Top 11 Hit Songs That Caused Controversy

Frank MastropoloCategories:Latest NewsTop 11

Rock Cellar Magazine

“Michael Jackson was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It caused quite a controversy, because his nose isn’t eligible for another fifteen years.”

— Conan O’Brien

  1. “This Note’s for You” by Neil Young

Over the years, Neil Young‘s music has incorporated protests against racism (“Southern Man”), religious extremism (“Let’s Roll”) and institutional violence (“Ohio”). In 1988, Young took on artists who allowed their songs to be used in TV commercials. Young believed they were selling out. “The Rolling Stones were sponsored by Jovan perfume, Eric Clapton and Steve Winwood were selling beer, Michael Jackson had been bought by Pepsi for $15 million,” Young said in his authorized biography, Shakey

The title of “This Note’s for You” was inspired by Budweiser’s “This Bud’s for You” ad campaign. Its music video featured parodies of Michelob ads with Clapton and Winwood. A Michael Jackson look-alike has his hair catch fire. The video was banned by MTV, which claimed it received legal threats from Jackson’s attorneys. Young replied in a letter, “MTV, you spineless twerps. You refuse to play ‘This Note’s For You’ because you’re afraid to offend your sponsors. What does the ‘M’ in MTV stand for: music or money? Long live rock and roll.”

MTV relented and broadcast the video, which won “Video of the Year” at the 1989 MTV Awards.

  1. “She Bop” by Cyndi Lauper

“She Bop” is a thinly-veiled celebration of masturbation. Released in 1983, it reached No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, the third hit single from Lauper’s She’s So Unusual LP. In 2021 on the 37th anniversary of the song, Lauper posted on Instagram, “Most people didn’t get what ‘She Bop’ was about until much later, when I went on Dr. Ruth’s radio show. I was playing along with her, making believe I was in a psychiatrist’s office, but then everything I said was blown up later by the press. 

“Suddenly ‘She Bop’ was on the Parents’ Music Resource Center’s Filthy Fifteen list of songs that they said should be banned, like ‘Let Me Put My Love Into You’ by AC/DC. I was so mad, because I had made sure that I never mentioned certain things so that little kids would never know. 

“And then I was found out because of my big mouth. Now every kid knew what it was about, and it wasn’t supposed to be that way. Oh, c’est la vie. That’s French for ‘whatever.’ Anyway, happy 37 to my scandalous song!”

  1. “Give Ireland Back to the Irish” by Wings

Jan. 30, 1972 is known as Bloody Sunday, the day British soldiers shot 26 unarmed protesters in Derry, Northern Ireland, killing 13. It would be three decades before Britain and Northern Ireland reached some measure of peace after centuries of political and religious conflict.

On the day following the shootings, Paul McCartney wrote “Give Ireland Back to the Irish” as a protest. “From our point of view, it was the first time people questioned what we were doing in Ireland,” McCartney wrote in his 2002 memoir Wingspan. “It was so shocking. I wrote ‘Give Ireland Back to the Irish,’ we recorded it and I was promptly phoned by the Chairman of EMI, Sir Joseph Lockwood, explaining that they wouldn’t release it. He thought it was too inflammatory. I told him that I felt strongly about it and they had to release it. He said, ‘Well, it’ll be banned,’ and of course it was. I knew ‘Give Ireland Back to the Irish’ wasn’t an easy route, but it just seemed to me to be the time.”

Despite being banned from broadcast by the BBC and other companies, the song reached No. 16 in the UK and No. 21 in America. McCartney told ABC News, “On this one occasion I think the British government overstepped the mark and showed themselves to be more of a sort of oppressive regime than I ever believed them to be.”

  1. “Spasticus Autisticus” by Ian Dury & the Blockheads

The United Nations designated 1981 as the International Year of Disabled Persons. Ian Dury was commissioned to write a song for the event as he was disabled himself due to childhood polio. Dury felt the event was patronizing to disabled people and, as someone often asked to join charitable causes, decided to write an “anti-charity” song. “Oh, I see, so in 1982, we’ll all be all right!,” Dury said in Ian Dury: The Definitive Biography.

