Too Taboo or Not Too Taboo, that is the question?
Everyone knows that diamonds are created by extreme pressure, the same can be said for great music and art. Let’s face it, it’s no coincidence that some of the most interesting and exciting creative movements have sprung from the depths of extreme socio-political climates. This is because, of course, the creative arts act as an outlet or weapon for those who are impacted by societal pressures such as economic struggle, systematic oppression, and governmental failures etc. It’s an opportunity for the “underdog” to express their experience with social commentary and fight the systems which repress them.
For generations this has been encapsulated by subcultures that create their own social norms and values that, although sometimes include generic social morality, often push for justice away from contemporary, established ones. Often, this creative expression did not go untouched by movements have been archived by the production of music and fashion, and since have not been forgotten. In fact, we can even now see correlations with these trends reoccurring in a circular motion of self-expression: with more millennials ascribing to generation X concerns daily.
Today reader we will be looking at some of the most controversial tracks of all time and asking the question whether a listen with modern day ears still determines them too taboo… or not too taboo.
In no order….
- Sex Pistols – ‘God Save the Queen’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yqrAPOZxgzU
An obvious starting point of course. Always up for causing a stir for the priggish persons of 70s Britain and a party in the pants for the punks, were the squatting scandals the Sex Pistols. Taking her majesty’s name in vain, the foursome released the single to coincide with the Queen’s silver jubilee in the summer of ’77, the year that marked the outbreak of punk. With provocative lyrics and single sleeve that sent the mass media outlets into a witch-hunt, that determined anyone not complicit with the norm an anarchist and subsequently banned from the airwaves (or at least censored).
This track was not an exception to this witch-crazed rule and was quickly banned by the BBC as a gross misappropriation of the national anthem. Treated as an attack on esteemed institutions, with lyrics like “God save the queen/She’s not a human being” and “our figurehead/Is not what she seems”, there were even speculations that the BBC had rigged the charts to prevent the song becoming no.1 in the official top hits.
However, while they may have been ironically plastered in the Union Jack and slagging off the matriarchy in claiming that Britain was run by a fascist regime which made its citizens morons (with a rolling r) they weren’t doing it because they hated the UK. Instead it was an outcry of a generation who were suffering at the hands of their predecessors and the establishment who got them there. Angry and seemingly fearful of not having any future, you can forget the sigh of the oppressed being – the Sex Pistols were the embodiment of tory fears, the poison in their human machine that everyone perceived them to be and they were mad about it.
While this track caused a plethora of controversy at the time, fast forward a few decades and it saw re-release in 2012 and even used in the opening ceremony of the Olympics. There’s a delightful irony in their notoriety and rise to rock n’ roll royalty, that sees them inspiring many artists to thereafter.
- Dead Kennedy’s – ‘Too Drunk To Fuck’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uJ7pgElCPXESpeaking of which, the Dead Kennedy’s are next on this list with a big fat f-bomb that got them fouled from the airwaves. With heavy hooks and speed driven beats, the Dead Kennedy’s were just as controversial as their name assumed. Taking inspo from the make-shift stylings of fellow late 70’s punk bands such as Sex Pistols, The Damned and Misfits, the track is a raw self-expression of a “waster” identity expected from teens who coat themselves in leather and safety pins taking the name of national treasures in vain for the sake of a darkly humorous pastiche.
Although it’s not too surprising, even now, that they weren’t allowed to play on radio with such swears, the track was also considered controversial due to its “glorification” of casual binge drinking. However, while the song maybe describing a scenario that not all of us would be so proudly singing about, fact of the matter is the lyrics (most likely) mirror situations that many of its listeners have been in: going to a party, getting so wasted that your soft and gooey, unable to get carnal despite sexual urges. The song says, “yeah I’ve been there, so what?!” Clearly national media outlets didn’t appreciate their honesty.
