinterpreted and it actually meant “doing anything intensely.” The song was also banned from the BBC, with only a lyric-free version being played on Radio 1.

THE CURE – "KILLING AN ARAB" (1978)

The Cure’s post-punk deep cut “Killing an Arab” has drawn criticism over the years, with some claiming it promotes violence against Arabs. As a result, the track was packaged with a sticker against hateful usage of the song, and was discontinued from being aired on radio. Despite the aggressive title, singer Robert Smith has dismissed racist interpretations and has said that it "was a short poetic attempt at condensing my impression of the key moments in L'Étranger (The Stranger) by Albert Camus.”

NIRVANA – "RAPE ME" (1993)

With its yowling, repetitious chorus of “Rape me! Rape me, my friend!” this 1993 Nirvana track was hardly their most TV-friendly musical creation, and when they began playing it on MTV’s Video Music Awards unannounced, the station were just about to cut it short when they started playing “Lithium” instead. Despite it’s controversial lyrical content, Kurt Cobain was vocal about its anti-rape sentiment, saying: “It's like she's saying, 'Rape me, go ahead, rape me, beat me. You'll never kill me. I'll survive this.”

N.W.A – "FUCK THA POLICE" (1988)

Unlike some of the others on this list, N.W.A’s 1988 track “Fuck Tha Police” is a protest song born out of the very valid anger surrounding police brutality and racial profiling in America, with lyrics like “Without a gun and a badge, what do ya got? A sucker in a uniform waiting to get shot.” The now-iconic track prompted the FBI to contact the band’s record label to express their disapproval, explaining “Advocating violence and assault is wrong and we in the law enforcement community take exception to such action."

PUSSY RIOT – "PUNK PRAYER" (2011)

When lyrics like “crap, crap, this godliness crap!” were blasted through Moscow’s cathedral of Christ the Saviour, punk protest group Pussy Riot were quickly swept up and arrested for hooliganism, with Russian president Vladimir Putin stating that the band had "undermined the moral foundations" of the nation. However, with their pro-LGBT, pro-feminist and anti-establishment message, the band garnered widespread backing outside Russia, with artists like Madonna, Lady Gaga and Björk voicing their support, and calling for their freedom. 

BODY COUNT – "COP KILLER"

This track from Ice-T’s Cali thrash metal band Body Count really, really pissed off America, with President Bush publically denouncing any record company that intended to sell it at the time, and various law enforcement agencies launching campaigns to withdraw the album it appeared on. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Ice-T responded, “Maybe I underestimate my juice, but there's people out there with nuclear bombs, people with armies, and the president has time to sit up and get into it with me?” adding “it's anger with the same force of their hate. It scares them when they see it being kicked back at them.”

ROBIN THICKE – BLURRED LINES (FT. PHARRELL) (2013)

How this track got nominated for a Grammy and an MTV Music Video Award we’ll never know. With lyrics like “You know you want it” and “I’ll give you something big enough to tear your ass in two”, Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” wasn’t just gross but problematic, with many pointing out how it trivialises sexual consent and promotes rape culture. Thicke’s response to the controversy was a little eyebrow-raising: “It's actually a feminist movement within itself,” he said. “It's saying that women and men are equals as animals and as power.” Riiiight.