Dury and Blockheads’ keyboardist Chaz Jankel wrote “Spasticus Autisticus,” a song so provocative that they were sure it would be banned by the BBC. Lyrics like, “I widdle when I piddle / ‘Cos my middle is a riddle / So place your hard-earned peanuts in my tin / And thank the Creator you’re not in the state I’m in” ensured that Dury was right.

The ban had a lasting effect on Dury’s career as a singles artist. Although he previously had Top 10 hits in the UK with songs like “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick” and “Reasons to Be Cheerful, Part 3,” he never had a hit single after “Spasticus Autisticus.” 

  1. “Relax” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood

“Relax” by new wave band Frankie Goes to Hollywood became a Top 10 hit in the US in 1985. The song’s theme of homosexuality and sexual innuendo did not cause much of a stir in the US but it became one of the most controversial songs in the UK in the 1980s. Singers Holly Johnson’s and Paul Rutherford’s open homosexuality in the song’s marketing and music video increased the uproar.

Lyrics like “Relax, don’t do it / When you want to come” caused the song to be banned by BBC Radio; DJ Mike Read declared the song “obscene” and refused to play it in an on-air rant. Despite the ban, “Relax” was a No. 1 hit in Britain in 1984.

Johnson said that he came up with the idea for the tune while walking in Liverpool. “They were just, you know, words that floated into my head one day when I was walking down Princess Avenue with no bus fare, trying to get to rehearsals — I mean there was no great sort of calculated, ‘Oh I’ll sing these words and this record’ll be banned.'”

  1. “Beds Are Burning” by Midnight Oil

“Beds Are Burning” was written by Australia’s Midnight Oil to bring attention to the plight of that country’s Aboriginal communities. Europeans first came to Australia in the 1600s and killed and stole the land of the indigenous people who had lived there for tens of thousands of years.

Midnight Oil became aware of the crisis while touring throughout the Australian desert. They learned that the phrase originated in Italy during World War II when partisans who opposed Mussolini’s reign asked, “How could you sleep when beds are burning?”

“I thought we could write a song about the same idea of an ancient Australian community who had so much thrown at it,” said drummer Rob Hirst in Songwriting Magazine,“but was still joyfully dancing in the desert, singing their songs and pushing back against all the shocking things that had been visited upon them ever since Europeans had arrived in this country.”

“Beds Are Burning” was released in 1987 and became an international hit. Controversy arose months later during Australia’s bicentennial celebrations, which started as a celebration of the freed British convicts who created so much suffering for the Aborigines. Its lyric demanded the country “Belongs to them / Let’s give It back.”

“We would be getting above ourselves to think that the song had made a difference,” said Hirst in 2019. “The truth is, in many respects some of those problems I mentioned earlier still exist and, in some places, it’s worse.”

  1. “I Want Your Sex” by George Michael

George Michael released “I Want Your Sex” in 1987 as the AIDS epidemic swept the world. Critics believed the song promoted promiscuity at the worst possible time. The BBC restricted airplay to the evening hours and many radio stations in the US refused to play the song. “I expected the BBC to ban it,” Michael admitted on his website. “I became the antichrist for a couple of weeks.”

Michael’s popularity caused the BBC to eventually relent, and the song eventually reached No. 3 in the UK and No. 2 in the US. Michael maintained that the song was about sex with only one person. He responded to the controversy in a statement: “The media has divided love and sex incredibly. The emphasis of the AIDS campaign has been on safe sex, but the campaign has missed relationships. It’s missed emotion. It’s missed monogamy. ‘I Want Your Sex’ is about attaching lust to love, not just to strangers.”

  1. “Lola” by the Kinks

The Kinks’ 1970 Top 10 hit “Lola” and its story of a transvestite affair paved the way for the glam rock era that followed. Ray Davies told the New York Times  that the song was inspired by an incident at the Castille Club in Paris. “One of our crew at the time met this beautiful blonde and he took her back to the hotel. In the morning, he saw the stubble growing on her chin. So, he got a surprise!

