There’s nothing like hearing a song come on the radio or flicker across a Spotify playlist that you haven’t encountered in a while, and realizing, “Was this song always this offensive?”
The answer: Yes, it probably was. Standards have changed quite a bit in terms of what references the culture at large deems offensive in its hit songs, from casual homophobia in pop songs from Katy Perry and Taylor Swift to the jaw-dropping lyrical content of some Rolling Stones classics. (Not to mention the whole recent “Baby It’s Cold Outside” uproar this past holiday season.)
Below, find a list of songs that, if released today, would almost certainly ignite a scandal.
1. “Kung Fu Fighting “by Carl Douglas, 1974
Choice lyric: “There was funky Billy Chin and little Sammy Chung / He said ‘Here comes the big boss, let’s get it on.’ ”
Why it wouldn’t fly today: Perhaps the song was just trying to celebrate the ancient art of kung fu. But its lyrics about “funky Chinamen from funky Chinatown” with stereotypically Asian-sounding last names isn’t exactly a nuanced appreciation of the culture.
2. “Brown Sugar” by the Rolling Stones, 1971
Choice lyric: “Gold coast slave ship bound for cotton fields / Sold in the market down in New Orleans / Scarred old slaver knows he’s doing alright / Hear him whip the women just around midnight.”
Why it wouldn’t fly today: Even Mick Jagger knows these lyrics aged incredibly poorly; in recent years, he’s changed the words when he performs the song live. Beyond the song’s opening stanzas, the racism, misogyny and outright references to raping slaves make this a low point in the Stones’ discography.
3. “Under My Thumb” by the Rolling Stones, 1966
Choice lyric: “Under my thumb, the squirmin’ dog who’s just had her day / Under my thumb, a girl who has just changed her ways.”
Why it wouldn’t fly today: Another disgusting entry in the Stones’ songbook, the song about a woman who’s been molded to “talk when she’s spoken to” is an embarrassment for even existing.
4. “Ur So Gay” by Katy Perry, 2007
Choice lyric: “I can’t believe I fell in love with someone that wears more makeup and / You’re so gay and you don’t even like boys”
Why it wouldn’t fly today: If Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl” was borderline gross for its exploitative take on same-sex experimentation, “Ur So Gay” crosses the line with its deeply immature rattling-off of gay stereotypes, driven home by the use of the word as a slur.
5. “Picture to Burn” by Taylor Swift, 2008
Choice lyric: “So go and tell your friends that I’m obsessive and crazy / That’s fine, I’ll tell mine that you’re gay.”
Why it wouldn’t fly today: Perry’s frenemy Taylor Swift wasn’t immune to the same kind of sophomoric homophobia, with Picture To Burn subscribing to the same backward view that the worst thing you could call a teenage boy is “gay.”
6. “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” by the Band Aid choir, 1984
Choice lyric: “And there won’t be snow in Africa this Christmas time / The greatest gift they’ll get this year is life / Where nothing ever grows, no rain or rivers flow / Do they know it’s Christmas time at all?”
Why it wouldn’t fly today: Possibly the most culturally insensitive Christmas song of all time, the Band Aid supergroup may have raised money to alleviate an Ethiopian famine with the proceeds from “Do They Know It’s Christmas.” But they did it with a song that declares the entire continent of Africa is bereft of water, trees or joy.
7. “Turning Japanese” by The Vapors, 1980
Choice lyric: “I’m turning Japanese, I think I’m turning Japanese”
Why it wouldn’t fly today: No, Turning Japanese isn’t literally about turning Japanese. Still, it wouldn’t be acceptable today to hear a group of white guys assuming the identity of Asian people.
8. “I’m an Indian Outlaw” by Tim McGraw, 1994
Choice lyric: “You can find me in my wigwam / I’ll be beating on my tom-tom / Pull out the pipe and smoke you some / Hey and pass it around.”
Why it wouldn’t fly today: McGraw is certainly not “an Indian outlaw, half Cherokee and Choctaw” as he claims in the song. And even if he were, that wouldn’t excuse the hilariously lazy Native American tropes he employs.
9. “Island Girl” by Elton John, 1975
Choice lyric: “Island girl, what you wanting with the white man’s world / Island girl, black boy want you in his island world”
Why it wouldn’t fly today: The borderline fetishization in John’s chart-topping ode to a New York City prostitute who’s “black as coal but she burn like a fire” is cringeworthy.
10. “Ebony and Ivory” by Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder, 1982
Choice lyric: “Ebony and ivory / Live together in perfect harmony / Side by side on my piano keyboard / Oh lord, why don’t we?”
