Songs have been banned for almost as long as we can remember but thanks to the rise of rock ‘n roll in the 1950s, more and more songs have been censored. Some have been banned from airplay or even removed from entire records. The worst part: it’s for the most ridiculous reasons!
One song on this list was banned thanks to a disco reference, while another was taken off the air after 9/11. You might be quite surprised to learn that some of your favorite, seemingly boring, songs have actually been banned.
Imagine – John Lennon
John Lennon was a very controversial figure. From his activism to his songwriting, he was someone who was an easy target for censorship. His song “Imagine” was targeted after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, and in 1991 during the Gulf War.
Ironically, this is a song about peace. But the line, “imagine there’s no heaven” had religious groups up in arms. The censorship didn’t stop the song from being a chart-topping smash hit.
Like A Prayer – Madonna
Another day, another Madonna song that has people scratching their heads. The American Family Association and The Vatican condemned the music video for “Like A Prayer” because of its blasphemous imagery.
There was so much pressure that Pepsi ended up canceling an advertising campaign that featured the song in 1989. The Pope even asked people to boycott her concerts in 1990 shortly after the song’s release. Madonna has been banned in Egypt and has lots of restrictions in Russia.
If U Seek Amy – Britney Spears
This controversial single whose chorus and title sound like, well, say the title five times fast and you’ll see. I’ll give you a hint — it spells the “f” word.
Initially unsure of whether the double entendre was, in fact, censorship material, the U.S. stations changed the title to “If U See Amy.” U.K. radio changed the title simply to “Amy.” Lots of people were mad the song was getting played at all.
The Real Slim Shady – Eminem
The FCC fined a Colorado Springs Radio station in 2001 for playing the clean version of the song. While there’s no explicit language in the clean version, the FCC had a problem with some references and themes.
The commission put guidelines in place earlier in 2001 stating that context and innuendo alone could get a station in trouble for violating its decency standards. Needless to say, that makes many Eminem songs hard to play over the radio.
Juicy – The Notorious B.I.G
I guess it’s not all that surprising that Biggie had some songs that were banned. His smash hit “Juicy” is another example of how tragic events can provoke censorship.
The line “time to get paid, blow up like the World Trade” was removed from the song following the 2001 9/11 attacks. The song was originally referencing the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center bombing, and the phrase “blow up” was used as slang for gaining fame quickly.
Love Game – Lady Gaga
Lady Gaga has become a cultural and musical icon, but that doesn’t mean that some of her songs don’t get banned from radio play. The song “Love Game” was censored because of its heavily suggestive themes. Specifically, the ban targeted some context regarding a “disco stick.”
She has also been banned in the country of Lebanon for her song “Judas” which was offensive to Christians.
Physical – Olivia Newton-John
The song “Physical” became incredibly popular in the U.S. and the U.K. But, that didn’t mean that some radio stations didn’t see a problem with the lyrics. The line, “there’s nothing left to talk about unless it’s horizontally” was one of the censored phrases.
The music video also added some controversy as it showed a gay couple holding hands while comically ignoring Olivia’s advances throughout the video. Even MTV censored it.
Rolling In The Deep – Adele
You’ll probably be surprised to hear that an Adele song has been censored and banned from many radio stations. The song “Rolling in the Deep” had been censored because of the ambiguity of the word “ship.” Yep, a single word made people that mad.
Online lyrics stated that the song included the word “ship” instead of the swear word that sounds very similar. But, her handwritten lyrics actually feature the swear word instead. She replaces the word with “stuff” when she performs on TV.
Puff The Magic Dragon – Peter, Paul, And Mary
Even though the composer of the song “Puff The Magic Dragon” insists that it isn’t talking about smoking something, that wasn’t good enough for then-Vice President of the United States, Spiro Agnew, from deeming it pro-narcotics.
He called for a ban of the tune, which was granted to him. Despite powerful voices coming out against the song, it ended up being a smash hit for singer Peter, Paul and Mary.
Baby, It’s Cold Outside – Frank Loesser
It’s a holiday classic that ended up winning the 1949 Academy Award for Best Original Song. But, it’s garnered a lot of controversy since that time. There is talk that the lyrics condone assault and lack of consent. A Cleveland radio station in 2018 announced that it had removed the song because it wasn’t appropriate.
All the big Canadian radio stations also removed the song from their playlists, saying that it didn’t align with their societal standards.
In The Air Tonight – Phil Collins
I know what you’re thinking, HOW can anyone ban the song “In The Air Tonight” when it has such an iconic drum solo? But, the otherwise harmless song was banned on two separate occasions. The first time was in 1991 because of a perceived connection to the Gulf War.
The second time was in 2001 when Clear Channel Communications prohibited 162 songs from the airwaves after the 9/11 attacks happened.
Light My Fire – The Doors
The Doors were blacklisted from The Ed Sullivan Show in 1967 after failing to change the lyrics “Girl, we couldn’t get much higher” which seemed to be referencing the use of narcotics.
Lead singer Jim Morrisson has originally agreed to self-censor on the show, but he could not resist presenting his work in its true form. BBC banned the song 24 years later during the Persian Gulf War because of the word “fire.”