“Before he passed away, Lou Reed told me that ‘Lola’ was a big influence on him. It was reassuring to him when he did ‘Walk on the Wild Side.'”

The song’s title came from Davies’ baby daughter Victoria. “I had a one-year-old child at the time,” Davies said. “She was crawling around singing ‘la la, la la Lola.’ I thought, ‘If she can join in and sing, Kinks fans can do it.'”

The BBC, notorious for banning sexual content, somehow missed the meaning of “Lola” but wouldn’t permit a brand name to be used in the line, “you drink champagne and it tastes just like Coca-Cola.” Davies dubbed in “cherry cola” for the British release; the US version remained unchanged. 

  1. “Papa Don’t Preach” by Madonna

Madonna‘s 1986 No. 1 hit, “Papa Don’t Preach,” tackles the subject of teen pregnancy. Its lyrics describe a conversation between her and her father, whom she tells, “Papa don’t preach, I’ve been losing sleep / But I made up my mind, I’m keeping my baby.”

“‘Papa Don’t Preach’ is a message song that everyone is going to take the wrong way,” Madonna told the New York Times shortly before its release. “Immediately they’re going to say I am advising every young girl to go out and get pregnant.” 

She was right. Women’s organizations and family planning groups like Planned Parenthood thought Madonna was encouraging teen pregnancy. Groups opposed to abortion like Feminists for Life in America applauded its anti-abortion view. When Pope John Paul II urged Italian fans to boycott Madonna’s 1987 world tour, the singer dedicated the song to him.

Madonna told Rolling Stone  that the song “just fit right in with my own personal zeitgeist of standing up to male authorities, whether it’s the pope, or the Catholic Church or my father and his conservative, patriarchal ways.”

  1. “God Save the Queen” by the Sex Pistols

Queen Elizabeth II celebrated her Platinum Jubilee in June 2022, marking 70 years on the throne. To coincide with the parties and parades, the Sex Pistols re-released their 1977 single “God Save the Queen.”

Originally called “No Future,” the song was first released by the punk rockers at a time when the UK was racked with unemployment and social unrest, especially among its youth. It opens with “God save the Queen. A fascist regime” and continues, “She ain’t no human being.” The band performed the song on a boat sailing down the Thames during the 1977 Jubilee Day festivities; they were promptly arrested when they docked. 

The BBC and commercial radio stations banned the song, which still rose to No. 2 on the UK charts. Singer John “Johnny Rotten” Lydon told  that the song was not a personal attack. “I wrote a record. It wasn’t about a specific moment in time or history — I wrote a record about a subject matter that mattered to me, in a personal way, and then all this situation enveloped and unfolded. I never did it as an act of spite against the Jubilee. I don’t think that’s been quite completely understood.”

  1. “American Skin (41 Shots)” by Bruce Springsteen

Amadou Diallo, a black immigrant from Guinea, was shot to death in 1999 by four white police officers in front of his apartment in the Bronx. Diallo, who was unarmed, was reaching for his wallet as identification. The NYPD officers testified that they thought he was reaching for a gun and fired 41 shots, killing Diallo. The officers were cleared of all charges.

Bruce Springsteen, never afraid to address social issues, first performed “American Skin (41 Shots)” at a 2000 Atlanta concert. Reaction was swift in New York, where Police Commissioner Howard Safir and Patrick Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, suggested cops boycott Springsteen’s nine-night residency at Madison Square Garden.

“Though the song was critical, it was not ‘anti-police’ as some thought,” Springsteen wrote in his 2001 lyric collection, Songs. “The first voice you hear after the intro is from the policeman’s point of view.

“I worked hard for a balanced voice. I knew a diatribe would do no good. I just wanted to help people see the other guy’s point of view.”


Mastropolo is the author of Fillmore East: The Venue That Changed Rock Music Forever and the What’s Your Rock IQ? Trivia Quiz Book series.

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