From N.W.A. to Miley Cyrus, we look back at some tracks that truly stirred the pot.
If we can learn one thing from all these songs, it's that controversy sells.
Despite riling up millions and triggering heated battles across the world, many of these songs were extremely successful in their own rights. While some are anti-police and anti-fascism and others entertain Nazi sympathies and feature drugs and violence, all of these songs managed to rile people up (some more than others) and cemented their place in history.
Some songs are outright expressions of violence; others are vengeful responses to violence, but all unveil some of the darker, more brutal sides of the human mind. Many are stunningly relevant to today's most searing controversies.
Miley Cyrus, "We Can't Stop"
Nowadays, Miley Cyrus is a pretty well-liked figure—she has a number of solid radio-friendly hits (i.e. "Slide Away") and keeps releasing killer covers, and she has a new album coming as well.
But remember when everyone was freaking out because she was talking about popping Molly on "We Can't Stop"? The song is actually a pretty certified bop but back in the day, everyone was horrified by Miley's transformation (which is actually pretty weird in and of itself) from squeaky clean country girl to party girl.
Bruce Springsteen, "American Skin, 41 Shots"
Bruce Springsteen has long been a force for justice (contrary to some Republicans' beliefs), but his song "American Skin (41 Shots)" was a controversial civil rights anthem that is sadly, of course, still incredibly relevant. When Amadou Diallo was killed by New York City police officers, he released this anti-police brutality song. While it was praised by the NAACP, Diallo's mother, and many others, it also created a wave of mass hysteria among people who didn't like Springsteen's anti-police message. (Springsteen later clarified that the song is anti-police-brutality, not anti-police). How little things change.
Body Count, "Cop Killer"
A far more explicitly anti-police song than Springsteen's, "Cop Killer" is—like some other songs on this list—a revenge ballad. With lyrics by Ice T and music by Ernie C, "Cop Killer" is about someone who is against police brutality, according to its writers. It garnered protest from the likes of President George H. W. Bush and many law enforcement agencies, but Ice T defended its release on the basis of free speech. Eventually, the song was withdrawn from stores and the studio version was never re-released.
Guns N Roses, "One In a Million"
In the 80s, Axl Rose wrote a song that is both racist, anti-immigrant, and anti-police. Somehow, it also calls out racists and radicals. It offended everyone, contains a multitude of slurs. The band never really denounced the song, though, and even tried to re-release it on their 2018 reissue of "Appetite for Destruction" until controversy sent it barreling back into the wilderness of the 80s.
Drug abuse, domestic violence and homicidal tendencies are not new territory for Eminem, but "Stan" may be one of his most popular and most graphic creations. As one of the most controversial lyricists of all time, Eminem's lyrics were even referenced in the Supreme Court during a debate about what constitutes an actual threat. "Stan" is a fully murderous song, just one of Eminem's many songs about beating up women.
Sex Pistols, "God Save the Queen"
"There are not many songs written over baked beans at the breakfast table that went on to divide a nation and force a change in popular culture," said Johnny Rotten, but the Sex Pistols' "God Save the Queen"—a short and defiant rock song—sparked instant controversy. When the song was released, it was banned by the BBC, and sparked strong emotions in some people; London Councillor Bernard Brook Partridge called the Sex Pistols "the antithesis of humankind" and said that he wished for their "sudden death."
The anti-monarchy punk song, explosively popular in Britain in the late 70s, was a critique of postcolonial England and a summary of anarchist disillusionment in working-class London at the time. Today, it's a classic protest song, but back then (at least for the queen-loving English upper class) it was the Devil's work.
Loretta Lynn, "The Pill"
In 1975, country musician Loretta Lynn released this ode to birth control. The song is about a woman relieved that she won't have to have more children year after year because she's finally on the pill. Lynn, who had six children before the age of 20, angered many people in the country music scene, and many radio stations banned the song. It also became her highest-charting pop single.
Slayer, "Angel of Death"
Just one of metal's many incredibly controversial contributions to our culture, Slayer's "Angel of Death" made waves because of its particularly graphic subject matter. The song, about a surgeon in a Nazi death camp, caused Columbia Records to pull the album's release in 1986. Today, it's known as one of extreme metal's foundational texts.
N.W.A, "F*** tha Police"
N.W.A.'s 1988 classic Straight Outta Compton featured a lot of gems, but none so iconic as "F*** tha Police." In response, the FBI wrote a disapproving letter to the band's record company. The only radio station to play the song, Australia's radio station Triple J, was banned by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Since then, the song has remained a popular mainstay at anti-police protests. (In 2020, Donald Trump himself shared a fake video of Joe Biden dancing along to "Despacito," which someone had replaced with "F*** tha Police.")
Rage Against the Machine, "Killing in the Name"
Yet another anti-police brutality song (sensing a theme here?), "Killing in the Name" arrived in 1992 and was a response to the riots following the murder of Rodney King. Recently, the song resurfaced when (sensing another theme) Trump supporters played it at a Blue Lives Matter rally, leading Tom Morello to respond.
"Smack My B***h Up," Prodigy
This rather shocking song by Prodigy was voted the most controversial song of all time in a survey conducted by PRS for Music. It depicts a truly unhinged night out in London, featuring domestic violence, drugs, and strippers. Criticized for misogyny and graphic violence, the song was defended by the band who claimed it was about "doing anything intense." Despite (or because of) the controversy, the song was very popular.
The Chicks, "Goodbye Earl"
The Chicks' song "Goodbye Earl" is a revenge ballad about a woman who murders her abusive husband. "It's an anti wife-beater song, not an anti-man song. We love men," insisted singer Natalie Maines. "Earl" was beloved by many fans but widely criticized. The Chicks, no stranger to controversy, would go on to write anti-Bush and anti-Iraq war protest songs that also angered the few country fans who somehow still expected the band to be willing to play nice.