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The 13 Most Controversial Rock Videos Of All Time

Featuring Tool, Motörhead, Nine Inch Nails, Rammstein and more…

From the early days of cheap promo clips being sent out to TV stations as filler, to the heady days of 1980s MTV and 24-hour wall-to-wall videos, to the modern era of YouTube where there are more videos than anyone could watch in a lifetime, it’s been a challenge to get a music video to stick out from the crowd.

Controversy does it. Offending people in any way, whether deliberately or not (and whether justifiably or not) can create a buzz around a video, a bit of notoriety that can turn it into a must-see. Some of the most memorable videos have led to arguments about censorship and offensiveness, attempts to “ban this sick filth”, and happily toed the line between art and dirt.

Here are some of our favourite videos to have raised the hackles of the squares and netted some views and notoriety in the process…

Foo Fighters – Low

In what must have been a really fun shoot, Foo Fighters’ Low video features BFFs Dave Grohl and Jack Black playing redneck truckers hiding a secret. They put on make-up and cavort in a hotel room dressed as women, filming each other in night vision as events get drunker and more risque. Spanking, crotch-grabbing and the intimate entwining of limbs ensue, but it was all a bit much for several music channels, who objected to the man-on-man nature of it.

Korn – A.D.I.D.A.S.

Korn are dead at the beginning of the A.D.I.D.A.S. video, due to crashing their car into another one filled with prostitutes and driven by a pimp. Their bodies gathered up by porn-reading policemen and a terrifying coroner (played by the seven-foot Carel Struycken, best known as Lurch from the Addams Family movies), they are summarily autopsied and thrown in a morgue, but not before lead singer Jonathan Davis is revealed to be wearing women’s underwear. Joseph Kahn’s video is deeply silly but quite disturbing at the same time.

Marilyn Manson – (s)AInt

Directed by Asia Argento, Marilyn Manson describes the video for (s)AINT as “excessive self-destruction, inhaling pain slowly, until it manifests in a waterfall of nosebleeds, self-mutilation and three-way sex scenes with men” and “an uncompromised look at me at my absolute lowest point, the point where I have to look up to see shit”. Incredibly graphic in terms of nudity, blood and drug use, it features such, well, Marilyn Manson-esque behaviour as doing lines of cocaine off a bible, tying off with a rosary and slicing his chest open with a razor blade. Inspired both by Leaving Las Vegas and early 20th-century Weimar Republic pornography, the uncut version was sold on DVD from Manson’s website complete with a signed Bible page.

Mastodon – The Motherload

For their Motherload video, Mastodon wanted to satirise the excesses of ’90s metal videos, celebrate their hometown of Atlanta and give fans the last thing they’d expect from a Mastodon video. The result of these three ideas combining was a far more twerking-filled video than anyone saw coming. While the band saw it as celebratory and a showcase of dance skills, it was denounced as misogynistic in a lot of circles.

Motörhead – Killed By Death

It seems fairly cheesy now, but in 1983 this celebration of rebellion, swearing, motorcycles and general over-the-topness scandalised people, with the tale of Lemmy’s bird-flipping crime rampage and subsequent execution getting banned from MTV due to what they called “excessive and senseless violence”. It was directed by Rod Swenson, manager of the Plasmatics, and featured that band’s Wendy O. Williams prominently.

Nine Inch Nails – Closer

The Closer video contains all kinds of controversial imagery, from fetish gear to sexualised religious iconography. Directed by Mark Romanek, the video aired in several different versions, with “scene missing” cards inserted in place of, for example, minotaur toplessness, to make it more palatable for broadcast. Trent Reznor spends much of the video suspended from the ceiling in leather trousers or taking an air cannon to the face, surrounded by stop-motion beating hearts, crucified monkeys, anatomical diagrams and BDSM equipment. Reznor later said of the video “The rarest of things occurred: where the song sounded better to me, seeing it with the video. And it’s my song.”