Today however, the f word isn’t uncommon in music and in many cases its cleverly censored out to make it “radio friendly”. Secondly, the binge drinking motif goes an unnoticed part of popular music and in most cases encourages individuals to drink – look at artists such as Drake, Dj Khaled, or Kanye who all approve and encourage drinking on mainstream media through pop and hip-hop music and which the public subsequently passively consuming on a regular basis. It’s clear that this isn’t so much of an issue anymore, and quite frankly the Dead Kennedy’s should be celebrated for their open vulnerability.
8.The Kinks – ‘Lola’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LemG0cvc4oU
Yes, that’s right the classic song ‘Lola’ by The Kinks is another one on our controversial list. Released in 1970, the song is known for breaking down sexual taboos with a story of man who gets off with Lola – someone who “walked like a woman but talked like a man”. Fully embracing the freedom to express your sexuality, the song celebrates individual’s like Lola who can transcend the oppressive boundaries of “a mixed-up, muddled-up, shook-up world”.
However, despite being full of controversial innuendos (e.g. “I got down on my knees
I looked at her, and she at me/ Well that’s the way that I want it to stay/ And I always want it to be that way for my Lola”) it wasn’t this that got them in trouble the BBC… it was their use of “Coca-Cola” that almost halter the release of the song all together.
If it hadn’t been for a rushed rerecord the track wouldn’t have been such a success or half as important for the breakdown of taboo surrounding the rights of LGB+ groups. Now the track is played without a blink of an eyelid, male or female or both or none of the above.
- The Shangri-Las – Leader of the Pack https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q8UKf65NOzM
A random one from the wouldn’t-hurt-a-fly foursome The Shangri-Las but an important hit none the less. Released in 1964, the girls’ track about the sad death of the biker after an argument with his was too a member the too taboo club and banned from airplay in the UK thanks again to the kill joying fists of the BBC. This was because it was feared that the track would encourage violence between mods and rockers – a real subcultural schism of the time. The ban of the song was lifted in 1972 by which it had already reached 3rdin the charts.
Since, the track has been considered one of the best songs in girl group herstory. Listening with modern ears it’s hard to see how it could have ever been a cause of controversy: with bubble-gum sweet vocals and an unconventional sop story about teenage star-crossed lovers. While the songcertainly has a dark ending full of harrowing “look outs” and the screeching of tires, really there’s more vividly abrasive images to be found on shavings from the mass media than this so called “controversial hit”.
- Loretta Lynn – ‘The Pill’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5DcdONaKSQM
Classic country star Loretta Lynn is next with her version of ‘The Pill’. Recorded in 1972 but officially released in 1975, the country-western hit takes a celebratory stance regarding the pill – which despite being an allowed contraceptive since the FDA approved it in 1960 was still an illicit subject of conversation and its use was frequently challenged.
In Loretta’s usual country twang, she narrates the experience of a wife telling her husband how free this form of birth control makes her sexually, suggesting that the pill enables her to enjoy their material relations just as much as he does. Through her lyricism she inspires women to take control over their sexuality and reject archetypal expectations of women to be complicit to their biological function. With lines like “All these years I’ve stayed at home while you had all your fun, and all the years that gone by another baby’s come” she tells her husband enough is enough and that “This old maternity dress I’ve got is going in the garbage” because, as she claimed “feeling good comes easy now, now I’ve got the pill”.
It was this notion that caused such an outrage in the American country music scene that saw the song banned from several radio stations, and even denounced by preachers across the state. It’s clear that this backlash sprung from a woman informing her husband that she was no longer taking the sexually-unsatisfied backseat because it was perceived as a hit about a woman taking the pill so that she can be promiscuous. While this shouldn’t be an issue if it was the case, it simply wasn’t a true understanding of what the song was trying to suggest. What this narrowminded perception of the song did was project moral fears around female promiscuity – the whore archetype – onto a woman’s desire to take pleasure in having sex with a sexual partner. In an interview with People magazine in 1975 Lynn claimed that she didn’t understand why her song was banned because ““it’s a husband and wife, not two unmarried people, so that’s not dirty.”
