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Unsafe For Radio: John Lennon, NWA And A History Of Controversial Songs
April 24, 2012
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On this day in 1972, John Lennon and Yoko Ono released arguably their most controversial song, 'Woman Is The N----r Of The World'.

Before he performed the song on The Dick Cavett Show, Lennon namechecked Irish republican James Connolly as an inspiration, having quoted Connolly's 'the female is the slave of the slave' in the lyric. And although it was banned on most radio stations, many prominent black leaders defended the song, including comedian Dick Gregory and Congressman Ron Dellums of the Black Caucus, who said: "If you define 'n----r' as someone whose lifestyle is defined by others, whose opportunities are defined by others, whose role in society is defined by others, the good news is that you don't have to be black to be a n----r in this society. Most of the people in America are n----rs."

Lennon, of course, was no stranger to controversy: he experienced an outpouring of criticism after claiming that The Beatles had become "more popular than Jesus." And a few of his songs with the Fab Four were criticized for the messages they allegedly contain, such as 'Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds' and its supposed reference to LSD - a reference Lennon said did not exist. He claimed his son Julien inspired the song with a nursery school drawing.

Many musicians have found themselves (or even placed themselves) at the centre of controversy over their songs. Below is a list of some songs that have caused a stir with their lyrics and approach. Note: beware of some explicit content.

John Lennon "Woman Is The N----r Of The World"

Billie Holiday "Strange Fruit"
It started life as a poem by Jewish teacher Abel Meeropol that exposed the horror of racism and lynching in America. It became famous when Billie recorded it in 1939. Her label, Columbia, initially refused to let her release the song, fearing the reaction of record retailers in the South, but eventually they relented, and it became her highest-selling record.

Body Count "Cop Killer"
Ice-T and Body Count created a massive outcry when they released this track, with police organizations across the U.S. calling for boycotts of all Time-Warner products to protest the song. Eventually 'Cop Killer' was dropped from Body Count's self-titled album, and the studio version has never been re-released. But it's available on YouTube ...

Eminem "Kim"
Arguably the darkest thing Marshall Mathers has ever recorded, 'Kim' is six minutes of Eminem screaming at, and murdering, a fictional version of his ex-wife Kim Mathers. The song was condemned by parents and politicians alike, and was later used against Eminem in court when Kim attempted suicide after watching the song performed live several months after its release in 2000.

Sex Pistols "God Save The Queen"
Released the same year that Elizabeth received her Silver Jubilee, 'God Save The Queen' shocked society, but simultaneously became an anthem for British youth. BBC banned the song, even though it reached the second spot on the UK Singles chart.

Rage Against The Machine "Killing In The Name"
When the most recognizable section of a song features 17 instances of the f-word, it's already ripe for controversy. Throw in the charged subject matter - allegations that many members of U.S. police forces are also members of the Ku Klux Klan - and you've got a lightning rod of a tune.

Prodigy "Smack My B---h Up"
With a title and lyrics that appear to condone - or even encourage - violence against women, this song was unsurprisingly controversial upon its release. The video, however, may tell another story, based on its twist ending.

Ozzy Osbourne "Suicide Solution"
When a teenager shot himself in the head while listening to this song, Ozzy was taken to court by the young man's parents. In the end, Ozzy was cleared of wrongdoing, and he pointed out that the title referred to a "solution" not in the sense of solving a problem, but a liquid with something dissolved in it - in this case alcohol, a substance that Ozzy had struggled with for years.

Marilyn Manson "Get Your Gunn"
Talk about starting out controversial: Marilyn Manson's first single was 'Get Your Gunn', written about the murder of OB/GYN doctor David Gunn, who was shot by a pro-life activist. It also contains audio from the press conference at which politician Budd Dwyer shot himself. Shock tactics in musical form: Marilyn Manson had arrived.

Nirvana "Rape Me"
Using the word "rape" in the title and lyrics of a song that was destined to get radio and video play around the world? That was Kurt Cobain for you. The packaging for Wal-Mart and K-Mart versions of 'In Utero' changed the name to the nonsensical 'Waif Me', although the song itself was untouched.

Slayer "Angel Of Death"
The lyrics to 'Angel Of Death', which were inspired by the atrocities committed by Nazi doctor Josef Mengele, outraged survivors of the Holocaust, their families, and the general public. The band has defended themselves against claims that they are Nazi sympathizers, saying they don't condone racism and are merely interested in the subject.

NWA "F--k Tha Police"
This one caused a lot of trouble: the gangster rap group was banned from performing at many venues, and both the FBI and the U.S. Secret Service sent letters to NWA's record label (Ruthless Records) expressing their frustration with the song. It was inspired by the ongoing tension between the police and urban youth.

XTC "Dear God"
After they finished making plans for Nigel, XTC created this song, featuring vocals from eight-year-old Jasmine Veillette that addressed God and accused him of causing human suffering. As well as generating outrage at radio stations, the song was at the centre of an incident at a Binghampton, New York high school, when 18-year-old student Gary Pullis held his school's secretary at knife point and demanded that the song be played over the intercom.

Prince "Darling Nikki"
Label this one "too much for 1984": Prince shares some salacious details about a girl who seduces him in a hotel lobby. The lyrical content probably wouldn't even lift an eyebrow in today's pop music world, but back in the '80s, the graphic sexual imagery was part of the reason for the creation of the Parents Music Resource Center, which Tipper Gore founded in 1985. So you can thank Prince, in part, for those "Parental Advisory" stickers on album covers.

The Doors "Light My Fire"
When Jim Morrison and company performed this tune on 'The Ed Sullivan Show,' the producer asked them to change the line "girl we couldn't get much higher" as the sponsors felt that it was a reference to drugs. They agreed. But although the band used the amended lyrics in rehearsals, Morrison sang the original during the live performance.

Frankie Goes To Hollywood "Relax"
The tune was banned by the BBC as the lyrics and cover depicted overtly homosexual content. Even so, it went on to become a big hit. And who could forget its pivotal use in Zoolander?

The Cure "Killing An Arab"
This song is based on 'L'etranger' ('The Stranger') by Albert Camus, a novel in which the protagonist shoots an Arab man on a beach. Without that context, however, the song has been misinterpreted to advocate violence against Arabs, which is why Robert Smith and his label have refused to include it in singles compilations, and why the band has changed the lyrics in recent performances ("killing another", "killing an Ahab").

Related stories on Strombo.com:

THE LIST: Favourite John Lennon Moments

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