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The 17 Most Controversial Music Videos Of All Time

Updated January 17, 2020 7.4k votes 1.5k voters 94.6k views17 items

List RulesVote up the videos that clearly wanted to rock the boat.

If you enjoy art that makes you question its very right to exist, look no further than scandalous music videos, which litter the pop music landscape from MTV's humble beginning to modern Vevo blockbusters. Certain music videos caused a stir when they debuted, and many received restrictions or outright bans by broadcast networks and YouTube. In many cases, the videos asked more questions than they answered, not always a bad thing when it comes to artistic expression. Sometimes controversy, by bringing unwanted attention to things, creates change where it's desperately needed. 

A number of the most controversial music videos managed to surpass the negative feedback and went on to become seminal moments in pop music. Many sexy videos lost their shock value as the years wore on, and various rock music videos set the standard for acts who followed. But all of them ignited a firestorm of controversy.

  • Video: YouTube

    "Jeremy" was based on a real-life incident that occurred in 1991, when 15-year-old Jeremy Delle took his own life in front of his classmates. But when the video hit MTV, most people assumed, and still do, that the video's protagonist slays his fellow students instead.

    In the version you don't usually see, Jeremy enters the classroom, throws an apple to his teacher and puts a gun in his mouth, spraying his classmates with blood. But MTV wouldn't allow that imagery. Instead, "Jeremy" enters and looks at his classmates, all drenched in blood as if Jeremy shot them. The cut always frustrated Pearl Jam (who pretty much stopped making videos after this) and director Mark Pellington who said, “I think Pearl Jam was very, very upset that this piece about an alienated kid who [took his own life] was taken to be this glorified piece about a guy who shoots his classmates."

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  • 6

    'Born Free' By M.I.A.

    Video: YouTube

    Romain Gavras courted controversy again with the video for 'Born Free.' At nine minutes long, the extremely graphic video depicts a world in which redheads are rounded up and slain. It received both praise and criticism when it came out in 2010, and most websites and networks refused to air it.

    It was yanked from YouTube the day after its release, before being reinstated a couple of weeks later.

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  • Jonas Åkerlund directed "Smack My B*tch Up" in 1997. The video, filmed from the POV of a person about to indulge in a wild night, ends to reveal the protagonist is a woman. When the video dropped, criticism stemmed from both sides of the pond - the BBC banned it, and MTV restricted it to late-night rotation.

    Nevertheless, it went on to win Best Dance Video and Best Breakthrough Video from the network later that year.

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  • 8

    'Famous' By Kanye West

    Photo: David Shankbone/Underdogger / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

    "Famous" features Kanye West with some friends, family, and a few other celebrity luminaries - from Taylor Swift to Donald Trump - getting forty winks in after getting intimate. Some of those represented in the video - they were all wax figures - mulled over suing Kanye for using their likenesses, but ultimately, no lawsuits were brought against the rapper.

    West stated the video was "not in support or [against] or anti any of [the people in the video]" but simply "a comment on fame."

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