10 Famous Songs That Absolutely Wouldn’t Be Released Today

10 Famous Songs That Absolutely Wouldn’t Be Released Today

Quite a few songs from back in the day absolutely would not be recorded and released today. Some call that progress and society’s push towards becoming a kinder and more welcoming place. Others see it as regression and lament how the world used to be more interesting than it is today—even if the sharp edges sometimes made things rough.

Regardless, there’s no doubt that there are a million problematic old songs that wouldn’t be big hits today… in many cases because record companies wouldn’t even want to release them for fear of the ensuing PR nightmare!

In this list, we’ll take a look at ten of those songs—all of which have aged very badly. These very famous musical hits have such problematic lyrics that they wouldn’t even be thought of as possible album cuts or singles in the modern era. Read through it and be amazed at how unsettling some of these old lyrics are. And it really begs the question: what are we producing today that will be seen as horrifying in another few decades?

Related: 10 Rock Songs That Shook The World

10“Brown Sugar” (Rolling Stones)

The Rolling Stones – Brown Sugar (Live) – OFFICIAL

The Rolling Stones first released “Brown Sugar” in 1971, and it was a hit among Stones fans and the general public, who loved rock and roll pretty shortly after that. The lyrics tell a different tale, though. Most notably, this lyric has caused major consternation among people who aren’t down with references to slavery or violence against women: “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.”

Obviously, that wouldn’t fly today. The racism and misogyny offer up a one-two punch of deeply troubling thoughts put out into the world via the single. Later in the song, more racism and misogyny bubbles up, too, as well as calls for sexual violence against the slaves who are the track’s forlorn subjects.

Thankfully, it seems as though Mick Jagger himself has come to the (correct) conclusion that the song isn’t okay. In recent years, he has changed the lyrics whenever he performs the song live. And that’s probably for the better![1]

9 “Ur So Gay” (Katy Perry)

Katy Perry – Ur So Gay (Official)

It seems like forever ago that Katy Perry first popped up on the scene and took the world of pop music by storm. She didn’t exactly set herself up for lasting success, though. At least not so far as the realm of decorum and decency is concerned! Take her problematic hit “I Kissed a Girl” for one. That song was an exploitative and fetishistic take on same-sex experimentation that wouldn’t be cool in the pro-LGBT world of the 2020s. And it was far from her worst!

In 2007, Katy released the single “Ur So Gay.” The song is about a metrosexual man with whom Perry has fallen in love. But already, the title alone is deeply troubling. It’s hard to imagine now, but back in the day, people regularly used “gay” as a shameful pejorative. Society has moved past that, but Katy’s old track is still stuck in that unfortunate era. Take this lyric as proof: “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.” Oof. Not many redeemable qualities in that single.[2]

8 “Picture to Burn” (Taylor Swift)

Taylor Swift – Picture To Burn

Bet you didn’t expect to see Taylor Swift grace this list, did ya? Well, 2008 was a very different time from the world we live in now. And believe it or not, Swift was part of that problematic old guard before transitioning into the other-worldly pop star that we know and love today. Back then, she released a song called “Picture to Burn” about a bad breakup with a boy. The song was immediately a massive hit back then and stayed that way for years after. But the lyrics are, uh, less than ideal.

Here’s the specific lyric we’re talking about: “So go and tell your friends that I’m obsessive and crazy / That’s fine, I’ll tell mine that you’re gay.” Ooh! Not great, Taylor! The idea of accusing a man of being gay just because a relationship didn’t work out is not a good look. It’s both juvenile and cruel to the man after a failed attempt at love, and it’s pretty notably homophobic in implying that being “gay” is somehow bad or less than desirable.

For what it’s worth, more recent remastered versions of Taylor’s early music have swapped out that verse for a different one. So, at least she recognizes how wrong it is now![3]

7 “Turning Japanese” (The Vapors)

Turning Japanese [Official video] – The Vapors (HD/HQ)

The Vapors hit it big in 1980 when they released their single “Turning Japanese.” All the lyrics are pretty bad, especially when you consider what the song is actually about. No, it’s not about becoming a Japanese person or moving to Japan and familiarizing oneself with Japanese culture. It’s actually about, uh, well, how do we put this… self-love. That’s it. It’s about those lonely moments when you’re in bed, bored, or alone in the house, and you want to engage in a little bit of self-love. Yeah.

Anyways, that’s a pretty funny premise for a song, and exploring masturbation-related themes through metaphors is certainly a clever thing to attempt. That it became a hit recognized all around the world is even funnier. But the fact that the Vapors compared that act to being Japanese is not cool at all. It’s a disrespectful joke about their eyes and faces, and it’s definitely way beyond the pale of something that would be acceptable in the eyes of the mainstream music-listening audience today. [4]

6 “Indian Outlaw” (Tim McGraw)

Tim McGraw – Indian Outlaw (Official Music Video)

Country crooner Tim McGraw’s song “I’m An Indian Outlaw” was first released in 1994 and became a hit among music fans. As you’d expect from the title, though, the lyrics are pretty concerning when it comes to cultural appropriation. Take this line as an example of that: “You can find me in my wigwam / I’ll be beating on my tom-tom / Pull out the pipe and smoke you some / Hey and pass it around.” Furthermore, McGraw’s character in the song claims to be “an Indian outlaw, half Cherokee and Choctaw,” which the real McGraw most certainly is not.

