Jesse Jackson, in response to a misunderstood vandalising of an art installation featuring a whitewashed version of himself, said that “sometimes art provokes; sometimes it angers. That is a measure of its success”. When art is controversial, everyone is talking about it, and everyone goes to see it. Picasso, Duchamp, Manzoni, Mapplethorpe – all of them greatly offended and polarised with their art, and enjoyed great success because of it.
The same is not always said about music. Some of the most conventionally controversial music (if such a term can be used) is some of the least well known, for obvious reasons. Music is not put on in a gallery and displayed. The more commercially viable it is, the wider its reach. Controversial music tends not to be commercially viable, and consequently doesn’t receive as much attention in the public eye. Or at least, that would hold true until the power of social media took hold, and contemporary musicians feed off controversy to sell their records.
The 1970s were the breeding ground for true experimentation and moving away from the norm in music. The Beatles took acid and got weird. Lou Reed made Transformer, then took a real walk on the wild side and made Metal Machine Music. Reed’s album, released in 1975, has no conventional songs or structure. It is just over an hour of droning modulated guitar feedback. Reed claimed it was the conclusion to heavy metal as a genre. And everyone hated it. It was described “as displeasing as spending a night in a bus shelter” and yet, people kept coming back to it. It made the cover of Punk magazine, championing a campaign against the status quo.
Metal Machine Music is a good place to start, because it inspired one of the most controversial acts of all time, industrial group Throbbing Gristle. Their name tells you enough about them – Hull slang for an erection – and their group motto was “entertainment through pain”. Throbbing Gristle had no desire to please with their sound. They wanted to unsettle, upset, distress. Their songs feature tales of murder, rape and death in the most horrible ways. Their sound is raucous, not harsh, but distorted and eerie. They also birthed modern synthpop…seriously. Their magnum opus, 20 Jazz Funk Greats – called such to deceive people into buying it – features a track Walkabout. It comes just after the monumentally sinister Persuasion. Walkabout is a playful synth melody on top of a synthesised bass line. It bounces along; it could fit on any pop record. And here it is so unsettling because you are fearful of what will happen next.
Throbbing Gristle’s controversy is born in moments like this. Something accessible, something that draws you in, and then you are torn apart by a song like Slugbait or Hamburger Lady. Their members were controversial in their own right – Cosey Fanni Tutti starred in a porn film and exhibited naked pictures of herself at their shows. Societally, they reflected a form of protest against Thatcher’s Britain perfectly. And people still come back to their music and herald it as some of the best; controversy at its finest.
There were a multitude of acts across the 80’s that were even weirder, but they never reached the same level of renown – or infamy. Whitehouse and Merzbow both bear looking into, if your ears can take it. Varg Vikernes – better known as Burzum – was part of Norwegian black metal group Mayhem. When their singer shot himself, they served parts of his skull at a gig, and used a picture of his corpse as an album cover. Controversial in its own right, but not quite to the large impact. GG Allin would bleed and defecate on stage – but only ever to small crowds. The Scorpions, more popular, caused enough with the cover of Virgin Killer – but the music itself wasn’t particularly polarising. That was left to the present day, and three big artists in particular.
Kanye West is undoubtedly the most controversial man in music. He is never afraid to speak his mind. His lyrics might not be as aggressive as Eminem or Wu Tang Clan, for example, but his personality has been the subject of his two most recent albums, the latter being described by none other than Lou Reed as “majestic and inspiring” because of Kanye’s ability to unbalance, to fuck with us, the listener. On My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, he made the perfect album to atone for the Taylor Swift thing. On Yeezus, he says it best himself: “as soon as they like you/make them unlike you/cause kissing people’s ass is so unlike you”. He plays the media so hard – it is ‘cool’ to hate Kanye West in the media, and he basks in the limelight of every controversy.
Then we have two women, Miley Cyrus and Nicki Minaj. The former is accused of selling herself, being exploited and sexualised by others to sell her records – yet she insists it is all in good fun, that she enjoys it. With every performance, every music video, she causes another furore, one that, like the artists of yesteryear, only serves to put her name on everyone’s lips. That same idea is taken by Nicki Minaj, who laughs at the men who only see her sexually – Anaconda literally features the line “look at her butt” – because she knows full well that is all some people will do. And she is more than happy to use the controversy it generates to take their money. She is fully aware of being in the male gaze, and fully aware of exploiting it.
In this age, controversy is not used just to shock and protest. It is used to spread the word, to generate attention, and to sell the art. In that way, there is little similarity between Picasso and Nicki Minaj. In terms of the art itself, well, that’s for you to judge.