Sex, violence, drugs, politics, religion and just plain loud noise have all been grounds for music censorship. Whether referencing taboo subject matter, challenging the government and commercialism or just upsetting the masses (directly or indirectly), musicians are targeted out of fear of their power over listeners. In honor of Music Freedom Day, NCAC has compiled a list of 40 banned and censored songs that we doubt your parents would approve of!
40. “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” Tom Petty (October 1994) In Tom Petty’s “You Don’t Know How it Feels,” the common practice of censoring drug-related content was demonstrated. The line “let’s roll another joint” is almost always censored during airplay. The word “joint” was obscured by MTV as well through a technique where the word is reversed, making it indecipherable.
39. “Red Nation,” The Game (April 12, 2011) MTV, BET and numerous radio stations banned the rapper The Game’s “Red Nation” due to its references to gang life. This did not affect the song’s popularity though, and the music video received over 10 million views on YouTube. The Game has actually said that he wished more of his songs were banned because it seems to make him even more popular.
38. “Greased Lightning,” John Travolta (1978)* The song “Greased Lightning” from the musical and film Grease, surprisingly features some fairly crude content. The line, “it ain’t no shit” is usually cut from radio airplay. But ironically, when the character Rizzo used the Italian curse word “fongool” in the song “Look At Me, I’m Sandra Dee,” it was not censored.
37. “Brown Eyed Girl,” Van Morrison (June, 1967) This rock classic, originally called “Brown Skinned Girl,” is about an interracial relationship. Morrison changed the title because he believed it would make it more radio-friendly. Some stations banned the song anyway for the line, “making love in the green grass.” However, an edited version was released later on, changing it to “laughin’ and a-runnin’, hey, hey.” Rock stations everywhere now play “Brown Eyed Girl” consistently
36. “Fuck It (I Don’t Want You Back),” Eamon (November 23, 2003) Despite the fact that profanity on the radio has not been completely prohibited in the UK for some time, many stations refused to play this song due to its language. It topped the charts for four weeks but DJs simply referred to it as “I Don’t Want You Back.” A version of the song came out a year later with all 33 expletives silenced.
35. “Strange Fruit,” Billie Holiday (1939) This song was a profound and powerful depiction of Billie Holiday’s horror over a lynching. It was banned from U.S. radio for its heavy, morbid content upon its release in 1939. As dark as the lyrics were, this was a song that the public truly needed to hear at the time. In 1965, Billie Holiday’s music was censored again when ABC radio refused to play “Love for Sale” as the song’s lyrics were about prostitution.
34. “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” The Shirelles (November, 1960) “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” is a song about the day following an intimate encounter with a man. It is nothing less than an American classic and made history by becoming the first #1 hit by a black female group. It was also the first #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts, which debuted in 1958. The song was banned by radio stations for its mild sexual content, but it still sold over a million copies
33. “LoveGame,” Lady Gaga (March 23, 2009) This nightclub hit was banned on the radio for its heavily suggestive themes– especially the infamous line, “I want to take a ride on your disco stick.” Gaga believed that radio authorities were too hard on her, but admitted that the line was not intended to be subtle by any means. The pop artist has faced additional censorship worldwide when her song “Judas” was banned in Lebanon for being offensive to Christianity.
32. “My Generation,” The Who (October 29, 1965) A rather unique case, “My Generation” was banned from the radio for a reason unrelated to its lyrical content. The song featured vocals that resembled stuttering; afraid to offend people with actual stuttering problems, the BBC prohibited the song from receiving airplay. Later, when the song proved to be a huge hit, they allowed it.
31. “The Pill,” Loretta Lynn (1975) Upon its release in 1975, radio stations refused to give Loretta Lynn’s song “The Pill” airplay because of its content regarding birth control, which was widely looked down upon at the time.
30. “Sailing,” Rod Stewart (June 1972) Rod Stewart’s “Sailing” is an example of wartime censorship. When Britain recaptured the South Atlantic Falkland Islands after the Argentine invasion in April 1982, British radio programmers banned certain songs with nautical themes. “Sailing” was only one of them.
