Musicians Talk About Their Most Controversial Songs
As artists, musicians often bring awareness to topics they feel are important or emotions they want to express through their lyrical poetry. Intentionally or not, the results can sometimes cause controversy as this melodic form of speech reaches the rest of the world.
Sometimes the artist uses a song or music video to purposely draw attention to major social events and injustices. Other times, they accidentally choose lyrics that don't resonate with special interest groups or the public. Either way, we can't help but wonder what goes on in the minds of singers and songwriters when their songs receive intense backlash in the media. This list features musicians throughout history who have spoken up about the negative attention their songs generated.
- Photo: Publisher-Beat Publications / Prestige Publishing-Cinnamon Cinder teen club / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
With a title like “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss),” the reason this song by The Crystals wasn't well-received by the public seems obvious. Radio stations refused to play the ballad, but group member La La Brooks argued that while the song's message was distorted, the group still didn't feel comfortable recording it.
In a 2011 interview, the singer shared the details behind the controversial lyrics:
It is an overlooked song and misinterpreted. That was weird for us. We were thrown aback by the song. I'm a teenager at the time. Barbara (Alston, fellow Crystal) was a little uneasy doing it. And I was trying to figure out the song and why Phil [Spector] would record something like this. Barbara was so turned off because she was singing the lyrics and can't feel anything. So in the studio Phil was telling her, “Don't be so relaxed on it.”
One commentator has pointed out that the song, in the right hands, could be taken as satire or an outright condemnation of domestic violence. However, that producer Phil Spector (a known domestic abuser) encouraged The Crystals to sing it “in a straightforward manner” sans subtext.
- Photo: William P. Gottlieb / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
When Billie Holiday first stumbled across “Strange Fruit" in 1938, she hesitated to add it to her performance playlist. Written by a Jewish American English teacher, Abel Meeropol, who was appalled by the lynching occurring throughout the country, the song encapsulated the horrific public murders of more than 40,000 Black citizens from 1877-1950.
At the time, Holiday had just booked a series of shows in the first racially integrated club in New York City, Barney Josephson’s Café Society. The musician found the courage to use the ballad as the last number in her set, performing sitting on a stool with a single spotlight before leaving the stage.
Though the song eventually became named “song of the century,” Holiday's performance infuriated many, including the Federal Bureau of Narcotics director, Harry Anslinger. Anslinger openly targeted the artist for her drug use as a means to quell her platform. Holiday's record company, Columbia, wouldn't record it, and many radio stations refused to play the song for their audiences.
In her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, Holiday admitted:
The first time I sang it I thought it was a mistake and I had been right being scared… There wasn’t even a patter of applause when I finished. Then a lone person began to clap nervously. Then suddenly everyone was clapping.
Once she realized the song's impact on her audience, the musician and activist refused to quit singing it. Holiday eventually recorded “Strange Fruit” with the independent jazz label Commodore Records, and it became one of her best-selling songs.
With an undeniably catchy-tune and seemingly upbeat lyrics, Pharrell and Robin Thicke's “Blurred Lines” quickly became a crowd pleaser - until it was deemed “rapey” and denounced by some of their fans.
In an interview with GQ, Pharrell admitted that he didn't initially understand the outrage:
…I think “Blurred Lines” opened me up. I didn't get it at first. Because there were older white women who, when that song came on, they would behave in some of the most surprising ways ever. And I would be like, "wow." They would have me blushing.
So when there started to be an issue with it, lyrically, I was, like, “What are you talking about?” There are women who really like the song and connect to the energy that just gets you up. And “I know you want it” - women sing those kinds of lyrics all the time. So it's like, "What's rapey about that?"
However, the reality of the suggestive lyrics eventually made the rapper change his mind:
…And then I realized that there are men who use that same language when taking advantage of a woman, and it doesn't matter that that's not my behavior. Or the way I think about things. It just matters how it affects women.
And I was like, “Got it. I get it. Cool.” My mind opened up to what was actually being said in the song and how it could make someone feel. Even though it wasn't the majority, it didn't matter. I cared what they were feeling too.
I realized that we live in a chauvinist culture in our country. Hadn't realized that. Didn't realize that some of my songs catered to that. So that blew my mind.
