13 of the Most Controversial Music Videos Ever

From Kanye West to Madonna, these gory and graphic clips got people talking — for better or for worse.

Photo by Gordon Cowie on Unsplash

Music videos are a perfect opportunity to expand the story of a song.

The best music videos can showcase killer choreography, Halloween-ready attire, or movie levels of cinematic gold; others can spark controversies, no matter how well-intended. Whether centered around copious bloodshed or near-pornographic nudity (sorry, Mom and Dad), there's one thing all controversial music videos have in common: They get people talking.

Here are 13 music videos released over the past 30-plus years that have sparked disputes. Watch at your own risk.

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The Most Disturbing Music Videos of All Time

It's Halloween, so if you wanna scare your friends, here is your chance.

Halloween is right around the corner, and while the music video art form is undergoing a transformation thanks to streaming, many of today's artists still rely on music videos to help elevate their music.

Sometimes, the results are horrifying. We all remember the day we were first exposed to Marilyn Manson's eerie music video for "The Beautiful People," or what we were doing when Tool's cartoonish depictions of rape in "Prison Sex" sent us all reeling. As shown by our list below, the music video format is one that can truly shock and awe, and while horror films are having their moment this week, let's revisit some of the most disturbing music videos in recent memory.

"A Little Piece of Heaven" By Avenged Sevenfold

The playful animation, musical skeletons, and goofy cut-outs quickly lull the viewer into a false sense of security, but the next thing you know, the video's protagonist is killing his girlfriend and viciously raping her rotting corpse. At one point he even purchases a heater to keep her body warm. The cartoonish nature elevates the disturbing narrative told by M. Shadows and will forever change the way we listen to this song.

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Cult Leader, Mass Murderer, Alt-Right Hero, Folk Singer: Charles Manson and His Failed Music Career

On the 50th anniversary of the Manson Murders, a look back in time at the sonic inspirations and frustrated desire for glory that inspired Manson's killing spree.

Charles Manson's first prison interview | 60 Minutes Australia

Quentin Tarantino's "Once Upon a Time in Hollywood" is preparing to take modern-day Hollywood by storm.

The film's release is timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the infamous Manson Family murders, when Charles Manson and his coterie of villains gruesomely took the lives of Sharon Tate and eight others.

Manson's legacy has persisted for half a decade, and Tarantino's movie reestablishes another gruesome truth: Hollywood can't get enough of its supervillains, especially when their mythologies involve young women, movie stars, and ambition that crashed and burned and left bloodlust in its wake.

All this recognition raises the question: When is it acceptable to revisit the legacy—and, in this case, the music—of a serial killer?

Hollywood Hallucinations

Before he became a cult leader, Manson actually wanted to be a folk musician.

From 1966-67, Manson recorded his compositions onto a mixtape called Lie: The Love and Terror Cult. Because Manson is a white supremacist and serial killer, we don't actually encourage you to waste the time or energy to listen to his album. Instead, according to other sources, the album's fourteen songs belie a troubled spirit with a (possibly subconscious) awareness of his own true nature—particularly on "People Say I'm No Good" and "Garbage Dump." Apparently, his music is also laden with counterculture tropes, from a hatred of cops to a bevy of lines about birds.

However, Manson's guiding mantras were in no way aligned with the starry-eyed, peace-and-love ethos of the average counter-culture hippie. Manson was motivated by racist ideas that led him towards the belief that an ensuing, super-apocalyptic race war was on its way, meant to annihilate both blacks and whites, thereby creating space for Manson and his (maybe "disturbed") 'Family' to take over the world.

Though his music never broke into the mainstream on its own, Manson did make some promising industry connections before initiating his final rampage. In 1968, two of Manson's female followers—Patricia Krenwinkel and Ella Jo Bailey—were hitchhiking when they were picked up by the Beach Boys' drummer, Dennis Wilson. Once he learned about this, Manson leapt on the connection, eventually ingratiating himself into the Beach Boys' social circle. He and some of his Family moved into the Beach Boys' mansion that summer, where they dropped acid and participated in group sex.

Soon enough, it seemed like Manson might've made a powerful connection with the Beach Boys, as Dennis Wilson eventually took Manson to a studio to record. However, everything came crashing down when Manson pulled a knife on Wilson's producers after a disagreement, and from there, things spiraled out of control.

That fall, the Beach Boys recorded a poppier version of Manson's original song, the forebodingly named "Cease to Exist," renamed "Never Learn Not to Love," with Brian Wilson credited as the sole songwriter. Afterwards, Manson presented Dennis Wilson with a single bullet, and said, "It's important to keep your children safe." This was the final straw; Wilson beat him up and sent him home.

