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Robin Thicke, Madonna & More of Music’s Most Scandalous Videos

From Madonna’s burning crosses to Duran Duran and M.I.A., Victoria Kezra looks at the craziest vids.

The Daily Beast

It seems like you can’t shake a stick at YouTube without hitting a topless model this summer. Justin Timberlake’s “Tunnel Vision,” Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” and this week Calvin Harris’s “Thinking About You” have all featured models stripping down and showing some skin to draw views and attention. The first two were even banned from YouTube. But pushing the envelope is nothing new for musicians—sex and drugs are two of rock and roll’s prime ingredients, after all. Music videos have been getting banned for years, first on TV and now online. Let’s go back and look at some of the music videos that got people’s panties in a twist.

Robin Thicke, ‘Blurred Lines’ (2013)

“Blurred Lines” is controversial not just for its nudity but for its unsettling lyrics, which don’t so much suggest a good time as possible jail time. The video shows three topless models aimlessly wandering back and forth in front of a white wall, watching Robin Thicke sing and Pharrell Williams yell “Woo!” at random intervals. Many people have interpreted the “Blurred Line” in the song to be the one between consent and non-consent, and the dead-eyed girls standing around in the video certainly don’t help. Thicke defended the video saying he, Pharrell, and T.I. were imitating “”old men on a porch hollering at girls like, ‘Hey, where you going, girl? Come over here!’ That’s why, in the video, we’re doing all these old-men dances.” The video is lazy and ugly, but is it exploitative? Thicke’s explanation did little to persuade anyone otherwise.

No Doubt, ‘Looking Hot’ (2012)

It may have been bad luck that this Western video, in which Gwen Stefani was costumed as an American Indian, made its debut during Native American Heritage Month. Whoops. In the clip, Stefani is depicted dancing around a fire, making smoke signals, and chained to a wall. American Indian groups didn’t appreciate the band playing dress-up, and No Doubt pulled the video the next day.

M.I.A., ‘Born Free’ (2010)

The video for “Born Free,” a nine-minute-long story of the violent capture and execution of redheaded children, attracted a lot of heat for its extreme violence. A young boy is shot point-blank in the head, people are beaten, and one person explodes into a shower of blood and body parts after being forced to run across a mine field. YouTube took the video down within days of its posting. Many were unhappy with the violence, and some groups said it encouraged bullying of “ginger” children. M.I.A. cited her experiences living in Sri Lanka during its brutal 25-year civil war as her inspiration for the video.

Rammstein, ‘Puss’ (2009)

The title alone should let most people know whether this video will be up their alley. German hard rockers Rammstein are no stranger to controversy and even embrace it, as they did for this pornographic video. The song and video are meant to be critical of sex tourism, but between the distracting images and the German/English lyrics, it’s all right if you didn’t pick up on that. In an interview, the band’s guitarist said many of the shots of the naked band members were really of body doubles and that when the drummer’s girlfriend visited the set, she was sent home very quickly. During live performances of the song, the band has been known to spray foam over the audience from a cannon decorated as a giant penis.

Marilyn Manson, ‘(s)AINT’ (2003)

This could be the holy grail of controversial music videos: doing cocaine off a Bible, BDSM, self-mutilation, nudity, and masturbation. It has everything but the kitchen sink (though there is a bathtub). Interscope would not release the video, though edited versions were aired in Germany and Japan. As long as Marilyn Manson is around and continuing to make music, there won’t be a shortage of music for people to protest.

Nelly, ‘Tip Drill’ (2003)

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For those who don’t know, a “Tip Drill” is a woman who has a nice body but an unfortunate face. Accordingly, this video is a seven-minute parade of T&A and not much else. Cash is wadded up and flung at scantily clad girls, and in perhaps the most defining moment, a credit card is swiped down the butt of girl as if she were some kind of strip-bot that also gives out singles. In 2004 students at Spelman College, a historically all-female African-American school, organized a protest of a bone-marrow drive to benefit Nelly’s 4Sho4Kids Foundation in response to the portrayal of women in the video. They told the rapper he was not welcome, and the foundation was forced to cancel.

