10 of Music’s Most Controversial Performances


Kanye West is the latest pop musician to entertain an ethically dodgy audience: the rapper recently performed at a wedding for the grandson of Kazakhstan president Nursultan Nazarbayev for a reported sum of $3 million. Kazakhstan is not one of the most politically sound countries in the world right now, and its government’s violent tactics have been called out by Human Rights Watch. The country’s uncomfortable present is one of the reasons Sting turned down an offer to perform for the Kazakh government in 2011, and you’d think West would’ve followed suit given his occasionally political songwriting. But his appearance is just another in a long, long list of jaw-dropping musical moments. Below, we round up some of the most questionable, violent, attention-grabbing performances of the past century.

Jennifer Lopez in Turkmenistan

Vulture’s Kanye write-up immediately mentions Jennifer Lopez, who raised eyebrows this summer after singing “Happy Birthday” to Turkmenistan dictator Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov. Lopez apologized after criticism from human rights organizations, but kept the cool $10 million she allegedly earned from the appearance. This is not the first time Lopez has sacrificed ethics for a paycheck: in 2006, she put on another million-dollar birthday show for black market tycoon Telman Ismailov, which earned her the ire of none other than Pussy Riot.

Woodstock ’99

An attempt to recreate the resounding success of Woodstock became a landmark event in and of itself, albeit for completely opposite reasons than intended. The 30th anniversary of a hippie touchstone was marked by vandalism, several sexual assaults, and quite a few fires, including a flag burning from Rage Against the Machine. Another fire ironically started during a Red Hot Chili Peppers cover of the Jimi Hendrix classic “Fire,” and Anthony Kiedis eventually had to clarify that the performance was meant as a nod to Hendrix’s sister, who was in attendance.

The Rolling Stones at Altamont

But music’s most famously violent festival occurred just months after Woodstock at the Altamont Speedway Free Festival of 1969. Like Woodstock ’99, the event was intended to recall the positivity of America’s most beloved music festival, and the majority of Altamont’s scheduled acts had played at Woodstock. It all went terribly wrong during the Rolling Stones’ performance, during which unruly fan Meredith Hunter was stabbed by a member of the Hells Angels, who acted as the band’s security. The Maysles Brothers captured the whole event on camera in Gimme Shelter, widely regarded as one of the best concert documentaries of all time.

Black Lips in India

GG Allin-lite rockers the Black Lips are perhaps the most fitting representative for Vice’s record label, as they’ve earned a reputation for exceedingly wild shows in unexpected locales. Their most famous performance yet occurred during a stop in India, in which police chased the band out of the country after nude stage diving and an onstage make-out session. As with the aforementioned Gimme Shelter, Vice journalists caught the whole story on tape, and you can watch the concert and its aftermath right now in the documentary Black Lips in India.

The Doors on The Ed Sullivan Show

To the unsuspecting contemporary viewer, The Doors’ Ed Sullivan Show performance of “Light My Fire” looks like a straightforward rendition of their most famous song. However, Sullivan had explicitly asked Jim Morrison to not sing the line “We couldn’t get much higher,” and either out of protest or mere forgetfulness, Morrison did not comply. As a result, the band was barred from any future appearances on the show, but we all know it only takes one Ed Sullivan performance to make a career.

Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show

The Ed Sullivan Show‘s second-most-famous musical act (you know the first) was Elvis, who whipped America into a frenzy with just a few pelvic thrusts. While Elvis’ gyrations are unlikely to shock modern audiences, this might’ve been the very moment American pop music realized just how much sex sells. As far back as this performance may seem, it still echoes loudly in pop culture.

M.I.A. at the Super Bowl

You’d think our reactions to innocuous public rebellion would have changed since the days of Ed Sullivan, but the response to M.I.A.’s recent appearance at the Super Bowl shows we haven’t changed much. The event was meant to be a showcase for a Madonna comeback, but a quick flash of M.I.A.’s middle finger turned the otherwise forgettable “Gimme All Your Luvin'” into a point of national debate. But, of course, it wasn’t the gesture itself that made M.I.A.’s performance interesting. Fully aware that “shit” would be bleeped out on national network TV, the rapper found a way to make sure she wouldn’t be censored.

Sinead O’Connor on SNL

Irish singer Sinead O’Connor is proof that not all publicity is good publicity after a performance that simultaneously defined and destroyed her career. In SNL‘s most memorable musical act ever, O’Connor ripped up a picture of Pope John Paul II after an a cappella cover of Bob Marley’s “War.” Despite its consequences, O’Connor says she has no regrets about the performance. See the full clip of “War” here.

Dixie Chicks in London

Popular country music is famous for its red state fan base, so it’s no surprise that the Dixie Chicks saw a huge backlash after a public declaration against George Bush during a London performance. After Natalie Maines told their audience the group was ashamed to share a home state with the then-president, conservative Americans organized a boycott, complete with the requisite bonfires. Unlike O’Connor, the Dixie Chicks rode the controversy to huge hits, Grammys, and yet another politically charged music documentary, Shut Up and Sing.

The Who in Cincinnati

Almost exactly ten years after Altamont, a case of fandom gone wrong resulted in tragedy when 11 Who fans died trying to get seats at a show in Cincinnati. This was the result of an unfortunate decision to offer 3,578 seats on a first-come, first-serve basis to 14,770 fans, and an additional 23 fans were injured in the rush. The sitcom WKRP in Cincinnati aired a somber episode about the event shortly afterward.