Lola – The Kinks
The upbeat track about a young man who has a romantic encounter with a transvestite in Soho, London, didn’t even attract controversy in the way you would think. While there were radio stations who did ban it for that reason alone, BBC Radio found a different problem with the song.
There’s a line that says “Where they drink champagne and it taste just like Coca-Cola” which was free advertising for a strictly non-commercial station. They had to re-record it and change the word to “cherry cola.”
(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction – The Rolling Stones
The Rolling Stones have been around for a LONG time. So long, in fact, that they were censored all the way back in 1965 when they were performing on the variety show Shindig!
The line “trying to make some girl” had faced criticism for its sexual innuendo and critical statements about commercialism. But weirdly enough, when The Rolling Stones performed at the Super Bowl in 2006, it was the only song that they didn’t have to censor.
Take The Power Back – Rage Against The Machine
Twenty years after the song “Take The Power Back” was released, it was deemed to be against Arizona state law, which says that schools cannot “advocate ethnic solidarity instead of the treatment of pupils as individuals.”
This came after some high school teachers used the song in a Mexican-American history class. The Superintendent of the school issued a “notice of noncompliance” to the school district in 2015. Very very weird.
Ding-Dong The Witch Is Dead – Wizard Of Oz
Following the death of ex-UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher, the seemingly innocent song “Ding-Dong The Witch is Dead” was banned by the BBC in 2013. Thatcher was more than a polarizing figure in UK politics, and the song ended up reaching number two on the charts after her death.
The BBC refused to play the full song after it peaked on the charts, stating that it was clearly a celebration of death.
Louie, Louie – The Kingsmen
The Kingsmen’s version of “Louie, Louie” faced bans on U.S. radio due to obscene lyrics. There was a 31-month FBI investigation into the song after the band tried to cover up the sexual content by slurring the lyrics.
The investigation was inconclusive as they were unable to interpret the true lyrics. The 1963 hit resurfaced again in 2005 when a high school superintendent prohibited a marching band from playing the song.
Brown Eyed Girl – Van Morrison
This classic by Van Morrison was banned in 1967 for its suggestive lyrics. Actually, it came down to one lyric in-particular, “making love in the green grass.” That was where the radio stations were going to draw the line. Despite the pushback, the song was a hit huge.
Many radio stations compromised and released a radio-friendly version of the song that replaced the suggestive lyric with a phrase said earlier in the song which was, “laughin’ and a runnin’ hey hey.”
I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus – Jimmy Boyd
Jimmy Boyd was just 13 when he recorded this holiday hit. But that didn’t stop his song from being temporarily banned from radio. The song is about a boy who wakes up to see mom and dad (in a Santa costume) kissing under the mistletoe.
The Catholic Archdiocese of Boston blasted the song for suggestive language. They said it linked Christmas to sex. Boyd went to meet with church leaders to explain his thinking behind the song and it was pulled from the ban.
Love To Love You, Baby – Donna Summer
If you’re not a fan of a 17-minute single, you’re probably not alone. Donna Summer released one in 1975 and TIME magazine gave it a less than favorable review. She was asked whether she touched herself during the creation of the song, and she said, “yes, I touched my knee.”
Not everyone found that answer amusing. The track was banned from numerous radio stations across North America, yet the disco hit still found mass appeal regardless.
Splish Splash – Bobby Darin
This little ditty was about a guy who walks out of a bath and into a party in the adjoining room. I know what you’re thinking — what a powerful song. It was banned for an excellent reason — there was no mention of him putting his clothes back on.
So, yes, they decided in 1958 that this song was about a man walking into a party while completely nude, and therefore, it needed to be censored.
Wake Up Little Susie – The Everly Brothers
This 1957 hit showed how easy it was in the 1950s to have a song banned. It was number one on the charts, yet some radio stations still didn’t play it because the lyrics raised a serious question, leaving us to wonder what were those kids up to before they fell asleep?
Of course, times have changed, and four decades later, President George W Bush said that “Wake Up Little Susie” was his favorite song.
My Generation – The Who
This is The Who’s baby boomer anthem. In fact, it’s number 11 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. It wasn’t the sly suggestion of swear words in the music or the depressing line, “I hope I die before I get old” that ended up getting the song banned.
It was the constant stuttering that many people saw as making fun of people who couldn’t speak without one.
Atomic – Blondie
New wave rockers Blondie found themselves on the BBC’s list of banned songs during the First Gulf War. The conflict, which started in 1990, saw the BBC basically weeding out any song that they deemed inappropriate. The song “Atomic” was released 11 years before the war, but was caught in the ban-net.
The BBC claimed that the song defies logic, and the title was deemed too inflammatory for airplay while the conflict was ongoing. It’s actually about sensuality, but okay.
God Only Knows – The Beach Boys
Prior to the track’s release in 1966, the word “God” was rarely ever in the title of a song. Although the song never refers to a specific religious figure (Brian Wilson said it could refer to “any higher force” and was about moving forward after loss), it was banned by some radio stations across the U.S.