29. “Paper Planes,” M.I.A. (August, 2007) This song was subjected to censorship on MTV and “Late Night With David Letterman” due to gunshot sounds heard in the song’s chorus.
28. “Radio Radio,” Elvis Costello and the Attractions (December 1977) Elvis Costello and the Attractions were prohibited from playing “Radio, Radio” on Saturday Night Live in 1977 because they believe the song expressed anti-media sentiments. A few seconds into performing a different song, they rebelliously switched to “Radio, Radio” without telling anyone. Costello was reportedly banned from the show for 12 years.
27. “Hey Joe,” Jimi Hendrix (December 16, 1966) Radio behemoth Clear Channel Communications barred this song after 9/11 because of its violent subject matter. Censorship around Hendrix and this song also took place during his appearance on the BBC show Happening for Lulu, where he abruptly stopped his performance to transfer from “Hey Joe” to a noisy instrumental version of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” (seen after 2 1/2 minutes in the video below). Displeased to say the least, the producer pulled Hendrix and his band off the air and banned them from BBC.
26. “Love to Love You Baby,” Donna Summer (August 27, 1975) This sexually charged disco anthem was Donna Summer’s first hit. It became popular worldwide, but broadcasters including BBC banned it due to its blatant sexual content. These included sounds of orgasms and crude lyrics. Summer said that she did in fact understand the bans and regrets that this was her first popular single, which subsequently shaped her image as an artist.
25. “Rolling in the Deep,” Adele (November 29, 2010) Many radio stations censored part of the song’s first verse due to ambiguity between whether Adele used the word “ship” or “shit” in one line. “Go ahead and sell me out and I’ll lay your shit bare.” Online lyrics stated that the word was “ship” while Adele’s handwritten lyrics featured the expletive instead. Also suggesting that the intended word was in fact “shit,” Adele replaced the word in question with “stuff” during a televised performance of the song. The line “reaching the fever pitch” has been mistaken as “reaching the fever bitch,” and was censored by some radio stations as well.
24. “Blurred Lines,” Robin Thicke (March 26, 2013) The original version of the music video for “Blurred Lines” was initially pulled from YouTube because it featured nudity. An edited version was put up, but that was not the end of the song’s controversy. At least four universities in the UK forbid this song from being played on campus due to its misogynistic lyrics.
23. “God Only Knows,” The Beach Boys (July 11, 1966) This soft, harmonious ballad off The Beach Boys’ most unique album, Pet Sounds, was forbidden in some parts of the U.S. for “blasphemy.” Even without any negative connotation, it was considered unacceptable at the time to use the word “God” in a song. The writers anticipated the controversy and did have second thoughts at one point about including the word in the title and chorus. Once they chose to keep it though, they were happy with their decision–and so were their fans.
22. “In the Air Tonight,” Phil Collins (January 5, 1981) This seemingly harmless song by Phil Collins has been banned on two separate occasions. The first time was in 1991, after BBC forbid 67 songs from airplay due to their perceived connection to the war occurring in the Persian Gulf. The second time was in 2001, when Clear Channel Communications prohibited 162 songs from the airwaves after the 9/11 attacks.
21. “Juicy,” The Notorious B.I.G. (August 8, 1994) Rapper Notorious B.I.G.’s song “Juicy” is another example of how tragic events can provoke censorship. The line “time to get paid/blow up like the World Trade” was removed from the song after the September 11 attacks. This line was initially referencing the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, using the phrase “blow up” as slang for achieving quick and sudden fame.
20. “Lola,” The Kinks (June 12, 1970) The Kinks’ “Lola” was a popular single that reached #2 on UK charts and #9 in the U.S. This song faced censorship on less common ground than most. The original studio recording contained the word “Coca-Cola” in the lyrics, which violated BBC Radio’s policy against product placement. The songwriter, Ray Davies, was forced to interrupt the Kinks’ American tour so he could change the lyric to “cherry cola” for the single’s release. He made a 6,ooo mile round trip flight from New York to London and back just for this purpose.