Björk, ‘Pagan Poetry’ (2001)

“Pagan Poetry” is not for the faint of heart. It depicts very blurry scenes of sex and fellatio, but also increasingly clear scenes of actual body piercing. It all culminates in Björk singing to the camera, partially clothed only in a dress that is attached to her via the piercings done in the first part of the video. Naturally, MTV refused to air it.

The Prodigy, ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ (1997)

“Smack My Bitch Up” came from the Prodigy’s Fat of the Land album and was a breakout club hit for its danceable groove and Ultramagnetic MCs sample. But what got more attention was the video, shot from a first-person perspective of someone having an incredibly wild night. Cocaine, drunk-driving, sexual assault, a visit to a strip club, bedding said strippers, and bar fights are just a few of the activities the unseen narrator partakes in. The song was decried by the National Organization for Women and domestic-violence groups, and even grabbed the top spot in a U.K. poll of most controversial songs. It’s been years since its release, but in case someone reading this hasn’t seen the video yet, the twist ending will remain unrevealed.

Nine Inch Nails, ‘Closer’ (1994)

Organs, freaks, BDSM, animal cruelty, religious iconography, and some of the least sexy nudity ever are all in this video brought to the masses by Nine Inch Nails. That’s a lot to pack into less than five minutes. The song and video are a part of Nine Inch Nails’s third LP, The Downward Spiral, written as a concept album about someone experiencing the titular downward spiral. Only two songs on the album were released as singles, and “Closer” was the only one that got a real video, which is perhaps why Trent Reznor tried to fit so much into it. A heavily edited version made it to MTV, and despite the graphic chorus and video, it’s still a favorite, earning the No. 2 spot on AOL’s “69 Sexiest Songs of All Time” and the No. 93 spot on VH1’s “100 Greatest Songs of the Past 25 Years,” as well as a spot in the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art.

Nirvana, ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ (1993)

“Heart-Shaped Box” was the last single off the band’s last album, and the video depicts several strange scenes that had some people up in arms. A young girl in a Ku Klux Klan hood jumping for fetuses growing on trees, an old man crucified with a pope hat, and an overweight angel with organs painted on her are a few of the strange scenes on display. The song was recently brought back into the public eye when Courtney Love tweeted to Lana del Rey about the song’s meaning after the young singer performed a lighter, softer cover of the tune. “You do know the song is about my Vagina right? ‘Throw down your umbilical noose so i can climb right back,’ umm,” Love tweeted. It’s a wonder the video wasn’t stranger.

Pearl Jam, ‘Jeremy’ (1992)

“Jeremy” is about a boy who is picked on at school and subsequently shoots himself in front of his class. The scene of him putting the gun in his mouth was edited out in the version that was shown on television, leading to some confusion about who was shot at the end. “Probably the greatest frustration I’ve ever had is that the ending [of the ‘Jeremy’ video] is sometimes misinterpreted as that he shot his classmates. The idea is, that’s his blood on them, and they’re frozen at the moment of looking,” the video’s director, Mark Pellington, said in an interview. “Jeremy” is one entry on our list that has received less, not more, airtime over the years because of the continued prevalence of school shootings.

Madonna, ‘Like a Prayer’ (1989)

As soon as a cross is set on fire, it’s safe to assume people are going to complain. The “Like a Prayer” video is a morality play about racism and murder where for some reason Madonna isn’t inspired to go do the right thing until a statue comes to life. Religious groups were not pleased with the burning crosses, stigmata, and other iconography in the video, and protested both Madonna and Pepsi, which had used the song in ads. It’s since been revered as one of the best songs of Madonna’s career, ranking at No. 300 on Rolling Stone’s list of the greatest songs of all time.

Duran Duran, ‘Girls on Film’ (1981)

“Girls on Film” was released back in 1981, and although the song wasn’t as successful in the U.S. as it was in the band’s native England, the uncut music video caused a stir on both sides of the pond. It was banned by both the BBC and MTV, but when a video opens with two girls in sheer lingerie having a pillow fight while straddling a pole covered in whipped cream, such a ban probably doesn’t come as a big surprise. The song itself—if anyone can tear themselves away from the visuals—is about the exploitation and mistreatment of models in the fashion industry, and leads off with the sound of a rapid-fire shutter. Too bad the censors didn’t appreciate the message. Duran Duran made headlines again in 2011, when its video for the song “Girl Panic” was banned from MTV, exactly 30 years after “Girls on Film.”