Music has often been a source of controversy in modern society. Attempts have been made to censor and destroy music that has been deemed offensive and inappropriate. Here, I have assembled ten of the most controversial pieces of music ever released. I have chosen them based on two criteria: if they were revolutionary pieces of music that challenged established norms and created great discord in the musical community and if they created moral panics that led to cries for censorship. I have arranged them chronologically from when they were first released or performed in their entirety.
Entire Work Premiered on July 26, 1882
Richard Wagner had revolutionized classical music in the late 19th century with such masterpieces as Tristan und Isolde and his four-opera cycle Der Ring des Nibelungen. His last completed opera was Parsifal, a composition that was twenty-five years in the making. It was based on two primary stories. The first was Parzival, a 13th century epic poem by Wolfram von Eschenbach that detailed Percival, a medieval Arthurian knight, and his quest for the Holy Grail. The second was Chrétien de Troyes’ Perceval, the Story of the Grail, the earliest recorded account of a Quest for the Holy Grail.
Wagner, an outspoken and vehement anti-Semite, has long been one of the most controversial figures in classic music. He once wrote that he, “regard[ed] the Jewish race as the born enemy of pure humanity and everything noble about it.” His opera Parsifal has been interpreted by many as promoting racism and anti-Semitism. One of the biggest points of contention surrounding Parsifal is the fact that the titular character, an essentially Aryan hero, overcomes the wiles and challenges put forth by Klingsor, a magician, who is interpreted as a Jewish stereotype. Another source of great tension is that Wagner refused to allow Parsifal to be conducted by a Jew. He even went so far as to write to King Ludwig, the sponsor of the production, to protest the decision to let Hermann Levi, the court conductor of the Munich Opera, conduct Parsifal at its premiere. Many critics have argued against the idea that Wagner deliberately placed racist material in Parsifal. But considering Wagner’s personal beliefs and the unfortunate character of Klingsor, the debate concerning Parsifal may never be concluded.
9. Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rite of Spring)
Premiered on May 29, 1913
One of the most influential and controversial ballets in history, Igor Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps broke the rules of classical music with wild abandon. Clocking in at only 33 minutes, the ballet is a reconstruction of a pagan ritual from ancient Russia wherein a sacrificial virgin dances herself to death in order for spring to arrive. Both the music and the dancing were revolutionary. The music made extensive use of complex rhythmic structures, dissonance, and bizarre instrumentation. The ballet, choreographed by the legendary Vaslav Nijinsky, defied established norms by featuring jerky, abrupt body movements that were in direct contradiction to the graceful and elegant form of traditional ballet.
Entire books have been written on how the music and choreography of Le Sacre du Printemps revolutionized classical music and dance. But that doesn’t mean that it was well-received upon its release. The music and dancing were too violent, too raw, and too startling for the refined tastes of the musical elite. When Le Sacre du Printemps premiered, the world simply wasn’t ready for it. It’s debut on May 29, 1913 at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in Paris literally resulted in a riot. Within minutes of the start of the performance, members of the audience began to boo. There were some among the audience who supported Stravinsky and his new ballet. The two camps literally began to brawl in the theater while the ballet continued. The police had to be called to control the fighting. By the time the second half began, the police were unable to control the rioting. The noise from the audience was so loud that the dancers were unable to hear their cues. Nijinsky literally had to stand at the edge of the stage and yell the cues to the dancers. The response to the performance was so violent that Stravinsky fled from the theater before it finished. While in recent years Le Sacre du Printemps has rightly been hailed as a masterpiece, it will forever go down in history as one of the most controversial pieces of classical music ever written.
8. Strange Fruit
Released in 1939
“Strange Fruit” is one of the most famous jazz standards of all time, thanks in no small part to the famous version performed by Billie Holiday. A haunting song, “Strange Fruit” examines racism in the American South. In particular, it references the practice of lynching African Americans, likening them to “strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.” Originally a poem by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish teacher from the Bronx, it was possibly inspired after he viewed the 1930 photo of Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith’s lynching in Marion, Indiana. Once published, the poem was set to music and became a successful protest song in New York.
