A dozen po­lit­i­cally in­cor­rect songs that would be wildly con­tro­ver­sial to­day


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. ‘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.

4. ‘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.”

5. ‘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.

6. ‘One in a Mil­lion’ by Guns N’ Roses, 1988

Choice lyric: “Im­mi­grants and f------, 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.”)

7. ‘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?

8. ‘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.

9. ‘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.

10. ‘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.

11. ‘Money for Noth­ing’ by Dire Straits, 1985

Choice lyric: “See the lit­tle f----- with the ear­ring and the makeup? / Yeah buddy, that’s his own hair / That lit­tle f----- got his own jet air­plane / That lit­tle f-----, 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 great­esthits al­bum, “Sul­tans of Swing.”

12. ‘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.


Is Tay­lor Swift’s 2008 song “Pic­ture to Burn” po­lit­i­cally in­cor­rect by to­day’s stan­dards?

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