Why it wouldn’t fly today: McCartney and Wonder meant well with their hyper-literal interpretation of race relations. But their message of “people are the same, there’s good and bad in everyone, so let’s just get along” would be interpreted as hilariously naïve by the more woke factions of today’s cultural discourse.
11. “Rape Me” by Nirvana, 1993
Choice lyric: “Rape me / Rape me, my friend”
Why it wouldn’t fly today: We get it. Kurt Cobain was a deeply tortured soul. He probably, in retrospect, could’ve expressed this one better.
12. “Tonight’s the Night (Gonna Be Alright)” by Rod Stewart, 1976
Choice lyric: “Don’t say a word, my virgin child, just let your inhibitions run wild”
Why it wouldn’t fly today: In case the lyrics to this No. 1 hit weren’t cringe-inducing enough, try not feeling icky watching its video. In it, Stewart woos a faceless young woman and leads her up to his bedroom before she says in French, “I’m a little scared. What is my mother going to say?”
13. “One in a Million” by Guns N’ Roses, 1988
Choice lyric: “Immigrants and f****ts, they make no sense to me / They come to our country and think they’ll do as they please”
Why it wouldn’t fly today: Axl Rose attempts to win our sympathy with his story of a “small-town white boy” feeling lost when he moves to Los Angeles. But using derogatory language for gay and black men certainly doesn’t help his case, nor do his wildly xenophobic lyrics about immigrants. (“They talk so many (expletive) ways / it’s all Greek to me.”)
14. “Kissin’ Cousins” by Elvis Presley, 1964
Choice lyric: “Well I’ve got a gal, she’s as cute as she can be / She’s a distant cousin but she’s not too distant with me”
Why it wouldn’t fly today: Nothing like a little casual incest to get the crowd up and dancing. This seemingly innocent but actually creepy doo-wop tune is taken from the King’s 1964 movie musical, in which he plays an Air Force pilot whose two beautiful cousins compete for his affections. Different times?
15. “Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number” by Aaliyah, 1994
Choice lyric: “Age ain’t nothing but a number / throwing down ain’t nothing but a thang / This lovin’ I have for you, it’ll never change”
Why it wouldn’t fly today: No disrespect to the late Princess of R&B, whose hypnotic vocals and idiosyncratic style remain timeless. But it’s hard not to feel at least mildly uncomfortable listening to this song in retrospect: At the time she recorded it, a then-14-year-old Aaliyah was dating — and would soon illegally marry — her mentor/producer R. Kelly, who was 27.
16. “Illegal Alien” by Genesis, 1983
Choice lyric: “It’s no fun being an illegal alien”
Why it wouldn’t fly today: Its message and story are seemingly well-intentioned, detailing a Mexican immigrant’s struggle to cross the border in search of a better life. But the racist video puts the song in a whole different light, with stereotypical imagery of mariachi horns, ponchos, sombreros and oversize mustaches.
17. “Walk on the Wild Side” by Lou Reed, 1972
Choice lyric: “Holly came from Miami, F-L-A / Hitchhiked her way across the USA / Plucked her eyebrows on the way / Shaved her legs and then he was a she”
Why it wouldn’t fly today: In a song filled with racy anecdotes, this reference to Holly Woodlawn, a transgender actress who was bullied as a teenager and ran away from home, is alarmingly tone-deaf.
18. “Money for Nothing” by Dire Straits, 1985
Choice lyric: “See the little f****t with the earring and the makeup? / Yeah buddy, that’s his own hair / That little f****t got his own jet airplane / That little f****t, he’s a millionaire”
Why it wouldn’t fly today: A slight at effeminate rock stars, once again using “gay” as an insult. It’s no wonder this homophobic slur was omitted from the band’s greatest-hits album, “Sultans of Swing.”
19. “Dude (Looks Like a Lady)” by Aerosmith, 1987
Choice lyric: “She had the body of a Venus / Lord, imagine my surprise / Dude looks like a lady”
Why it wouldn’t fly today: Guy walks into a bar and realizes the stripper he’s been ogling is actually a man. Although the rock classic was co-written by openly gay songwriter Desmond Child, its questionable use in the media — by Fox News when reporting on Chelsea Manning, for instance — makes us think that it’s not the homage to the LGBTQ community that he intended.
20. “He Hit Me (It Felt Like a Kiss)” by The Crystals, 1962
Choice lyric: “He hit me and it felt like a kiss / he hit me and I knew he loved me”
Why it wouldn’t fly today: Gerry Goffin and Carole King were inspired to write the doo-wop ballad by the tragic true-life story of singer Little Eva, who told them that her boyfriend’s beatings were motivated by love. But without context, lyrics such as “he hit me and I was glad” are an off-putting endorsement of domestic abuse.
Maeve McDermott and Patrick Ryan, USA TODAY
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