Wigwams, tom-toms, and peace pipes—really? It is about as stereotypical as one can get. In the modern era, we rightly recognize that trying on other peoples’ cultures like that isn’t cool, and those of us with enough sense to do so stay far away from that realm. Not Tim McGraw, though! At least, not Tim McGraw from thirty years ago. Something tells us he wouldn’t try to re-record and release this song today.[5]

5 “Island Girl” (Elton John)

When Elton John came out with “Island Girl” in 1975, he must not have seen anything problematic about the lyrics. But we see quite a bit wrong with what he sang on stage over and over and over again. Sure, we’re now almost exactly 50 years past its release, but still, it was over the top! Take this lyric as an example: “Island girl, what you wanting with the white man’s world / Island girl, black boy want you in his island world.”

Or what about the one in which he refers to the prostitute who is the subject of the song as a woman who is “black as coal but she burn like a fire.” Not ideal! And not only not ideal, but straight-up cringeworthy! John’s chart-topping hit is racial fetishization at its utmost. And while it’s only gotten worse in the modern age with regard to how we view racial relations today, we can’t imagine this song wasn’t seen as uncouth and inappropriate back then, either. Talk about really (really, really) pushing the boundaries…[6]

4 “Tonight’s the Night” (Rod Stewart)

Rod Stewart – Tonight’s The Night (Gonna Be Alright) (Official Video)

In 1976, Rod Stewart released a very controversial song called “Tonight’s the Night (Gonna Be Alright).” Just judging by the name alone, the #1 hit doesn’t sound that bad. Stewart is known for singing love ballads, after all. So, who’s to say that this wouldn’t be another one of those feel-good songs? Well, it wasn’t—and not by a long shot. Take this surprisingly candid and highly disturbing lyric as proof: “Don’t say a word, my virgin child, just let your inhibitions run wild.” Yeah…

When you combine the song itself with the music video that was later produced to accompany it, we are really at a loss for how it got recorded, produced, and released. See, in the video, Stewart woos a very young woman (who is faceless, which is probably for the better) and then leads her up to his bedroom. But before he can take her inside, she says this to him, translated from her French: “I’m a little scared. What is my mother going to say?” Uh, well… she would say to wait until you’re 18, young woman. Because otherwise, Stewart’s ballad is SUPER creepy![7]

3 “One in a Million” (Guns N’ Roses)

One In A Million – Guns N” Roses

The ’80s hair metal band Guns N’ Roses released quite a jaw-dropping track in 1988 when “One in a Million” came out. It was supposed to be a moving story about a small-town boy taking his shot at fame and fortune when he moves to Los Angeles, but it turned into… not that. Not that at all. The song started in that way, maybe, but it became a decidedly xenophobic and homophobic rant about what singer Axl Rose saw wrong with Los Angeles and the Hollywood entertainment industry.

Take this lyric from the ballad: “Immigrants and f****ts, they make no sense to me / They come to our country and think they’ll do as they please.” Or how about this lyric that is also about immigrants: “They talk so many f*****g ways / it’s all Greek to me.” Yeah, that’s not exactly wholesome music that the whole family can enjoy, now, is it? Something tells us that no mainstream record company with anybody working there who had even half a brain would publish that track nowadays.[8]

2 “Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number” (Aaliyah)

Aaliyah – Age Ain’t Nothing But A Number (Official HD Video)

Aaliyah could have been such a massive star in the worlds of hip-hop and R&B if she hadn’t died so prematurely in a plane crash. But her career was star-crossed even in its infancy. Take the year 1994, for example, when Aaliyah released the song “Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number.” The title alone should probably tell you a thing or two about why this song might be problematic, but here’s a lyric from the track to really drive the point home: “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.” It’s just like the aforementioned Rod Stewart single, but with the perspective flipped to that of the underage girl rather than the older man.

Oh, yeah, that’s the other thing. As we now know, at the time Aaliyah recorded this song, she was dating her mentor-slash-record producer R. Kelly. The reason that is troubling is because she was only 14 years old at the time, while R. Kelly was 27. The two would go on to illegally marry each other not long after that. Kelly, of course, had his spectacular downfall in recent years, even though Aaliyah never lived to see it. But still, today, this song is remarkably troubling.[9]

1 “He Hit Me (and It Felt Like a Kiss)” (The Crystals)

The Crystals – He Hit Me (And It Felt Like A Kiss)

The Crystals released maybe the absolute worst track in the history of music in 1962 when their single “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)” started getting radio airplay. Just like with Aaliyah’s single, the title of this song alone will drop your jaw. (And hopefully, not leave it black and blue, as the song not so subtly suggests.) Here is the choice lyric from the track to really, um, pound the point home: “He hit me and it felt like a kiss / he hit me and I knew he loved me.” If there’s one thing worse than domestic violence, it’s singing a loving and positive song that makes excuses for domestic violence. Not cool!

And yet, that isn’t quite the whole story. The song’s writers were Gerry Goffin and Carole King. The duo was inspired by the tragic real-life story of an aspiring young singer named Little Eva. She told them that she had a boyfriend who regularly beat her, but she tried to contextualize the beatings by claiming that they were motivated by love.

Goffin and King were rightfully horrified at that excuse, as all decent people would be. But instead of just telling Little Eva to leave her boyfriend, they chose to write a clever song about it to drive the point home that domestic violence is never, ever okay—no matter what excuse you may make for it at the moment. Still, we don’t think this one would make it onto the radio in 2024.[10]

fact checked by
Darci Heikkinen

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