Nirvana – Heart-Shaped Box

Directed by Anton Corbijn based on a treatment by Kurt Cobain, the Heart-Shaped Box video is a surreal art project. A dying, elderly, heavily medicated hospital patient hallucinates, or is transported to, a hyper-colourful world in which he becomes a gaunt Jesus figure, crucifying himself as crows peck at him. A tiny Klan-masked child tries in vain to pluck human foetuses from a tree, while a large woman painted like an anatomical model runs around. It’s all pretty crazy stuff, but Krist Novoselic’s choice of trousers is maybe the most haunting thing of all. Despite the boundary-pushing imagery, the video became MT’s most-played, as Nirvana were the biggest band in the world at the time. They won two Music Video Awards for it, which were collected after Cobain’s tragic suicide.

Pearl Jam – Jeremy

Pearl Jam’s video for Jeremy was always going to be controversial, but it ended up becoming more so due to censorship. The video was set to end with Jeremy putting a gun in his mouth and shooting himself in front of his classmates, but restrictions on what MTV could show meant the location and direction of the gun ended up really ambiguous, and it appeared to a lot of people as though Jeremy had in fact shot all the other children in his class. The director was really upset – he’d intended it to be clear that they were recoiling in horror as Jeremy shot himself. The video was later claimed to have influenced a 1996 school shooting – which might not have been the case with less ambiguous editing – and as such events became more tragically common in the US, the video received less and less airplay.

The Prodigy – Smack My Bitch Up

Smack My Bitch Up was controversial even without the video, played in a lyric-free version on Radio 1 and never referred to by its full name. Adding to it all, shot in first-person and featuring pretty much every type of bad behaviour you can think of, was Jonas Åkerlund’s video for it. The Smack My Bitch Up video includes drink-driving, cocaine, heroin, vandalism, vehicular homicide and fighting, as well as sex with a stripper played by Teresa May (not the Prime Minister, a model by the same name). At the very end, it’s revealed that the eyes we’ve been looking through all the time belonged to a woman. Twist! The video was accused of glamorising violence against women, while simultaneously being praised in some circles for subverting gender roles.

Rammstein – Pussy

Rammstein have never been the shyest of bands, regularly firing huge penis-shaped foam cannon over their audience between flamethrower-heavy antics, but they went went hell for leather for the video for Pussy, directed by Jonas Åkerlund. It’s, well, full-on pornography. Performance footage is interspersed with hardcore footage of band members engaged in real, unsimulated sex (although, as guitarist Paul H Landers later revealed, “In terms of close-ups of specific body parts, there were some body doubles”).

Smashing Pumpkins – Try, Try, Try

There is a fifteen-minute version of Swedish director Jonas Åkerlund’s video that is well worth watching, but the standard version is disturbing enough. Max and Linda, a heroin-addicted couple - a ridiculously good-looking heroin-addicted couple - shoplift, mug people, urinate in public, beg and fight, and work as a pimp and prostitute, all while Linda is pregnant. Brief, surreal, technicolour visions of a suburban happy family interrupt their spiralling nightmare, culminating in an overdose and miscarriage. The upsetting, graphic content of the video, including intravenous drug use, saw the extended version removed from MTV.

Soundgarden – Jesus Christ Pose

Soundgarden received death threats after the broadcast of their Jesus Christ Pose video. It wasn’t intended as anti-Christian, but included huge amounts of Christian imagery, including frequently inverted crosses and the crucifixions of a woman, a skeleton and a humanoid figure made of vegetables. Chris Cornell said, “It was a pretty unanimous decision by the band to have a woman being crucified in the video. As a visual, it’s powerful and challenging to people, because women have been persecuted since before recorded history, and it would almost make more sense than seeing a man on it.” The controversy and death threats that ensued caused the video to be pulled from rotation.

Tool – Prison Sex

Directed by Tool guitarist Adam Jones, who worked on Jurassic Park, Terminator 2 and multiple Nightmare on Elm Street movies, the Prison Sex video is a haunting, nightmarish, surreal, incredibly disturbing experience, a stop-motion tale of child abuse and how easily and frequently it becomes cyclical. Despite being manifestly against said abuse, the band’s decision to depict such subject matter at all stirred controversy, and MTV pulled the video from circulation. “There’s definitely a cycle involved, a push-and-pull,” said Maynard James Keenan at the time. “I guess anything that deals with that sort of subject matter is going to end up hitting roadblocks”.

Posted on June 1st 2020, 1:37pm
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