Until he drowned off the coast of Marina del Rey in 1983, Dennis Wilson refused to talk about his relationship with the Manson Family. It is known that the Mansons wrecked the Wilson's car, blew $100,000 in cash, passed along STDs, and trashed his home. According to fellow Beach Boys member Mike Love, Wilson saw Manson shoot someone and throw him down a well. The psychological impact of a visit from the Manson family certainly did nothing to help with Dennis Wilson's battle with addiction, which would continue for the remainder of his life.

That was Charles Manson for you, though. He was a man whose fetid, twisted nature found a shell in the hectic abandon of the late 1960s counterculture movement, and whose ability to cast a spell over others enabled him to pull many innocent people into his twisted influence. As it turned out, the drug-addled, guru-worshiping, love-is-all-you-need ethos of the hippie age was the perfect guise under which to hide murderous impulses.

Interestingly, Manson's actions were partly inspired by some of the most famous music of the era. He claimed that the Beatles' White Album was the reason he committed all of his murders in the first place; specifically, he believed that several songs on the White Album foreshadowed a forthcoming race war. He believed that the song "Helter Skelter" referred to the four horsemen of the apocalypse, and that "Revolution 9" and "Piggies" predicted the vanquishment of the white man.

Chillingly, during one of the Manson murders, one of the killers wrote "Helter Skelter" in blood on a door in Sharon Tate's house.

Posthumous Glory

Since Manson's conviction, his music has gained controversial levels of recognition. The Lemonheads covered Manson's "Home is What Makes You Happy" in 1988, and Guns N' Roses put their spin on "Look at Your Game Girl," released as a secret bonus track at the end of their covers album The Spaghetti Incident?

Most famously, the boundary-pushing goth rocker Marilyn Manson created his name by smashing together "Charles Manson" and "Marilyn Monroe" to form a moniker that combines two of the most glorified objects of Hollywood tragedy. Marilyn Manson even covered Charles'"Sick City," and Nine Inch Nails recorded their 1992 EP, Broken, at the house where Sharon Tate was murdered.

All this posthumous recognition raises the question of when, and if, it's appropriate to recognize and interpret the art of a serial killer and white supremacist. This is the more extreme angle to a very common question—can we separate the art from the artist?

While contemporary "cancel culture" can sometimes go too far, in Manson's case, there is no separating his work from who he was as a person. Every consideration of what art we morally should or should not listen to needs to happen on a case-by-case basis, wherein we weigh the extremity of the person's offenses with the time period and extenuating circumstances surrounding their actions; and Manson can never be extricated from who he was as a person or from the lives he stole.

Things get especially hairy when examining the tremendous amount of art and pop cultural products inspired by Manson's legacy. From Joan Didion to Marilyn Manson, Mad Men to the Ramones, Manson has been a constant muse for everyone from punk rockers to political commentators. Sometimes, these products can be genuinely thoughtful—for example, Emma Cline's The Girls explored the brainwashing inherent in 60s California mythology and the effect of patriarchal aggression on the adolescent female psyche; and other outlets like Psychic TV have used Manson's story to explore the connection between cults and fanbases.

Still, other interpretations have been less nuanced, to say the least. Buried within the countercultural forces that motivated Manson was a stunning super-individualism, a belief that he was totally enlightened and free, to the point of total liberation from any form of consequence. It was a patriarchal, white supremacist, pack-mentality-created hatred that is very much alive today. (There are obvious parallels between the central ideas that fueled Charles Manson and fuel the alt-right today, and Manson is a frequent object of idealization on alt-right forums). In a way, attention—be it positive or negative—is exactly what Charles Manson wanted. The fact that he transitioned from an aspiring musician to drug-addled guru to murderous cult leader reveals that his number one love was not music, nor adoration. It was power and attention of any kind.

Therefore, Manson's music and life deserves no glory and no idealization. The only positive consequences of exploring his story and legacy are a potentially deeper understanding of the forces that created someone like him, if only to locate and address those forces when they reappear.

Tellingly, after Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor recorded in Sharon Tate's old home, he happened to run into her sister.

According to Reznor, "She said,'Are you exploiting my sister's my sister's death by living in her house?' For the first time, the whole thing kind of slapped me in the face. I said: 'No, it's just sort of my own interest in American folklore. I'm in this place where a weird part of history occurred.' I guess it never really struck me before, but it did then. She lost her sister from a senseless, ignorant situation that I don't want to support. When she was talking to me, I realised for the first time: 'What if it was my sister?' I thought: 'Fuck Charlie Manson.' I don't want to be looked at as a guy who supports serial-killer bullshit."



The Identity Crisis Behind Lil Nas X's Debut EP "7"

The EP is fun, but confirms that Lil Nas X doesn't quite know what to do.

