The Most Controversial Music Videos of All Time

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A new exhibition opening April 3 at the Museum of the Moving Image will celebrate music videos as an art form at the “forefront of creative technology, its role in pushing the boundaries of innovative production, its important role as an experimental sandbox for filmmakers, and its lasting effects on popular culture globally.” Groundbreaking videos will feature prominently, with original drawings, costumes, and more on display. The announcement got us thinking about the boldest images from music videos that have stuck with us over the years — those works that helped break the barriers of censorship and became the most controversial of all time. So, if you’re still wondering what the hell No Doubt was thinking by playing cowboys and Indians last year, or if Madonna can ever top the videos from her Erotica days, click through to see 10 music videos that pushed the envelope and made headlines. Feel free to add your own picks, below. In case you haven’t guessed by now, these videos are NSFW.

Nine Inch Nails, “Happiness In Slavery”

“Supermasochist” Bob Flanagan appeared in the music video for Nine Inch Nails’ “Happiness in Slavery” from the band’s Broken EP. If you’re familiar with the late performance artist’s oeuvre, which includes a nail through the penis spectacular (watch the great documentary SICK for more on that), then you won’t be surprised to find out that the video was widely banned for its gory imagery. Flanagan portrayed a slave who offered his body to a machine that tortured and killed him. During the 1990s, the dark recording was only available via bootleg VHS tapes. “These were the most appropriate visuals for the song,” Reznor said of the work in a 1992 interview. The frontman stated that his goal was to create a “bizarre and interesting visual experiment that did not look like a typical video,” emphasizing the importance of artistic control over his works. “Granted, this is an extreme example,” he admitted.

Nirvana, “Heart Shaped Box”

Nirvana’s acclaimed third and final studio album, In Utero, set the band in a different direction and nothing established that more than their video for “Heart-Shaped Box” — directed by Dutch filmmaker Anton Corbijn. The jarring Wizard of Oz, Ku Klux Klan, drug, and Christian symbolism (as well as the unborn babies hanging from trees) made waves with various groups and inspired a lawsuit from former music video collaborator Kevin Kerslake, who claimed the band stole his ideas.

Soft Cell, “Sex Dwarf”

Renowned music video director Tim Pope shot the filthy footage for Soft Cell’s “Sex Dwarf,” which contains actual sex dwarfs (and chainsaws). It was released during the promotional push for the band’s synthtastical album Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret. UK authorities didn’t take kindly to the raunchy video, which was widely banned and censored. Pope later reshot it, which is explained in this video spotted by Dangerous Minds. Listen to Pope talk about maggots and hookers, below.

Prodigy, “Smack My Bitch Up”

Swedish director Jonas Åkerlund, the former drummer for the black metal band Bathory, reminded audiences that woman can be raucous, boozing coke fiends just like men in the video for Prodigy’s “Smack My Bitch Up.” The National Organization for Women (NOW) derided the short film for its violence and portrayal of women. It was banned, but MTV eventually aired it during their late-night slate — alongside another controversial video from the time: Nine Inch Nail’s “Closer.”

2 Live Crew, “Me So Horny”

2 Live Crew’s 1989 explicit album As Nasty As They Wanna Be was one of the first to bear the dreaded “Parental Advisory” sticker, thanks to one track that prompted a major case against the music industry. The album was banned in Florida, leading to several arrests, and the rap group was prosecuted on obscenity charges. The case was eventually overturned, with help from free-speech supporters like Sinéad O’Connor. The drama inadvertently increased album sales, bringing the song to number one on the Billboard Hot Rap Tracks chart. G-strings and booty bouncing dominates the music video, which drew record numbers during its premiere.

M.I.A., “Born Free”

The nine-minute short film for M.I.A.’s “Born Free” was banned by YouTube, despite positive critical reception. In the graphic video, directed by Romain Gavras, red-headed adolescents are rounded up and executed, with bodies exploding into the finale. The controversy perplexed the artist who criticized censors:

“It’s just fake blood and ketchup and people are more offended by that than the [Sri Lankan] execution videos… I Twittered about them six months ago and no one talked about that, and then me and Romain make a video and everyone’s like, ‘Oh my God.'”

Gavras and M.I.A. reunited for another controversial video, “Bad Girls,” which supported campaigns by Saudi Arabian women to gain equal rights.

Serge Gainsbourg, “Lemon Incest”

Serge Gainsbourg was known to court a controversy or two in his day. We’re talking about the same guy who told rising star Whitney Houston he’d like to “f*ck” her on national television. In 1984, Gainsbourg’s album Love on the Beat featured a duet with his 12-year-old daughter, Charlotte, called “Lemon Incest.” If that weren’t cause for a double take, the video showed dad and daughter rolling around in bed while Charlotte cooed about “the most beautiful, the most violent, the most pure, the most heady” love “that [they] will never make together.” The media went wild, accusing Gainsbourg of creating yet another autobiographical song, which he denied.

Marilyn Manson, “(s)AINT”

What happens when the daughter of Italian horror god Dario Argento — a controversial filmmaker and artist in her own right — collaborates with a provocative singer who named himself after a serial killer? The music video for “(s)AINT” from Marilyn Manson’s 2003 album The Golden Age of Grotesque. It features a pornucopia of sex, drugs, blood, and other lighthearted antics. Banned by his own music label and the boob tube at large, the singer was forced to release the explicit work on DVD.

Skinny Puppy, “Worlock”

Skinny Puppy shook things up during their VIVIsectVI tour in the late ’80s when band members — known for their outspoken activism — were arrested after being accused of torturing a dog on stage. The animal rights advocates were actually gutting a stuffed animal. The scathing social and political critiques continued on the band’s follow-up album Rabies, which prompted a video that challenged censorship in America. Banned by TV stations worldwide, including MTV, the blood-soaked video for “Worlock” borrowed scenes from various violent horror films: Deep Red, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, From Beyond, amongst them.

Björk, “Pagan Poetry”

Award-winning photographer and documentarian Nick Knight spoke about the inspiration behind his banned video for Björk’s “Pagan Poetry,” from the Icelandic artist’s album Vespertine — which sports the Marjan Pejoski-designed “swan dress” she wore to the 2001 Academy Awards:

“I wanted to strip her down. She’s actually quite raw, womanly and sexy. There’s a different side to her that doesn’t come across normally in her videos. That’s what I asked her to do and that’s what she did… I gave her [Björk] a Sony Mini DV camera and asked her to shoot her own private scenes […] She asked me to make a film about her love life, so I merely gave it back to her and said, ‘Film your love life.'”