Some of the greatest musicians and singers are also the most controversial.
From pop stars, to gangsta rappers, to metal bands, controversy is not confined to a single genre.
And as many of the artists on this list demonstrate, controversy often helps to build and sustain the legacy of an artist.
Whether because of their politics or personal dramas, these artists have often been in the limelight. They create a sense of intrigue that keeps their fans, their haters, and the media talking.
Let’s find out more about some of the most controversial musicians of all time.
With a song about the Moors murders, an album titled Meat Is Murder, and outspoken criticisms of the Royal Family, Morrissey has never been far away from controversy.
An especially memorable Morrisey moment was his outspoken comments on Margaret Thatcher in the mid 1980s. He followed this up with ‘Margaret on the Guillotine’ in his debut solo album Viva Hate. “When will you die? When will you die?” he sang before the song ends with the sound of a guillotine dropping.
In recent times, Morrissey has courted controversy with a jarring political switch, alienating many of his old left-leaning fans.
Amongst other things, he expressed support for the anti-immigration, pro-Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage, saying “he would make a good prime minister.”
Johnny Rotten and Malcolm Maclaren knew how to get themselves noticed at the outbreak of the Sex Pistols’ career.
Maclaren’s decision to rename their song ‘No Future’ to ‘God Save The Queen’ became a big turning point. This brought to light the song’s equation of the British monarchy with a fascist regime, and its release at the time of the Queen’s silver jubilee led to the song being banned by the BBC.
Some conspiracy theorists have claimed that the BBC rigged the charts to avoid the single from reaching number one, as a Channel 5 documentary details.
Ongoing controversy did not stop the organisers of the London Olympic Games inviting the band to perform at the event a few decades later.
However, it is perhaps no surprise that The Sex Pistols ultimately declined to perform at the high-profile event, due to the proposed censoring of their song ‘Pretty Vacant.‘
Lady Gaga knows how to reinvent her image and stay within the spotlight of the entertainment industry, although this has not always been for the most favourable reasons.
One example was when the “Queen of Extreme” walked down the red carpet of the MTV Video Music Awards in a meat dress in 2010.
The unusual fashion statement caused a stir with animal rights activists, with the founder of PETA, Ingrid Newkirk, saying “more people are upset by butchery than impressed by it.”
Other famous Lady Gaga controversies include getting a model on her stage show to vomit on her, provoking accusations that the artist was glorifying bulimia.
At first gradually, and then decisively, Kanye West has established himself as one of the most controversial musicians of our time.
Several cases have made him an increasingly polarising figure, and his political opinions now often overshadow the rapper and producer’s creative talents.
In one instance, Kanye discussed his ‘brotherly love’ for Donald Trump in a divisive tweet, where he went on to say that they both had “dragon energy.” Last year at the presentation of his Yeezy Season 9 show in Paris on October 4, 2022, Kanye wore a ‘White Lives Matter’ T-shirt alongside right wing commentator Candace Owens.
Many have speculated whether his many controversies are simply marketing stunts. Former ESPN presenter Jemele Hill, spoke about this in relation to Kanye’s ‘White Lives Matter’ T-shirt, saying that ‘maybe it is. But it’s a dangerously dumb message for someone with his massive platform.’
West has also seen his most lucrative business agreements terminated, after he repeatedly made anti-semitic statements on social media and in interviews.
The music of N.W.A. – the pioneers of gangsta rap – was inherently political, touching upon the members’ own experiences of gang violence, racism, and police brutality.
‘F*** Tha Police’ begins as a parody of a court proceeding in which Dr. Dre plays the role of a judge who prosecutes the police.
The controversial rap group found themselves routinely criticised for their explicit lyrics which many saw as misogynistic, and glorifying drugs and crime. This led to N.W.A. being banned by many American radio stations.
Ice Cube and others have argued that their songs depicted the reality of late 1980s America. In an interview, Ice Cube stated, “we were saying the things that people wanted to say” as the press labelled the group the “new punk rock.”
Since breaking the scene in the mid 1990s, Marilyn Manson – who combines the names of Marilyn Monroe and cult leader Charles Manson – has remained one of the most controversial figures in music.
His first album Portrait of an American Family (1994) quickly gave the heavy rock singer a reputation of being a negative influence for young people. Many linked the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Colorado to Manson’s lyrics which were said to have incited the violence.
Manson claimed that he did not doing anything wrong and that the pair who committed the crime were not fans of his.
Over the years, Marilyn Manson has been accused of sexual abuse on numerous occasions, with allegations continuing to come out in early 2023.
John Lennon is mostly known for his role as a singer, songwriter, and rhythm guitarist in The Beatles, but he too has been at the centre of numerous controversies.
It was March 1966 when Lennon first commented in the London Evening Standard that The Beatles were “bigger than Jesus.” Few people took notice until word reached America several months later.
Many DJs in the Christian states of the Southern US began to denounce records of The Beatles and asked for them to be burned.
Lennon was once again in the limelight following his efforts in the anti-war movement, as President Nixon failed to deport him and his wife Yoko Ono.
Frankie Goes to Hollywood
The four-piece dance-pop group Frankie Goes To Hollywood were among those who formed the “sound” of the eighties.
Their first three singles ‘Relax,’ ‘The Power of Love,’ and ‘Two Tribes’ – from debut album Welcome to the Pleasuredome (1984) – reached number 1 on the UK singles chart.
After Radio 1 DJ Mike Read objected to the provocative lyrics of ‘Relax,’ the BBC banned the song from national radio and TV. However, it was the BBC’s ban on the track (reportedly for explicit sexual lyrics) that increased its publicity and eventually lifted it from number 6 to number 1.
Holly Johnson, the lead singer of the group, said that the ban did them a favour by making them seem “rebellious,” but was still not pleased that they were unable to sing their hit single on Top of the Pops.
Hailing from Moscow, punk rock band Pussy Riot are well-known for their outspoken protest songs and actions. They gained notoriety for their unauthorized guerrilla gigs with lyrical themes in opposition to Putin’s regime and his links to the Russian Orthodox Church.
Following Putin’s 2012 re-election, where accusations of fraud were widespread, the group put on a protest performance at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour criticising Putin, the Church, and its traditions.
Two of the members, Tolokonnikova and Alyokhina were jailed in separate gulags, hundreds of miles away, despite requesting to be closer to their family in Moscow.
The Russian public were largely unsympathetic with the group, but they did receive support from the West, with figures as big as Madonna calling for their release.
Heavy metal band Motörhead were never known as a particularly genteel band, and their frontman Lemmy, in particular, sparked numerous controversies.
In 2008, there was uproar when the frontman of the metal group wore a Nazi cap for a German newspaper’s photoshoot.
Lemmy had previously spoken out about his collection of German military memorabilia, stating that “from the beginning of time, the bad guys always had the best uniforms. Napoleon, the Confederates, the Nazis… they just look good.”
Motorhead guitarist Phil Campbell responded to the incident, claiming that Lemmy had no Nazi tendencies and was a “historian.”
Aside from Lemmy’s taste for far-right fashion, he was well-known for his fast living, including his rampant sexual behaviour, heavy drinking, and drug-use.
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