Despite the track being hard to swallow, for some, it was her biggest hit on record at the time, and now is considered to have had a more an influential effect on the lives of women in rural America for the better in the way of keeping themselves protected sexually. This progression is most obviously displayed in open discussion women now have about the pill and its accessibility as an over the counter contraceptive. Moreover, as the female liberation front still hasn’t left the music scene, we see bands like Childbirth, Chastity Belt, Pussy Riot, Dream Wife and many more still pioneering the fight to bring female sexuality into the mainstream – however thankfully in this day and age these ladies who openly embrace female sensuality can do so with a little less fear of retaliation or censorship from mass media outlets.
- The Prodigy – Smack My Bitch Up
One from more recent times, and by that I mainly mean not from the 1970s, is from the British rave group The Prodigy. Known for making music that immerses you into a world of laser beams, perfuse sweating and enlarged pupils by only touching the tip of your ear drums, ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ is no less potent than their other tracks. However, what made it such a taboo was it’s hard to take with a pinch of salt lyrism and problematic visuals that came with it. With a song that suggested smacking someone’s bitch up it comes as no surprise that the track was considered misogynistic and a sanctioning of domestic abuse. Paired with a video that gives its viewer first person perspective of a night full of shots, shags and smack, it’s kind of unsurprising that MTV put a stop to the uncut version being aired while people were eating their tea.
However, while this all maybe true the prodigy are of course legends in the techno scene, are admired for the ability to push social boundaries with sardonic rave. In fact, the video (when taken with a bucket of salt) shows just how repulsive it is to mistreat your own body and the body of others is, and with the big surprise ending in the music video that the debauchery was all enacted by a woman(!) it’s hard not to see how the song’s release wasn’t to be taken so literally. Jumping into the rave scene now, the track is still considered a master piece and frequently found flooding the dancefloors of the techno scene with no such qualms surrounding the songs intentions.
- N.W.A – ‘Fuck tha Police’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9jOqOlETcRU
An 80’s hip-hop track now that caused uproar due to its outspoken attack on the status quo that allowed for police to brutally victimise working class black men. Attacking legal authorities such as this and in this way was pretty much unheard of, while you had tracks like ‘Guns of Brixton’ by The Clash in the UK and ‘The Death of Emmett Till’ by Bob Dylan in the early 60s, N.W.A were as cut throat with the rap as the police were to low income members of society.
Opening the track with the line “N.W.A vs the police department”, the hip-hop group made their intentions clear – they were going to bring down a superstructure which determines that “the police have the authority to kill a minority” with one song. In their anger and protest they claimed violence against violence was seemingly the only method of achieving this, ultimately suggesting that there was “gonna be a blood bath of cops” in order to put an end to the prejudice against individuals “who got it bad cos [they’re] brown”.
Originally released in 1988, the track not only attracted the attention of the LAPD but eventually became the responsibility of the Secret Service. Banned from the airwaves, N.W.A were also consistently condemned by authority figures and in 1989 the Compton hip-hop group were contacted by assistant director of the bureau’s office of public affairs who told them that “Advocating violence and assault is wrong, and we in the law enforcement community take exception to such action”. Milt Ahlerich then continues to tell the young rappers that “music plays a significant role in society” and that the views he expressed in the letter “reflect the opinions of the entire law enforcement community”. While this doesn’t seem like much of an effort to shut the band down, the fact of the matter is at this point the FBI were involved in the creative arts and were attempting to influence the work of these young artists. However, this didn’t stop the song from being a popular protest song, rather it has a timeless factor which is able to empower any minority oppressed by a larger force. This song, as well as similar ones that were to follow (e.g. KRS-One ‘Sound of Da Police’), continues to be used by rebel groups as well as in clubs to get people moving – far from the shunning it received in its early life.
- Rage Against the Machine – ‘Killing in the Name’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bWXazVhlyxQ
Along similar lines to the previous track, ‘Killing in the Name’ is another protest piece. Written during a time of civil unrest, the song embodied the rage felt by American citizen’s after footage of brutal beating of Rodney King by four LAPD officers in 1991 was exposed by news channels across the country. Taking up arms with heavy metal motifs and integrating them with the aggression of rapping vocals, and with lyrics that tell its listener that “Those who died are justified, for wearing the badge, they’re the chosen whites” it’s obvious that the controversy of the track was not only made by outrage but was made tooutrage also.