19. “If U Seek Amy,” Britney Spears (March 10, 2009) This controversial single whose chorus and title sound like “F-U-C-K me” when sung, was censored in the U.S. and the UK. Initially unsure on whether the double entendre was in fact censorship material, U.S. radio stations changed the title to “If U See Amy” and BBC radio simply changed it to “Amy.” This was after the Parents Television Council (PTC) threatened to file complaints against the FCC if the track was played. These threats were extended to cable music channels, but they were not taken seriously.
18. “Louie, Louie,” the Kingsmen (May 1963) The Kingsmen’s version of “Louie, Louie” faced bans on U.S. radio due to obscene lyrics. The band attempted to cover up the sexual content by slurring the lyrics, beginning a 31-month FBI investigation of the song. The investigation was inconclusive as they were unable to interpret the true lyrics– but the Kingsmen’s drummer, Lynn Easton, later confessed to yelling “fuck” during the song’s recording after dropping a drumstick. Controversy over the song resurfaced in Benton Harbor, Michigan in 2005 when a school superintendent prohibited a marching band’s rendition of the song during a parade.
17. “Walk Like an Egyptian,” The Bangles (September 1986) “Walk Like an Egyptian” is another song banned by both BBC in 1991 and Clear Channel Communications in 2001. Again, the purpose of this was to avoid offending those who would relate this song and its references to Egypt to the conflicts in the Middle East.
16. “Why,” Jadakiss (July 16, 2004) “Why” was censored by radio stations and Jadakiss’ own record label, Interscope (which sent an edited version to MTV), for lyrics suggesting President Bush was involved in the 9/11 attacks.
15. “The Hand That Feeds,” Nine Inch Nails (March 28, 2005) Nine Inch Nails dropped out of the MTV Movie Awards after being prohibited from using an image of President George W. Bush as a backdrop to their performance. This song also included political statements, which MTV was uncomfortable televising.
14. “Physical,” Olivia Newton John (September 1981) “Physical” became extremely popular in the U.S. and the UK upon its release, but some radio stations banned the song due to its sexual content and censored lines such as “There’s nothing left to talk about unless it’s horizontally.” Another source of controversy around this song was that the music video featured a gay couple holding hands (who comically ignored Olivia’s advances throughout the video). The scene caused the video to be banned by some broadcasters, and even MTV censored it.
13. “Light My Fire,” The Doors (September 1967) The Doors were blacklisted from The Ed Sullivan Show on September 17, 1967 after failing to change the line “Girl, we couldn’t get much higher”–which seemed to be referencing drug use– to “Girl, we couldn’t get much better.” Lead singer Jim Morrison had initially agreed to self-censor during his performance; but like many artists, he could not resist presenting his work in its true form. BBC also banned this song 24 years later, this time because of the word “fire.” This was done to avoid upsetting radio listeners during by the Persian Gulf War. Another Doors song, “Unknown Soldier,” was also banned for its anti-war message.
12. “This Note’s For You,” Neil Young (April 11, 1988) This ballsy parody of commercial rock was banned by MTV for its critique of the music industry’s cozy relationship with corporate America. The song and video mocked advertisements and did not shy away from dropping company names– the title itself is a jab at Budweiser’s ad campaign of “This Bud’s For You.” The song also made fun of pop artists such as Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston. Jackson’s legal threats prompted MTV to ban the video. They changed their minds when the song became a hit on Canada’s MuchMusic channel
11. “Take the Power Back,” Rage Against the Machine (November 3, 1992) After Cholla High Magnet School teachers used this song in a Mexican-American history class, Superintendent John Huppenthal issued a “notice of noncompliance” to the Tucson Unified School District. So in January 2015, over 20 years after the song was released, Rage Against the Machine’s lyrics–along with KRS-One’s hip-hop teachings– were deemed to be against Arizona state law, which states that schools cannot “advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.”
10. “Relax,” Frankie Goes to Hollywood (October 24, 1983) On January 11, 1984, Radio 1 disc jockey Mike Read publicly expressed his distaste of the song “Relax” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. He said that he refused to play it and subsequently took the record off his turntable and broke it in two. Without consulting Read, Radio 1 had decided to pull the record–which ironically sent it straight to number one on the charts for a five-week stay.
