Parental advisory: The 25 most controversial songs of all time
Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Parental advisory: The 25 most controversial songs of all time

As entertainers and celebrities know, bad publicity is better than no publicity at all. When it comes to questionable songs lyrics or themes, that's certainly the case.

The badder the better. Right? There are plenty of musicians and bands who thrive on pushing the envelope and draw attention themselves for being a little naughty.

Here's a look at some of the more controversial songs ever recorded.

 
1 of 25

"Strange Fruit," Billie Holiday (1939)

"Strange Fruit," Billie Holiday (1939)
Billie Holliday

With social and racial justice at the forefront of world issues at the moment, "Strange Fruit" might be worthy of a listen for those unfamiliar with the song. Written by Abel Meeropol and recorded by the legendary Holiday, this is a track protesting the lynching of black people. Some have gone as far to claim that the song helped start the civil rights movement, or at the very least, open Americans' eyes to this despicable issue. 

 
2 of 25

"Puff, the Magic Dragon," Peter, Paul and Mary (1963)

"Puff, the Magic Dragon," Peter, Paul and Mary (1963)
Tim Dillon/USA TODAY

Now, this Peter, Paul and Mary classic is not controversial in the sense of creating an uproar. Rather, its somewhat hidden meaning involving marijuana use. "Puff," the character Jackie Paper, as in "rolling papers." Get it? The song was written by band member Peter Yarrow, and taken from a poem by Leonard Lipton. Both parties have denied any indirect references to drug use, but this was the 1960s, so it would be easy to see the questioning. 

 
3 of 25

"The Pill," Loretta Lynn (1975)

"The Pill," Loretta Lynn (1975)
Dale Ernsberg/The Tennessean via Imagn Content Services, LLC/USA TODAY

Back in the 1970s, songs about birth control were not common. So, when the legendary country star released this track, heads certainly turned. Numerous country radio stations refused to play this song about a woman doing something about her husband continuously getting her pregnant. Of course, with controversy comes popularity. The song reached No. 70 on Billboard's Hot 100.

 
4 of 25

"God Save The Queen," Sex Pistols (1977)

"God Save The Queen," Sex Pistols (1977)
Sex Pistols

As punk fans know, the Sex Pistols were all about controversy. Of course, there is plenty of reason to believe it was all an act since John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) has managed to do quite well in the mainstream - after the fact. Suggesting Queen Elizabeth II's monarchy was actually a "fascist regime" invited problems, and the BBC refused the song to be played in the United Kingdom. Of course, the song reached the top 5 in the U.K.

 
5 of 25

"Killing an Arab," The Cure (1978)

"Killing an Arab," The Cure (1978)
The Cure

The first single these Hall of Famers released is still their most controversial. Frontman Robert Smith has said the song is a condensed take on the 1940s French novel L'Étranger (The Stranger). The song earned some public wrath considering it describes the shooting of an Arab person on a beach. Many felt it was anti-Arab at the time, and the controversy resurfaced in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

 
6 of 25

"Suicide Solution," Ozzy Osbourne (1980)

"Suicide Solution," Ozzy Osbourne (1980)
Dan MacMedan/USA TODAY

While "Crazy Train," Mr. Crowley" and "I Don't Know" are arguably the most memorable tracks of Ozzy's stellar Blizzard of Ozz solo debut, "Suicide Solution" was no doubt its most controversial. Mostly because the parents of teenager John McCollum sued the singer and CBS Records after the boy committed suicide - allegedly because of the song. In the end, there was never proof the song was responsible for the tragedy.

 
7 of 25

"Lemon Ιncest," Serge and Charlotte Gainsbourg (1984)

"Lemon Ιncest," Serge and Charlotte Gainsbourg (1984)
Mercury Music

Some might call this French father-daughter collaboration a bit creepy. Still, the track was a European hit. Charlotte Gainsbourg was 13 at the time of the recording, and the idea of an adult male and undėrage girl (perhaps a father and daughter) relationship was obviously taboo. Listeners wondered if this was actually autobiographical, while the elder Gainsbourg, obviously, denied such allegations. 

 
8 of 25

"Dear God," XTC (1986)

"Dear God," XTC (1986)
XTC

Back in the 1980s this cut from these English alt-rockers caused quite the stir. The anti-religious there was meant by singer/songwriter Andy Partridge to send a "free-thinking" message about God and religion, in general. Partridge reportedly received death threats because of the song, which touched a nerve among plenty of conservatives around the world. 

