For more than a century, the evolution of popular music has delivered stark parallels to Western society’s progression. Popular songs and styles partake in a tangible feedback loop, simultaneously responding to and informing cultural shifts. In turn, the best tunes make either purposeful or inadvertent statements about the era in which they’re being recorded and released. Some of those statements, meanwhile, never lose their ability to resonate. Perhaps this is why songs like “We Shall Overcome” continue to be used as a rallying cry against oppressive forces.
Harmony and Discord: The Ever-Evolving Relationship Between Music and Culture
Because music has the unique ability to both go with and shape the cultural tide, history’s most groundbreaking works are often its most controversial. From the 1920s to 1940s, songs of poverty, racism, and hard labor threatened to undermine various institutions of authority. That was followed by genres such as rock ‘n’ roll and funk, which respectively enhanced the growing divide between young and older generations. Decades later, popular music is still influencing fashion, attitudes, and perspectives, just as political and social forces are also shaping creative expression, as seen in the new wave of protest music generated by the Black Lives Matter movement.
With that, Stacker celebrates history’s most boundary-pushing—and thereby controversial—songs. Taking a broad approach to the concept, Stacker selected musical milestones that either explored controversial subject matter or literally sparked controversy. To compile the list, Stacker scoured Billboard charts, music and album reviews, news articles, and primary documents found online. The resulting compilation includes protest songs, sociopolitical commentaries, scandalous music videos, and tunes that just plain rubbed people the wrong way. Each example provides a sonic document of society’s past, while a few go to show just how little certain things have changed since the time they were recorded.
A brief disclaimer: Vintage music can be a slippery entity; some of the songs listed were recorded or released well before they rendered any sort of impact. Similarly, many protest songs were written and performed by one artist and then passed down to others in the folk tradition, hitting the mainstream somewhere along the way. Consequently, some entries might be best described as approximations with regard to when the song caused a stir or tackled a specific theme.
Without further delay, here are controversial songs from the year you were born.
LOOK: Controversial songs from the year you were born
Gallery Credit: Stacker