With claims that “some of those who work forces are the same that burn crosses” and using “fuck you” a countable 16 times, the song faced a radio ban across major radio stations and MTV. In the UK however, the song was a hit in 1993 reaching no.2 in the charts and even had the uncensored version played on Radio 1 (although in saying this, it was all very accidental).
Despite the songs controversial nature and incite for riots against institutional racism and oppression, the song saw a resurgence of popularity in 2009 when a campaign was launched to get Rage Against the Machine to make it the UK’s Christmas no.1. To which it did, no less, and subverted the norm by knocking off the X factor winning single right of its musical pedestal. Both shocking and powerful, the track promotes peace through riotous rejection of the system that causes mass suppression – there hasn’t been a song like it since.
- Raped – ‘Raped’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tazYP8cCY2M
Forget Nirvana’s ‘Rape Me’ and the controversy that caused and say hello to brutal and subversively sexual punk foursome Raped. In efforts to make a name for themselves on the London scene in 1977, while being as perverse as possible, they released their first E.P. titled Pretty Paedophile.Each song on the four-song track-list explores a taboo of sorts to evoke rebellion against the norm, just look at the song titled ‘Babysitter’ which tells a story about being attracted to teens. ‘Raped’ is no exception to the exploration of illicit sexual acts and finds frontman Faebhean Kwest asking his listen to rape him over and over making up most of the lyrics for of this 1.22-minute track.
This wasn’t the only thing that made them controversial, these boys were also known on the scene for the outrageous stage performances that aimed to shock their audiences with overtly homosexual behaviour at gigs. Playing around with gender norms in an extreme way, the band were known as the “gay band” (according to an article by Tony Drayton in a Ripped and Torn issue) and had been described by the mass media as needing to be arrested for their behaviour.
Arguably this market the band were trying to tap into didn’t work for them, and in 1979 they rebranded themselves and changed their name to the less far less subversive: Cuddly Toys. They became less punk and more glam with their styling, and covered a song written by Marc Bolan and David Bowie which sold on a global scale. Nowadays both bands would seemingly be a success I reckon, given such controversial lyrics and styling are very much in present with bands such Viagra Boys and Sleaford Mods.
- G.G. Allin – ‘Bite it you Scum’ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=99KkbFjZR20
One of music’s most unbelievably controversial characters G.G. Allin, who even nowadays would probably be considered as dangerous as he was in the 80s. Paving the way for the poop punk stage movement, G.G. was infamous for smearing his own excrement on his body during performances, masturbating on stage alongside various grotesque acts. Using the ideal that he was opening people to the real world, his music was attacking and rebellious in the most extreme way you can think.
‘Bite it you Scum’ comes from his album Hated in the Nation, which is perhaps the most accurate description of his musical career that you can get, is tame in comparison to his insane performance stunts. The track is full of anarchistic hate towards anyone who opposes his own beliefs, with lyrics like “bite it you scum, here I come, bite it you scum, to taste your [blank]” – you get the picture, the guy was fucking nuts. Although punk mentality against the man is usually praised for its revolutionary work, in the case of G.G. he perhaps took it too far with claims that he was going to commit suicide on stage, and sexually assaulting women publicly at performances.
However, in saying this, it’s hard not to see that G.G.’s reign of shit is still continued today. With South London bands like Fat White Family, Cabbage, Warmduscher, we see a reincarnation of the similar debauchery that G.G paved the way for, normalising it if you will. Arguably, the more you see someone play with abject fluids the less repulsed you become. Moreover, the use of such shocking tools as your own excrement or genitalia on stage brings to question: is the confrontation with the abject on stage a necessary evil to be controversial/ be an extreme artist? Or has it perhaps gone the other way, whereby playing around with yourself on stage is now way too try-hard?
Words byAimee Williams-Maynard