Videos may have killed the radio star — but they also have the ability to shock audiences around the world.
Two of 2021’s most scandalous tracks are up for Video of the Year at the VMAs 2021: Lil Nas X’s “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” and Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP.” Host Doja Cat — no stranger to controversy herself — will help crown the winner among these cultural lightning rods at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center.
Lil Nas X, Cardi and Megan are following a long line of artists whose music videos have battled the censors, inflamed critics and have even been banished from the airwaves.
Here, 10 of the wildest videos that had jaws dropping and tongues wagging, from when the Material Girl turned heads in her late-’80s heyday to Lil Nas X’s recent opus.
Madonna, “Like a Prayer,” 1989, and “Justify My Love,” 1990
Long before the likes of Doja Cat, Madonna was a trailblazing pop force both when it came to minting hits and courting scandal. Take for example her one-two punch of “Like a Prayer” and “Justify My Love,” the first of which takes place in and around a church and features shots of burning crosses. “Like a Prayer” unleashed a global debate, and even led Pope John Paul II to call for a boycott of her concerts. Meanwhile, the iconic black-and-white video for “Justify My Love” showcases the pop star getting intimate with a group in a hotel room. MTV banned the video, which Madonna said was hypocritical: “Why is it that people are willing to go and watch a movie about someone getting blown to bits for no reason at all, and nobody wants to see two girls kissing and two men snuggling?”
Garth Brooks, “The Thunder Rolls,” 1991
The country superstar Garth Brooks may not come immediately to mind when one thinks of scandal, but he was a part of a bona fide brouhaha thanks to the controversial song and video for “The Thunder Rolls.” The ballad and video tell the tale of a cheating husband whose scorned wife eventually guns him down in a rage. Both Country Music Television and the now-defunct Nashville Network immediately banned the violent video from its airwaves, which drummed up interest in the single even more. In the end, the Country Music Association named it Video of the Year, and it even scored a 1991 Grammy nom for Best Music Video: Short Form.
Nine Inch Nails, “Closer,” 1994
When it comes to disturbing imagery, the wild video for Nine Inch Nails’ mid-’90s hit “Closer” throws everything at the wall — including body parts of both the human and animal variety. MTV had no choice but to add title cards that read “scene missing” over the most shocking images (largely due to the fact that, according to director Mark Romanek, frontman Trent Reznor refused to compromise his disturbing vision). “Trent said, ‘F–k it, let’s not do two versions, let’s do our version, and if MTV won’t show it, f–k MTV.’” The pure insanity of “Closer” bolstered both Nine Inch Nails’ hardcore reputation and rock success. These days, Reznor and collaborator Atticus Ross work on more innocent fare, including the score for Disney’s “Soul,” for which they nabbed an Oscar.
The Prodigy, “Smack My Bitch Up,” 1997
The jolly old English rave group the Prodigy was anything but when they dropped the song and video for their boisterous track “Smack My Bitch Up.” As its title suggests, sexism abounds in the video, which depicts a nasty night out filled with cocaine use and sexual assault. For their efforts, the BBC banned the video, and stateside, MTV restricted its airplay to after midnight.
Britney Spears, “…Baby One More Time,” 1999
It was the video that launched a small-town girl from Louisiana into superstardom, and it was a precursor to the headlines she’d later garner. Shot when Britney Spears was just 16 years old, the video for “…Baby One More Time” features her in a now-infamous skimpy schoolgirl outfit, dancing around hallways and classrooms of LA’s Venice High School. While relatively tame by modern-day standards, the video became a standout in the era of Total Request Live, with critics bemoaning the visuals of an innocent Christian girl gone naughty. A subsequent Rolling Stone cover, with Spears in a bra cradling a Teletubby, added to the cultural maelstrom.
M.I.A., “Born Free,” 2010
The British artist M.I.A. raised eyebrows and got slapped with a slew of bans thanks to the video for her 2010 single “Born Free,” which dramatizes a genocide of all people with red hair and included scenes of a child getting shot in the head. An analogy for the brutal, real-life military force used in Sri Lanka during their 26-year Civil War (a cause close to her heart as she’s of Sri Lankan heritage), the video was initially barred from YouTube before getting reposted with a disclaimer. Said the star in reaction to the pushback: “I find the new Justin Bieber video more violent and more of an assault to my eyes and senses than what I’ve made.”
Robin Thicke featuring T.I. and Pharrell, “Blurred Lines,” 2013
Dubbed “the most controversial song of the decade,” Robin Thicke and Pharrell’s dance floor hit “Blurred Lines” was an ode to smutty hookup culture that had Thicke crooning, “But you’re an animal. Baby, it’s in your nature.” The earworm was also quickly embraced as an anthem of proud misogyny. While the song was the breakout hit of the summer of 2013, nearly everyone involved has disowned the track since then, with Thicke telling The Post earlier this year he “lost perspective on my personal life and my music and what was appropriate” and its breakout star Emily Ratajakowksi, who appeared in the video when she was 24 years old, dubbing it the “bane of her existence.” The track also led to a milestone court ruling with Marvin Gaye’s estate charging that Thicke blatantly jacked the legend’s sound, with Thicke and company coming out on the losing side.
Kanye West, “Famous,” 2016
One could argue that Kanye West is the most recent clown prince of courting controversy, and “Famous” checks every box when it comes to crafting a perfect scandalous video. Using nude wax figures, it shows a ton of super-famous people — ranging from then-Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump to Bill Cosby, to Kanye’s ex-girlfriend Amber Rose and then-wife Kim Kardashian — all sleeping in bed together. It also includes Taylor Swift, who is namechecked in the first line of the song, which subsequently led to a war of words between the two stars and West’s ex, Kim Kardashian. Mission accomplished, ‘Ye, as the viral “Famous” quickly became a polarizing cultural sensation and went on to win the Video Music Award for both Best Male Video and Video of the Year at the 2016 VMAs.
Cardi B featuring Megan Thee Stallion, “WAP,” 2020
Released in the middle of a tumultuous year, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s raunchy video for “WAP” was a lightning rod that elicited both critical acclaim and pundit scorn. While we all know by now what the acronym stands for (it was the most Googled song of the year, after all), the video — featuring Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion and cameos from Kylie Jenner and Normani — was just as steamy as the title. While fans were dancing, conservative talking heads had a field day; Candance Owens said that the single “weakened American society” and Tucker Carlson mused that “they’re intentionally trying to degrade our culture and hurt our children.” But all press is good press: The firestorm helped shoot the song to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 last summer.
Lil Nas X, “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” 2021
Once known only as the artist behind the innocent “Old Town Road,” Lil Nas X was fighting one-hit-wonder status when he dropped his rollicking video for “Montero (Call Me By Your Name).” It includes all of the classic hallmarks of controversy, from religious imagery (including a trip to hell!) to sex and nudity. Throw in the fact that the sex in question is of a gay variety and you have acres of fertile ground for critics. The kerfuffle led South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem to Tweet, “We are in a fight for the soul of our nation.” In response to his detractors, the rapper Tweeted, “Y’all love saying we going to hell but get upset when i actually go there lmao.”