By now, we all know the story. As told by The New York Times, NPR, Complex, Teen Vogue, Fader, Rolling Stone, and Time Magazine, 20-year-old Montero Lamar Hall, otherwise known as Lil Nas X, is from Atlanta, Georgia, and he's currently (and unexpectedly) the biggest pop star in the country.

We all know he got his start online, curating 15-second musical quips, one of which would grow into the beast that is "Old Town Road." Hall had been pushing his music on Soundcloud for months, but none of it took until he tapped into the micro-niche of meme culture with "Old Town Road." By flooding the internet with witty and unique memes to promote the song, the curiosity of internet-culture-obsessed teen's grew quickly, with Hall remaining mum on any further details of the song. The quip caught national attention after social media influencer nicemichael used the track in one of his trendy dance videos on Tik Tok.

But, frankly, Lil Nas X could have gotten there on his own. "Old Town Road" was born for the internet. The song's quick length, simple beat, and earworm of a chorus made it perfect for sampling online in an abundance of hilarious ways. Throw in Hall's internet savvy personality, unique marketing creativity, and embrace of the already growing "YeeHaw Agenda," and the song was destined to take over the world with or without nicemichael's steady fanbase. Billboard's racism definitely helped, too!

Inevitably, as "Old Town Road" catapulted into the spotlight, so did the 20-year-old college dropout. To his credit, Hall embraced the black cowboy aesthetic in an amazingly authentic way. He struck up a deal with Wrangler jeans that left racist country fans reeling, and in almost every conceivable public appearance he wore a sophisticated yet unique take on cowboy attire. Then came "Old Town Road's" Billy Ray remix, and then the Diplo remix; with each new rendition being promoted as a standalone project, they revitalized a song that could have easily lost buoyancy after a few weeks in the spotlight. But at some point, Lil Nas X was going to run out of road, and Montero Lamar Hall was going to have to show people who he was.

During an appearance on Deus and Mero, he was introduced by the hosts as the "King of Country." "Wait, wait, wait, I don't want to say that," Hall chimed in. "I don't agree with that last one." In an interview with Complex, Hall was asked to explain who he was: "I'm from Atlanta, but I don't really consider myself an 'Atlanta rapper.'" So the question remained: Who was Montero Lamar Hall, and why was he so resistant to embrace a definition? On 7, Hall's messy but charming debut EP as Lil Nas X, he shows us that he's still on that journey, navigating the cesspool that is internet culture in the hopes of finding his next hit and an identity more authentic than a meme.

Yesterday, Lil Nas X released "Panini," an equally silly earworm that borrows almost nothing from the country-pop influence of "Old Town Road." The rapper credited Kurt Cobain as a songwriter, borrowing the song's melody from Nirvana's "In Bloom." On "F9mily (You & Me)," Lil Nas X worked alongside Blink-182's Travis Barker to craft a pop-punk track that Barker admits was initially meant for his band. On "Kick It," Lil Nas X experiments with lo-fi Jazzhop; on "Bring You Down," he plays around with Garage Rock. Almost every song is its own experiment, with Lil Nas X seemingly waiting to see which vibe people enjoy most.

"Yeah I'm going to talk about everything in my music," he told Complex. "[In the past] I was making music more that I thought people would want to hear." This sentiment has left critics like Pitchfork feeling duped. "We don't learn a single thing about Lil Nas X on 7 other than he might have actually been born in a Reddit test tube in 2018." But what is there to know? He's confirmed hundreds of times that he's just a kid from Atlanta who stumbled into fame completely by accident. His music isn't born out of personal emotional turmoil or a form of creative catharsis; its sole purpose is to be consumed by the masses as lighthearted entertainment. He rhymed "Panini" with "meanie," "teeny" and "genie," for god's sake!

Montero Lamar Hall doesn't pretend to know what he wants Lil Nas X to be, and 7 proves that he frankly still has no idea. It's impossible not to admire his willingness to experiment and share his identity crisis with fans, even if the result isn't a necessarily cohesive or groundbreaking album. It's enjoyable for now, but even Hall, who has openly struggled with anxiety, admits this simply can't go on forever. "Why's it always what you like?" he sings cryptically to the masses on "C7osure (You Like)": "Ain't no more actin' / man that forecast say I should just let me grow." The track offers a poignant moment of vulnerability. Lil Nas X has been backed into a corner thanks to his viral success, and while it's all fun and games for now, it's clear that the rapper doesn't know how to turn his trending goofiness into the respected, bona fide rap career he's strived for since the beginning. Lil Nas X has arrived thanks to the power of social media, but the question still remains: Now what?