“Strange Fruit” was groundbreaking for its vivid use of imagery and its recognition and condemnation of racism. However, many feared retaliation from listeners in the South. But the biggest opposition to the song would not come from racists, but from anti-Communists. Abel Meeropel was a member of the American Communist Party and was the adoptive father of the sons of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the couple executed for treason in 1953 for allegedly giving the Soviet Union the secrets to the atomic bomb. In 1941, Meeropol was grilled by the anti-Communist Rapp-Coudert committee about whether or not Strange Fruit had been commissioned by Communists. After the Communist examinations, Strange Fruit was virtually banned from the radio. Many clubs refused to allow the song to be performed. Even though it wasn’t one of the first protest songs against segregation and racial violence, it is easily one of the best.
Premiered on August 29, 1952
4’33” is a three movement experimental composition by American composer John Cage. The entire piece comes in at four minutes and thirty-three seconds. The score instructs the performer to not play their designated instrument during the length of the performance. Cage claimed that the point of the piece is that the audience is supposed to listen to the sounds of their environment during the performance. Effectively, the audience and their surroundings become the instrument.
4’33’’ has long been the subject of one of music’s fiercest debates: is the composition actually music? Many argue that a lack of music is not in itself music. However, others combat this argument by saying that it pushes the boundaries of what music can be. Since it is performed in a structured format (each of the three movements is of a specific length) and its performance is predetermined by both the musicians and the audience, it can be argued that it is indeed a musical composition. Still, the piece is highly controversial and is the subject of scholarly debate over fifty years after its premiere.
6. “Louie Louie”
Originally Written and Released by Richard Berry
Covered by The Kingsmen
Released in May 1963
The song Louie Louie was originally written by Richard Berry in 1955. It has gone on to become a famous rock song that has been covered by numerous artists. The most famous version was released in 1963 by The Kingsmen. During the recording of their cover, they famously mixed up the rhythm of the song, giving it its famous 1-2-3, 1-2, 1-2-3 beat that has entered the popular consciousness. Their version is also famous for their almost completely unintelligible lyrics.
Ironically, the unintelligible lyrics that helped to popularize The Kingsmen’s version of the song also made it the subject of great controversy. Rumors began to surface that the song’s lyrics were really about graphic sex and profanity and were slurred so that nobody could understand their true meaning. These rumors led to many radio stations banning the song. In Indiana, the song was personally prohibited by none other than the Governor Matthew Welsh. The controversy surrounding Louie Louie reached its zenith when the FBI conducted a 31-month investigation of the song in an effort to decode its lyrics. Incredibly, at the end of their two-and-a-half year investigation, the FBI were not able to decode ANY of the song’s lyrics. This was a primary example of the fear of rock and roll and the counter-culture from conservatives that was arising in the early 60s. It was effectively one of the first efforts to censor rock and roll.
5. “God Save the Queen”
The Sex Pistols
Released as a Single on May 27, 1977
Featured as the second single from The Sex Pistols’ only album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, “God Save the Queen” was one of the most famous punk songs in history. The title was taken from the national anthem of the United Kingdom, “God Save the Queen.” The song itself is a vicious attack of the British monarchy, calling it a “fascist regime.” The song reached number 2 on the official UK Singles Chart used by the British Broadcasting Corporation. It has gone on to be one of the most famous songs in rock history.
Released the same year at the Silver Jubilee of Elizabeth II, “God Save the Queen” shocked society to its core. It became a Punk anthem for British youth. The song was banned by the BBC and the Independent Broadcasting Authority which regulated Independent Local Radio. This latter association essentially made it impossible for the song to gain additional media exposure. As previously mentioned, the song reached number 2 on the UK Singles Chart. However, there have been wide accusations that the charts had been fixed in order to prevent the song from reaching number one. In addition, members of The Sex Pistols were assaulted by supporters of the British monarchy a month after its release. While much of the controversy and outrage concerning this song has died down in recent years, it still remains a milestone of British counter-culture.