 
9 of 25

"Papa Don't Preach," Madonna, (1986)

"Papa Don't Preach," Madonna, (1986)
Touchstone Pictures

The queen of pop music controversy. It might be hard to pick just one Madonna song that had suburban moms wincing and radio stations wondering if they should play her music. However, the Material Girl's tale of teen pregnancy - and what to do about it - stands out among the rest. Looking back, the subject matter seems rather tame, but back in the 1980s, when radio and MTV were impressionable on teenagers, it was quite the big deal. 

 
10 of 25

"Angel Of Death," Slayer (1986)

"Angel Of Death," Slayer (1986)
Courtney Pedroza/The Tennessean, via Imagn Content Services, LLC/USA TODAY

These kings of thrash metal were known for some complex lyrics, especially when it came to historical-based themes. Perhaps no song in Slayer's catalog ruffled more feathers than this cut off the legendary Reign in Blood album. Penned by late guitarist Jeff Hanneman, the song is about Nazi doctor Josef Mengele's "experiments" at the Auschwitz concentration camp. Some believed this was a pro-Nazi piece, though the band has denied that notion from the start and kept it as a staple of its live sets. 

 
11 of 25

"F*** tha Police," N.W.A. (1988)

"F*** tha Police," N.W.A. (1988)
New Line Cinema

During these rather turbulent times were social justice and police brutality have become prominent, N.W.A's most infamous song has also seen a resurgence. A protest song against police brutality and racial profiling, message has become more than a song. It's a piece of pop culture and those passionate about the cause, a rallying cry that's been seen on posters during recent protests in the wake of George Floyd's death.

 
12 of 25

"One in a Million," Guns N' Roses (1988)

"One in a Million," Guns N' Roses (1988)
Jason Armresto/USA TODAY

Once dubbed the "World's Most Dangerous Band," G n' R were no strangers to controversy. Especially frontman Axl Rose, who is still sparring with members of the Trump administration. Back in the late '80s, off the G N' R Lies record, this tune made waves for some homophobic, racial and anti-police that Rose had no problem defending as just the way he was thinking when he first came to Hollywood from Indiana. Wonder how Slash felt about that?

 
13 of 25

"Cop Killer," Body Count (1992)

"Cop Killer," Body Count (1992)
Sire Records

A trip back to when Ice-T went metal with this band. Much like N.W.A.'s police-related track, "Cop Killer" is considered a protest song toward police brutality. It's obviously taken on a resurgent meaning in America's certain climate, but it natural was attacked by politicians (President George H. W. Bush) and censorship activists (Tipper Gore) because of its title. Interestingly enough, Ice-T went on to play a detective in the popular Law & Order: Special Victims Unit. 

 
14 of 25

"Sexy MF," Prince and The New Power Generation (1992)

"Sexy MF," Prince and The New Power Generation (1992)
Warner Bros.

Prior to his death in 2016, Prince reportedly stopped playing this song live. Mostly because of the spelled out version on the refrain of the title. Obviously, the song was edited for radio play, along with the video. There have been other questionable-themed Prince songs (Darling Nikki), but this might be the most memorable of the bunch.  

 
15 of 25

"Killing in the Name," Rage Against the Machine (1992)

"Killing in the Name," Rage Against the Machine (1992)
Robert Hanashiro/USA TODAY

Arguably Rage's most notable song, another that attacks police brutality and systemic/institutional racism. The band's socio-political views are what fuels the passion and ultimately, the success of the group. It also features some of Tom Morello's best guitar work. Interestingly, the song seem to draw more ire internationally than within the United States. Guess U.S. fans just expect this from RATM?

 
16 of 25

"Rape Me," Nirvana (1993)

"Rape Me," Nirvana (1993)
Frank Forcino/Sipa USA via USA TODAY Network

Nirvana often drew attention to itself during its heyday. Of course, mostly because of troubled, late frontman Kurt Cobain. Although, when it came to the band's actual music, none drew more ire than this track off its final studio album In Utero. The title of the song alone raised eyebrows, but the group, especially Cobain, had always suggested it to be an anti-rape song from the viewpoint of the victim. 

 
17 of 25

"Closer," Nine Inch Nails (1994)

"Closer," Nine Inch Nails (1994)
Jim Louvau/Special to The Republic/USA TODAY

Trent Reznor and NIN's most popular and widely recognized song. It was a radio hit back when alternative music was ruling the mainstream. Now, the radio version was edited/censored, due to its obscene chorus regarding, what allegedly, deals with sexual lust. Nonetheless, it took Reznor to new heights and helped The Downward Spiral become one of the biggest albums of the 1990s. 