9. “Your Revolution,” Sarah Jones (September 4th, 2002) After airing “Your Revolution,” a song that critiqued hip hop’s treatment of women, a radio station was issued a Notice of Apparent Liability for Forfeiture (NAL) by the FCC, which deemed the song obscene. Jones attempted to sue the FCC which resulted in the removal of the NAL which would have fined the radio station $7,000. However, Jones’ case was dismissed.
8. “Imagine,” John Lennon (October 11, 1971) Another object of Clear Channel’s post-9/11 bans (this one rather ironic), John Lennon’s ballad about peace has been both loved and hated worldwide. Religious groups criticize it for the line “imagine there’s no heaven,” but that did not stop it from topping charts and earning widespread critical acclaim. Along with Clear Channel’s ban, BBC also took this song off the air in 1991 because of the Gulf War.
7. “God Save the Queen,” The Sex Pistols (May 27, 1977) This extremely controversial song was denied airplay by BBC in 1977 due to its criticism of the British government–despite the fact that it had reached number two in the BBC’s own charts. Later, police harassed the band when it performed the song from a boat on the Thames.
6. “The Real Slim Shady,” Eminem (May 16, 2000) The FCC fined Colorado Springs Radio (KKMG-FM) $7,000 in June of 2001 for playing the edited – or clean – version of this song. While this version featured no explicit language, the FCC issued the fine because of the song’s sexual references and themes. The commission put guidelines in place earlier in 2001 stating that context and innuendo alone could get a station in trouble for violating its decency standards.
5. “Walk On,” U2 (February 20, 2001) U2’s album, All You Can’t Leave Behind, was banned in Burma due to its track “Walk On.” This song demonstrates support for the country’s democratic movement and was dedicated to activist Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who was placed under house arrest for her activism.
4. “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” The Rolling Stones (June 6, 1965) In 1965, during a performance of this world-famous chart-topper on ABC’s music variety show, Shindig!, the song’s line “trying to make some girl” was censored. Not surprisingly, “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” had faced much criticism for its sexual innuendo and critical statements about commercialism. However, when the Rolling Stones performed the song again 40 years later during the February 2006 Super Bowl XL halftime show, this was the only song that wasn’t censored.
3. “Like a Prayer,” Madonna (March 3, 1989) Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” sparked major controversy worldwide. The American Family Association and The Vatican condemned the music video for its supposedly blasphemous imagery. Religious groups also began protesting the song after it was used in a Pepsi commercial. Pepsi eventually decided to cancel the advertising campaign. Meanwhile, Pope John Paul II encouraged people to boycott Madonna’s concerts in Italy in 1990 shortly after the song’s release. Madonna has also been banned in Egypt and faced restrictions in Russia.
2. “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” The Beatles (June 1, 1967) The Beatles’ eighth studio album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, sparked a great deal of controversy upon its release due to its numerous perceived drug references. Over half of the songs were commonly believed to contain drug-related themes, specifically “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” which many believed to be a crafty acronym for the drug LSD. This resulted in the BBC banning the song from British radio, along with other popular tracks on the album such as “A Day in the Life.” “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” was also banned by Clear Channel Communications after 9/11.
1. “Cop Killer,” Body Count (March 10, 1992) When talking about controversial music, there are few more shining examples than “Cop Killer.” Recorded by Ice-T’s rock group Body Count, “Cop Killer” is a heated song about a victim of police brutality who violently takes matters into his own hands. The song faced criticism from law enforcement agencies, the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), President George H.W. Bush and the public in general. Some people responded through protests and boycotts of any company associated with the distribution of the record. This caused sales to skyrocket, but also prompted certain stores to take the album off their shelves. Some countries, such as New Zealand, attempted to have the song and the rap group itself completely banned. Stockholders threatened to pull out from Warner Bros Records and executives received death threats. While Ice-T stood by his work, stating that it was a protest song meant to reflect hateful emotions rather than encourage violence, he subsequently decided to recall the album, removing the trouble-making song upon re-release.