Having controversial opinions, of course, sells records, but can also be a catalyst for change. So, here are ten artists who to varying degrees, have made controversial opinions, music and imagery talking points – and selling points.
A point, of course, to note, is that what I see as controversial may not be seen as such by others. So, please play nicely if you choose to comment, and I’d also like to hear about other controversial artists that I may have omitted.
Controversy: nationalism/animal rights
I could be all day with Morrissey’s questionable views and proclamations, so here are a few quotes from him that should do the job – and these only cover the last few years.
“If you have access to YouTube, you should click on to what is called The video the meat industry doesn’t want you to see,” he told his followers. “If this doesn’t affect you in a moral sense then you’re probably granite. I see no difference between eating animals and paedophilia. They are both rape, violence, murder.” [2014 – source]
“The rhino is now more or less extinct, and it’s not because of global warming or shrinking habitats. It’s because of Beyoncé’s handbags” [2013 – source]
“I am unable to watch the Olympics due to the blustering jingoism that drenches the event. Has England ever been quite so foul with patriotism?” [2012 – source. Billy Bragg’s response was also relevant…]
“We all live in a murderous world, as the events in Norway have shown, with 97 [sic] dead. Though that is nothing compared to what happens in McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried shit every day.” [2011 – source]
Controversy: animal rights/gun control
Still with animal rights, let’s move onto industrial titans Skinny Puppy – a band who particularly in their first phase made a point of sticking to their guns on a number of fronts (animal rights, capitalism, war, oil) and made quite a splash doing so – and indeed returned to their outspoken views with recent album Weapon, having since “invoiced” the US Government for using their music at Guantánamo, which needless to say got them in the headlines in most unexpected places (even the Daily Mail!). Anyway: my partner Daisy has particularly strong views on Skinny Puppy’s stance on animal testing and animal rights, so I’ll hand over to her:
I don’t think anyone would argue that testing cosmetics or cigarettes on animals is horrible and completely unnecessary. However, where I part ways with a band like Skinny Puppy is with their belief that drug testing and other biomedical research on animals should also be banned. Human cell culture work has come a long way in the last few years, but it is at nowhere near the level of accuracy that would be required for it to replace animal testing altogether. I cannot and do not believe that the lives of a relatively small number of animals are worth more than the thousands and thousands of lives (including of other animals – veterinary medicine has to be tested somewhere) that have been saved or improved thanks to new drugs, improved surgeries and a better understanding of the consequences of different behaviours. So when I hear Skinny Puppy lyrics like “crush the spine genocide/kitten drags its dead limb/continuing all suffering“, which are so far removed from my experience of what an animal testing lab was like, it feels not far removed from the extremists who bomb labs and threaten researchers’ families. (And hey folks, lets remember that the vast majority of animal testing is on flies and worms and other invertebrates no-one ever objects to the poor little non-cute-and-fluffy animals being experimented on.)
Daisy, by the way, has nine years of experience in genetics and animal research, has a published paper on her work, and is also a lifelong vegetarian.
Controversy: radical activism
A band so self-aware – particularly around their strident politics – that to encourage debate and discussion of the topics covered, had time allotted during their live shows to pass a mic around and allow fans/gig-goers to offer their opinions and debate with each other and the band. Many of the sometimes hilarious, sometimes bang-on-the-money and sometimes plain wrong quotes from these sessions then ended up as tracks between songs on their albums.
The band’s deeply-held political views clearly caused issues at the time, then, but twenty years on from Play More Music (the title coming from one of those crowd quotes), the band’s political rage and message has actually turned out to be bang on. Be that military spending and waging war, the ever encroaching private sector, the marginalization of the poor, surveillance, abortion rights, macho culture at gigs…
Controversy: anti-Christian actions, homophobia, murder, ultra-right wing politics
Probably the most controversial artist in this list, there are likely entire books to be written in the future on his actions and views without any reference to his music whatsoever. For what it’s worth, his main outlet has been with his solo project Burzum (a project I’ve never found particularly interesting), but for a while he was also part of the much more important Norwegian Black Metal band Mayhem. But his notoriety comes from his church burning, the murder of Øystein Aarseth, his arrest in 1993 where his apartment was found to contain a large amount of explosives and ammunition, his extreme right-wing views and neo-nazi links. Quite a charge sheet – and while he was released from prison a few years back, he made headlines yet again last year after being arrested (initially on terrorism charges) in France, and faces trial this summer on charges of inciting racial hatred and glorifying war crimes.