 
18 of 25

"Smack My B*tch Up," Prodigy (1997)

"Smack My B*tch Up," Prodigy (1997)
TheProdigy.com

This English electronica band might very well be responsible for the most controversial song ever recorded. In many ways, that was the intention for a group that otherwise enjoyed some modest success in the United States. The title opens the door to problems, and the lyrics only reinforce a theme of sexual excess and aggression. The band was entirely dismissive of the contention, reportedly saying it was more about "intensity" than anything else. OK?

 
19 of 25

"Goodbye Earl," Dixie Chicks (2000)

"Goodbye Earl," Dixie Chicks (2000)
Bill Steber/The Tennessean, Nashville Tennessean via Imagn Content Services, LLC/USA TODAY

Now known as The Chicks, back in the height of country trio's success, this was one of its more attention-grabbing hits. It's a story about domestic abuse of a woman, who gets her revenge - with the help of her best friend - by poisoning her husband. Not the happiest of family stories, and obviously not the way to solve such a serious issue, but the sense of female empowerment was a hit with the band's female fans - at the time. The star-studded video added to the attention.

 
20 of 25

"Stan," Eminem (2000)

"Stan," Eminem (2000)
Kimberly P. Mitchell/Detroit Free Press/USA TODAY

Mr. Mathers recruited British songstress Dido to help out on this massively popular single from The Marshall Mathers LP. Many critics and fans believe it's Eminem's best song - and video. However, the story of an alleged obsessed fan of the rapper, who tied up his pregnant significant other, put her in the trunk of his car and drove into a river while drunk, was quite graphic. Eminem is a great storyteller, but this is rather haunting. 

 
21 of 25

"American Skin (41 Shots)," Bruce Springsteen (2001)

"American Skin (41 Shots)," Bruce Springsteen (2001)
Robert Deutsch/USA TODAY Network

Bruce has never been shy about speaking his mind through the music. However, he took a lot of heat for his musical portrait on the fatal NYPD police shooting of Amadou Diallo.While the song was praised by critics and the NAACP gave Springsteen its Humanitarian Award, the New York City police were not happy with song. The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association called for a boycott of the force's presence during The Boss' 10-night Madison Square Garden stint in June 2000 - after the song was premiered live earlier in the year.

 
22 of 25

"Blurred Lines," Robin Thicke (2013)

"Blurred Lines," Robin Thicke (2013)
Gary A. Vasquez/USA TODAY Sports

In addition to Thicke, Pharrell Williams and T.I., and even the late Marvin Gaye, all played a part in the crooner's biggest hit. However, the writing credits were another controversy all together. As far the lyrics go, some suggested they were misogynistic and demeaned women. Thicke played down that thinking, especially since the song hit No. 1 in more than 20 countries.

 
23 of 25

"We Can't Stop," Miley Cyrus (2013)

"We Can't Stop," Miley Cyrus (2013)
Robert Hanashiro/USAT/USA TODAY

Some music fans - regardless of age - don't want Miley to grow up. Let's face it, the Hannah Montana days are over, and it's OK that she's singing about "Molly" (at least we think) or "Trying to get a line in the bathroom." Those lyrics from one of Cyrus' biggest hits made some who still think she's a little girl wince, but it's time to move on. This is also a really good pop song

 
24 of 25

"Accidental Racist," Brad Paisley (2013)

"Accidental Racist," Brad Paisley (2013)
Randy Piland/The Tennessean via Imagn Content Services, LLC/USA TODAY

Another song whose controversy can be resurrected with all the talk regarding the confederate flag. With help from LL Cool J, the song is about Southern pride, but from the standpoint of trying to be proud of living in the south, and not because of those confederate issues from the past. It's a fine line that is still being walked today - for better or worse.

 
25 of 25

"Famous," Kanye West (2016)

"Famous," Kanye West (2016)
Matt Detrich/USA TODAY Sports

Any issues with this Ye hit comes from the profanity-laced lyrics directed at pop superstar Taylor Swift. Of course, music fans should remember when West bum-rushed the stage during Swift's acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. His lyrics address that issue and left many fans - on either side of the situation - left scratching their head as just another controversy surrounding the famed rapper.

Jeff Mezydlo has written about sports and entertainment online and for print for more than 25 years. He grew up in the far south suburbs of Chicago, 20 minutes from the Mascot Hall of Fame in Whiting, Ind. He’s also the proud father of 11-year-old Matthew, aka “Bobby Bruin,” mascot of St. Robert Bellarmine School in Chicago. You can follow Jeff at @jeffm401.

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