- Photo: LetećiVale / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain4453 VOTES
N.W.A.'s Ice Cube Wrote 'F*ck The Police' Because He Was Tired Of Dr. Dre Spending His Weekends In Jail
N.W.A.'s “F*ck Tha Police” went over well with fans, reaching #25 on the Billboard music charts and selling over 3 million copies. The controversial lyrics also drew attention from another entity that wasn't as accepting of the song's success: the FBI. The Assistant Director of the FBI Office of Public Affairs sent Priority Records (the album's distributor) a letter expressing their anger over the song's production. The song was also frequently subject to censorship and bans; the group wasn't able to perform it on their first major tour.
The attention earned members Ice Cube, MC Ren, Eazy E, Yella, and Dr. Dre the title of “The World's Most Dangerous Rap Group.” Since then, members of the rap group have come forward to discuss the song, admitting that it almost never happened.
When Ice Cube first presented the lyrics to Dr. Dre, he initially turned them down. It wasn't until a paintball shooting incident involving Dr. Dre and Eazy E at bus stops that Dre finally agreed to record the hip hop anthem. In a documentary interview, the group told of the events for the first time, recalling:
Alonso Williams: Him (Eazy E) and Dre decide to ride down the Harbor freeway, sticking the paintball shotgun out of the f*ckin window and “Pow,” creating havoc on the muthaf*ckin freeway.
Dr. Dre: 10-15 minutes after that the police are behind us. Pull us out of the car with guns drawn, lay us face down on the freeway, really aggressive and the whole nine, as they should've been…
Ice Cube went on to disclose that his inspiration behind the song's lyrics came from Dr. Dre's frequent trips to jail:
Weekends with Dr. Dre, you in the club, partying, music is banging. You're around hip hop. He go to jail, all that stop. So our weekends was boring, bunk, we was back on the block. We was just not doing nothing.
So I was just mad that all the fun stopped and Dre had to go to jail until Monday. So, I wrote “F*ck Tha Police.”
Known for his often sexist, homophobic, and vulgar lyrics in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, Eminem’s music video “Stan” caused so much controversy that it's still visually and audibly censored on YouTube over 20 years later.
The song's topic brings awareness to the sometimes unhealthy fixations fans develop over celebrities, featuring a superfan, “Stan,” who takes Eminem's lyrics too personally. The character of the song writes to Eminem multiple times, each letter becoming more aggressive.
Eventually, he gags and binds his pregnant girlfriend before driving his car off a bridge. In addition to the sensitive images being removed, the video's audio is mostly drowned by the silence covering up the song's abundance of profane lyrics.
During an interview with MTV, Eminem explained his choices for the song:
Basically, it's just about crazy fan mail that I get from people. It's about a kid who is really sick, you know what I'm saying, and takes everything literally. Like if I say “I want to slit my wrists,” he wants to slit his wrists.
It's like, he's crazy for real, and it's like everything I say, he can relate to. He finally found somebody he can relate to. So at the end of the song, he ends up committing suicide and driving his girl off a cliff, and it's like really crazy.
But it was a song, it's kind of like a message, to fans to let them know that… everything I say is not meant to be taken literally. Just most of the things that I say.
When the host asked if he ever received letters like this in real life, the “Slim Shady” rapper responded:
Yeah, I get crazy letters like that. That's what I was saying. All of this is crazy to me. You know what I'm saying? I never knew that I was going to have any of this. This is all a little bit much for me. You know what I'm saying? To even imagine this, but now it's happening. For people to look up to me like this is really crazy to me. I go through things in my head everyday, you know, like “What is going on?”
Ozzy Osbourne's solo album, Blizzard of Ozz, first made heavy metal history by going five-times platinum in 1980. Three years later, the album made headlines for a much more sobering reason: the parents of teenager John McCollum were suing Osbourne for his song “Suicide Solution.” According to the grieving parents, the artist's lyrics had caused McCollum to take his own life.
However, 40 years later, the “Crazy Train” vocalist came clean about the controversy, insisting that the lyrics of “Suicide Solution” were misunderstood. In an interview with Rock Classics Radio on Apple Music Hits, Osbourne explained:
"Suicide Solution" wasn't written about, “Oh that's the solution, suicide.” I was a heavy drinker and I was drinking myself to an early grave. It was suicide solution…. Wine is fine but whiskey's quicker. Suicide is slow with liquor. [That's] what I was doing for a long while. I just sort of stopped.
The artist continued the conversation with Sirius XM:
Well, that was all taken out of perspective… So we wrote this song about…We were all doing some serious pounding of the booze back then. I’d been drinking heavily for a long, long time. And it’s, like, “Suicide Solution” means solution being liquid — not a way out. People get the f*cking thing wrong…