It was accused of being blasphemous. Oh boy, if only they heard the songs 60 years later.
Royals – Lorde
The listeners of two San Francisco radio stations made sure that they weren’t going to be hearing “Royals” anytime soon. The song was banned in the area in 2014 due to an upcoming baseball game between the San Francisco Giants and the Kansas City Royals.
The song was the unofficial anthem for Kansas City, so the song antagonized Giants fans so much that they wanted it banned. The ban was lifted after the World Series that year.
Johnny Remember Me – John Leyton
John Leyton, star of the television series Harpers West One scored his one and only No. 1 hit with his track “Johnny Remember Me.” Released in 1961, the song is regarded as a “death disc”, which were popular at the time and tells the story of a young man haunted by his dead lover.
Yet, it was banned by BBC although it wasn’t the only “death disc” banned around the same time.
I Want Your Sex – George Michael
The track was George Michael’s first solo single after splitting up with Andrew Ridgeley the other half of the pop duo Wham. At the time, it was one of the few words that involved fornication in the title and was quickly banned by the BBC.
However, it wasn’t just the title, but people thought the song was provocative and was encouraging people to participate in mindless physical relationships during a time when AIDS was a major concern.
I Love A Man In Uniform – Gang Of Four
The British post-punk band Group of Four had already been censored once from the air in 1977 for their track “He’s a Tourist,” but that didn’t stop them. In 1982, the band released its album Songs of the Free which featured the song “I Love a Man in Uniform.”
Yet, even though the song was making its way up the charts, it was soon deemed as inappropriate since British troops were entering the Falklands War.
Burn My Candle – Shirley Bassey
“Burn My Candle” was Shirley Bassey’s first single released in 1956 when the young singer was just 19 years old. The song was written for Bassey in hopes to make her stand out which it did, just maybe not in the way they imagined.
Instead, it was banned for it’s supposed suggestive lyrics. At the time, a young Bassey didn’t even know what the song about so when it was banned it came as a bit of a shock.
You Don’t Know How It Feels – Tom Petty
“You Don’t Know How It Feels” was released on Tom Petty’s 1994 album Wildflowers. It even reached No. 1 on the Billboard Mainstream Rock Tracks and made it onto the Hot 100 chart as well.
However, the song was censored by MTV and VH1 for its drug-related lyrics. They accomplished this by playing some of the words backward so they couldn’t be identified by listeners. Looks like it didn’t matter since the song was so successful.
Red Nation – The Game
Released to the public on April 12, 2012, The Game’s “Red Nation” was banned by MTV, BET, and several other radio stations for it’s numerous references to gang lifestyle and violence.
Yet, this did not have much effect on the popularity of the song, as it still received over 100 million plays on YouTube. Interestingly enough, The Game even admitted that he wished more of his songs were banned so people would be more intrigued to listen to them.
Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow – The Shirelles
“Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” made history by becoming the first No. 1 track on the Billboard Hot 100 by a black female musical group. Released in 1960, the song was about the day after a woman had an intimate night with a man.
Considering the times, the lyrics were seen as salacious and was banned by radio stations, yet still managing to sell over 1 million copies.
Rumble – Link Wray & His Ray Men
Believe it or not, this song was banned because of its title alone. That’s right — this was an instrumental version that didn’t even have lyrics! After its release in 1958, several radio markets in the U.S. banned the song from airwaves, because the word “rumble” was a popular slang term for a gang fight.
Worried that the song glorified gangs and juvenile delinquency, the stations opted not to air it. The song’s proved itself a classic, though, and has been featured in modern films from Pulp Fiction to SpongeBob SquarePants vs. The Big One.
Honey Love – The Drifters
The calypso-influenced song “Honey Love” was released by The Drifters featuring Clyde McPhatter in 1954. Memphis police were not fans of the song because they thought it had overly suggestive lyrics.
More specifically, they weren’t sure what the word “it” referred to in the song (“I need it, I need it when the moon is bright. I need it, I need it when you hold me tight”). As a result, the tune was banned from jukeboxes throughout the city and cops actually confiscated copies of the record.
Wham! Bam! Thank You, Ma’am! – Dean Martin
It’s not terribly difficult to guess why Dean Martin’s song “Wham Bam Thank You Ma’am” was banned in 1951. Some people found the lyrics too suggestive. Decide for yourself what Mr. Martin was hinting at with these words.
“I looked at you and thought I knew just how the game was played. My shirt tail ran right up my back just like a window shade… ‘Cause wham bam you broke my heart and hope that you had fun. (Wham bam thank you ma’am) Hope you’re satisfied.”
Four Or Five Times – Dottie O’Brien
“Four or Five Times” was originally recorded in 1927 and was covered several times after that without controversy. But when Dottie O’Brien, a woman, released a version of it in January of 1951, it was suddenly deemed too suggestive by radio stations and the FCC.
In Taboo Tunes: A History of Banned Bands & Censored Songs, author Peter Blecha wrote that “the banning of the… disc, disregarding whether or not the song was actually about serial sexual encounters, revealed a gender-based double standard at play.”