Controversy: deliberate misuse of imagery, music, messages
Laibach have pushed buttons for many years now (and indeed continue to do so, with their first new album proper in some years, Spectre, out next month), asking questions of listener’s views and politics (and indeed exposing the flipside of some pop classics by recording them in very different ways!), and indeed taking on nationalism by an album of “interpretations” of national anthems and by having their own “virtual state” (NSK, better known perhaps as an art collective) and issuing their own passports! Their preference for wearing military uniforms (something they did from the start, apparently as the band member’s military service meant they had similar outfits to create an image from), not to mention their name (the name Slovenian capital Ljubljana was given during the Nazi occupation) saw accusations of far-right leanings from early on, but the band made it clear that they are not “nazis”, and indeed it is fairer to suggest that their own politics are not so important – they challenge the listener to make their own opinions.
Controversy: use of far-right imagery/festishism, misogny
A more recent band who have courted controversy through their use of imagery has been Nachtmahr, however in this case it has been far less intelligent, and far less about asking questions than simply selling records. Basically, this is (another) “harsh industrial” act who wrap their 4/4 beats and heavy rhythms in militaristic lyrics (Tanzdiktator, anyone?), and more unforgivably, military outfits with a distinct Nazi-theme (I’m sorry, but how else do you describe this – note the armbands in particular), and erotic picture books (women in-and-out of military attire, of course). This has been pulled up before but I still don’t recall any convincing explanation (the follow-up to the previous link never did, in my eyes). At the end of the day, I guess, manufactured controversy sells records and gig tickets, and Nachtmahr seem to do very well from this.
Controversy: use of far-right imagery/second world war subjects
An industrial band who have also had more than their fair share of accusations of right-wing bias (and are heartily sick of it, from the handful of interviews online, see here for example), but then, with their themes and imagery, it’s hard not to see why. They started out signed to a label with far-right associations, as I recall, but jumped ship to Black Rain rather quickly and became a group who made astonishingly hard-hitting industrial music, themed around the Second World War and with appropriate samples. Not to mention their striking live image, with replica weaponry, netting covering everything and military outfits and facepaint… What’s the difference between Feindflug and Nachtmahr’s use of similar imagery? I’ve been struggling with this. I think maybe I find Nachtmahr’s more distasteful because of their cynical use – and do we need yet more sexual objectification?
Controversy: anarchist politics, other “stunts”
While the Sex Pistols were snarling about “Anarchy In The UK”, there were few punk bands to break through to wider attention that really practised what they preached – and Crass were perhaps the ultimate example. From their direct action and activism, their anarchist ideals, not to mention their distaste for the rest of the punk scene. Controversy in the mainstream was caused by a few things, like a quite brilliant trick pulled on a teen magazine (the band’s full explanation of why is here), or the album that song came from (Penis Envy), or the post-Falklands fury of How Does It Feel to Be the Mother of a Thousand Dead. Personally I’ve never really had any truck with anarchism as a political method, but the direct action of bands like Crass (in a different era) was brave and laudable, in many respects – and way ahead of it’s time, as it turns out.
Controversy: right-wing US politics, outspoken comments
Another one where his own words do the job for me:
“It’s pretty clear that they’re taking prayer out of school. It’s been happening for a very long time. The very first schoolbook that was written had God all over it. I collect books and I have some really, really old schoolbooks, and God is mentioned on every single page. They’re taking God out of the schools to dumb us down.” [source]”Back in my country, my president is trying to pass a gun ban,” he said. “So he’s staging all of these murders, like the Fast and Furious thing down at the border and Aurora, Colorado, all the people that were killed there. And now the beautiful people at the Sikh temple.” [source]
Just in case you wanted any more…
Controversy: anti-Christian/Satanist views, criticised from both sides
Finally, Deicide’s Glen Benton has for well over two decades been pushing the buttons of Christians (and others besides) with his take on Satanism, even going as far as apparently branding an upturned cross on his forehead. There are questions over his “authenticity”, not to mention Sacrificial Suicide and his proclamation that he’d kill himself at the age Jesus died at. Well, he’s 46 now, and he’s still fronting Deicide…