Madonna’s 6 Most Controversial Songs

When Madonna reached the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time in 1983 with “Holiday,” it was missing three things that became commonplace throughout her career. It didn’t reach the Top 10 (though at a peak position of No. 16, it came close), its release didn’t coincide with that of a popular music video, and it didn’t generate controversy. Madonna’s next single, “Lucky Star,” was the first of her 38 Top 10 singles and featured a video that catapulted her to stardom. Controversies would follow soon, with her songs and videos often being the source of the scandal. Each of these six songs caused a major stir at the time of their release, and some are still associated with the controversy that ensued.

Videos by American Songwriter

6. “Dress You Up”

This track from Madonna’s second album, Like a Virgin, is far less raunchy than much of her later material, but it was racy enough for the mid-’80s to incur the wrath of Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC). The group put the song on its “Filthy Fifteen” list alongside the likes of Prince’s “Darling Nikki,” Cyndi Lauper’s “She Bop,” and Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It.” It was the chorus’ lyrics, Gonna dress you up in my love / all over your body, that was too much for the PMRC to handle.

5. “American Life”

The title track from Madonna’s 2003 album is also relatively tame, and her critique of the greedy and materialistic side of the American Dream didn’t garner much criticism. This was the case, even though it was released less than two years after the attacks on September 11, 2001, when demands for performers to prove their patriotism were running high. The critiques of the song itself had more to do with style than substance. Madonna made a video to go with the song that made a much sharper critique of American culture, specifically pointing to the callous and even enthusiastic embrace of war and violence. Scenes included shots of an audience cheering, explosions, and the sight of bloodied bodies. Madonna pulled the video before its planned release and replaced it with one that showed her singing the song in front of a display of various national flags. She released the original video for the song in April 2023.

4. “Erotica”

Controversies surrounding this single and the Erotica album as a whole were overshadowed by the uproar created by the publication of Madonna’s book, Sex, which featured erotic photos of her. However, the video for the title track did manage to get banned briefly by MTV, and even when shown, it was only aired during late-night hours. In both the book and this song, Madonna portrays a dominatrix named Mistress Dita, and the video contains numerous sadomasochistic images and lyrics such as I don’t think you know what pain is and Only the one that hurts you can make you feel better.

3. “Like a Prayer”

The title track of Madonna’s 1989 album hints at the entangling of religion and sex in vague terms, but the song’s video makes the connection more explicit. One particularly controversial scene involves Madonna engaging in an erotic kiss with a saint inside a church. The video led to the cancellation of a $5 million endorsement deal with Pepsi, who used the video as part of an ad campaign and were faced with boycotts by several right-wing groups. The video was also banned by the Vatican. While Madonna was chastised for the video’s erotic imagery, less attention was given to its commentary on racism, conveyed through the depiction of an arrest of a Black man for the murder of a woman, which was committed by a gang of white men.

2. “Papa Don’t Preach”

The leadoff track from Madonna’s third album, True Blue, is about a young woman who gets pregnant and is afraid to upset her father with the news. However, Madonna’s protagonist not only tells her father but shares her decision to keep the baby and marry the baby’s father. While the song can be interpreted to imply that the protagonist considered and ultimately rejected abortion as an option, abortion is never actually mentioned in the song. Her consideration of putting her baby up for adoption, on the other hand, is suggested by the line, But my friends keep telling me to give it up. Madonna made enemies on different parts of the political spectrum with this song, angering those who believed the song discouraged women from getting abortions, while others thought it encouraged promiscuity. While the song’s lyrics leave room for interpretation, it’s hard to see how they would be responsible for either of those outcomes.

1. “Justify My Love”

While the original version of this song, which appeared on Madonna’s 1990 greatest hits compilation, The Immaculate Collection, was not particularly controversial, a remix of the song and the official video both were. “The Beast Within” remix included a quote from the New Testament that references a “Synagogue of Satan,” which Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center cited as a phrase that is often used as part of an anti-Semitic trope. He requested that the line be dropped from the song. Madonna denied the request but asserted that the inclusion of the quote was not intended to be anti-Semitic, but rather a general statement about evil.

The video’s depictions of sex, including same-sex intimacy, voyeurism, and sadomasochism, got it banned from MTV, and it also engendered a panel discussion on Canada’s MuchMusic.

Photo by Graham Denholm/Getty Images

Leave a Reply

The Zombies Cancel Remaining U.S. Tour Dates Following Band Member’s Hospitalization