4. “Darling Nikki”
Released on Purple Rain on June 25, 1984
Originally released on Prince’s Purple Rain, ‘Darling Nikki” is a rock song about a “sex fiend” named Nikki who confronts the singer in a hotel lobby and seduces him.
The song, which depicts graphic sexual imagery with its lyrics (I met her in a hotel lobby/masturbating with a magazine) resulted in an uproar. The controversy raised by “Darling Nikki” was a major factor in the foundation of the Parents Music Resource Center by Tipper Gore in 1985. The PMRC, led by Gore, argued that such music was leading to moral decay and the destruction of the nuclear family in America. They compiled a list of 15 songs that they believed to be the most morally objectionable. This list, which came to be known as the “Filthy Fifteen,” was topped by “Darling Nikki.” Due to the efforts of Gore and the PMRC, the music industry began to use “Parental Advisory” stickers on album covers.
3. “Dear God”
Released as a Single on June 1, 1987
Dear God is a song released by New Wave band XTC in the late 80s. The song features vocals from eight-year-old Jasmine Veillete, a friend of producer Todd Rundgren. The lyrics are directly addressed to God and accuse him for causing human suffering. Each verse ends with “I can’t believe in you.” The song reached #37 on the Billboard Album Rock Chart and #99 on the UK Singles Chart. XTC lead singer Andy Partridge was inspired to write the song after reading a series of books by the same title which he believed was a form of child exploitation.
Naturally, with such lyrics, Dear God caused widespread outrage and anger from conservative sectors of society. Many record stores refused to carry the single and many radio stations, particularly in the US, wouldn’t play it. One Florida radio station that played the song in 1987 received a threat that it would be firebombed. But one of the biggest sources of controversy about Dear God came from an incident in Binghampton, NY. 18 year old Gary Pullis held the school secretary at knife point in the principal’s office and demanded that the song be played over the intercom system. Pullis was later arrested.
2. “F**k tha Police”
Released on Straight Outta Compton on August 8, 1988
F**k tha Police is a protest song by N.W.A., a hardcore gangsta rap group. The song protests police brutality and racism on the part of white cops towards black people. The song sprung from an environment rife with tension between the police and urban youth, particularly after such incidents as the police assault of Rodney King and the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Although it was never released as a single, it became one of N.W.A.’s most famous songs, ranking #416 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
“F**k tha Police” quickly became one of the most famous gangsta rap songs in history after its release. Due to its inflammatory and extremely graphic lyrics (which in some cases advocate violence towards the police) it was subjected to an incredible amount of controversy. N.W.A. was banned from performing at many venues. In addition, it also drew the ire of many law enforcement agencies. Both the FBI and the US Secret Service sent letters to N.W.A.’s record label, Ruthless Records, expressing their displeasure with the song. In addition, the song has been criticized by some as a source of real life violence towards the police.
Released on The Marshall Mathers LP on May 23, 2000
Eminem’s Kim is a haunting and disturbing six minute explosion of anger and hatred leveled towards his ex-wife Kim Mathers. The song samples “When the Levee Breaks” by Led Zeppelin and features an additional piano riff playing over it. Kim is told from the point of view of Eminem as he tortures and murders Kim after killing her husband and young child. The song famously ends with the sound of Eminem cutting her throat, yelling “Bleed, Bitch! Bleed,” and dragging her body into the trunk of a car.
The song “Kim” was one of the most reviled, hated, and celebrated rap songs in history. It was condemned by politicians and parents for its graphic language and depiction of domestic abuse. Released a little over a year after the Columbine High School Massacre, the song was censored upon release due to its reference to Eminem killing a four year old boy. The song also landed Eminem in court after the real-life Kim attempted suicide after watching the song performed in Detroit on July 7, 2000.