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Banned Books, Movies And Musicians That Were Too Controversial For Their Time

"Justify My Love" – Madonna (Screenshot via YouTube)

Sometimes a work can push society's buttons. Maybe it was ahead of it's time, or obscene, or just touching on a sore spot. Any way you slice it the powers at be have deigned it too inappropriate for the public and do their best to censor it.

Doesn't that make it so much more enticing though? Here are 22 of the best banned books, movies and musicians who were too controversial for their time. Enjoy!

Roar (1981)

Some films are banned for how excessive their simulations of violence are, and others for how realistic they can be. But then theres the third category, where the violence isnt simulated at all. Its real.

One of the most unnerving entries on this list, Roar is a film about a family trapped in a home overrun with wild tigers, lions, cheetahs, cougars and jaguars. The kicker? All the animals in the film were completely real, and behind the scenes footage was included in the final film when several of the animals turned on their masters and attacked the cast and crew. Director Noel Marshall set out to make a film about animal conservation, and the film itself might not be more than an exploitation film. He certainly did get the message that a wild animal is something to be respected and left well alone.

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"Justify My Love" – Madonna (1990)

Madonna paved the way for the modern pop star, but what a lot of people forget is just how much she pushed her irreverent image of sex and power in the 1980s. The singer has courted a lot of controversy over her career, but perhaps the most explicit thing she ever did was the music video for Justify My Love.

Shot in black in white, the video showed Madonna engaging in simulated sex with a bevy of writhing men and women. Even for all the boundaries it was pushing at the time, MTV still banned the video for its lewd content. However, the controversy only made finding the video more desirable, and it would sell over 260,000 VHS copies.

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The Jungle – Upton Sinclair (1906)

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While one might think of smoggy London skies and Dickens when they hear the words industrial revolution, its important to understand that the controversies of industrialism were a worldwide phenomenon. When he set out to write The Jungle, Upton Sinclair was derisively considered by his peers to be muck-racker, or someone who deliberately exposed corruption in government and business. Although the public perception of what he did at the time might be compared more to that of a modern tabloid-journalist.

The book centres around the meat-packing workers of Boston, who were often forced to work in dangerous, sub-standard conditions while living in slum housing. The Jungle was controversial enough to earn a personal criticism from then president Theodore Roosevelt; "I have an utter contempt for [Sinclair]. He is hysterical, unbalanced, and untruthful. Three-fourths of the things he said were absolute falsehoods. For some of the remainder there was only a basis of truth."

Guess that truth stuck it out.

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Sinead O'Connor's SNL Appearance (1992)

In 1992, Irish songstress Sinead O'Connor appeared on SNL to perform an a cappella rendition of Bob Marleys protest song War. No stranger to public outrage, even at the time. O'Connor planned to rip up a photo of a child at the end of her performance, and had been doing just that during rehearsals so no one would suspect her true intentions.

When it came time to do the photo rip, O'Connor instead pulled out a photo of Pope John Paul II and ripped it up on stage while proclaiming Fight the real enemy!. The show created a serious backlash against the singer and SNL, and the shows creators vowed it would the last words Sinead would ever get on the show.

O'Connor, (who would later go on to become an ordained priest), said that her actions were meant as a statement against child abuse in the Catholic Church.

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Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979)

Good comedy can make a whole crowd laugh. Great comedy makes half the crowd laugh and the other half offended. British comedy troupe, Monty Python has taken on a wide variety of topics over the course of their golden years. From King Arthur to Dead Parrots, but the most vocal reaction to their comedy has to be 1979s Life of Brian. Essentially the story of Jesus Christ, with Jesus replaced by the irreverent and unwilling everyman Brian. The film skewers everything from the concept of a martyr to the infrastructure of the Roman Empire.

The film offended a veritable who's who of the religious community; The Catholic archdiocese of New York, plus three distinguished Jewish organisations - the Rabbinical Alliance of America, the Union of Orthodox Rabbis and the Council of Syria and Near Eastern Sephardic Communities - have condemned the film. The Catholic archdiocese has called Life of Brian a blasphemy, adding that it was a crime against religion which holds the person of Christ up to comic ridicule. The Jewish groups are equally damning. They regard the film as grievously insultlng, and have described it as a vicious attack on Judaism and the Bible, and a cruel mockery of Christian religious feelings as well.

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Invisible Man – Ralph Ellison (1952)

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One of the first books released in the United States to focus on the subject of Black identity, Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man exploded onto the scene in 1952. The narrator of the book is an unnamed Black man experiencing the deep frustrations and hypocrisies of American race-relations in the 1950s. Ellison laboured for years on the book, drawing inspiration from Dostovsky's Notes From the Underground and Melvilles Moby Dick. The result was a depiction of one life in an overwhelming and oppressive system that crushes the individual spirit, rendering the narrator as invisible in the face of social upheaval.

The work is extremely unapologetic, and was banned as recently as 2013 for depictions of Marxism and Black Nationalism.

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The Thunder Rolls – Garth Brooks (1991)

Garth Brooks seems like a strange fit for this list, normally producing the kind of classic country music that doesn't generate controversy. However in 1991, the Nashville star pushed the envelope in the music video for his single "The Thunder Rolls."

The song and the video depict the harsh reality of domestic violence, and resulted in both being pulled from the air by major networks. Despite this, Brooks had the support of women's shelters across the country and the song was catapulted to the top of the charts. The video too has become famous in the country music scene, and went on to win the Country Music Award for Video of the Year.

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A Clockwork Orange (1971)

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Have you ever heard of the notorious X rating? Its considered a complete death sentence for a film, marking it as explicit and placing it in the same category as hardcore pornography and extreme violence. That being said, despite its taboo the X Rating might be entirely appropriate for a movie like A Clockwork Orange. A film which deliberately explores the limits of sadomasochism and the human pysche. Both the book and the film have courted controversy, but the realization of the books violence in the film has seemed to cement it as the more controversial version of the story.

Set in a dystopian Britain where the system is both omnipresent in the lives of its prisoners and unable to enforce order in the streets. Self styled emperor Alex De Large and his band of goons commit explicit acts of ultra-violence throughout the film that put censors in America on edge and earned the film a removal from circulation in the UK. Still, as living proof that great art is more powerful than state censorship it would go on to be nominated in four major Oscar categories.

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Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee – Dee Brown (1970)

"If theres a possibility that something might be controversial, then why not eliminate it."

Those were the words spoken by an official of a Wisconsin school district about Dee Browns novel, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Originally subtitled, An Indian History of the American West, the novel tells the story of American expansion into the western frontier from the perspective of the First Nations.

Officials were worried that the book might be polemical in the classroom. Depicting the American government as committing cultural and military warfare against the First Nations as well as touching on sensitive topics like forced relocation and the American concept of manifest destiny. The title itself is a reference to the last major battle between the United States and the First Nations and subsequent massacre. A topic that remains difficult to teach in the classroom to this day.

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Strange Fruit – Billie Holliday (1939)

Jazz legend Billie Holiday drew inspiration from a bleak period of American history when she released the song Strange Fruit. An adaptation of a poem by Abe Meeropol, the poet was describing his reaction to the lynching of two African-American men. When Holiday put the poem to music, she had to record it on an independent label as her main record company refused to produce it.

The social and political themes created a firestorm at the time, but it has since become one of Holidays most celebrated works. Earning a spot in the Library of Congress in 2002.

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Where the Wild Things Are – Maurice Sendak (1963)

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A journey into the imagination isn't complete without dipping your toes into the disturbing and surreal. Where the Wild Things Are has been a classic of bedtime lit for generations since its release. However, parents and librarians have taken issue with the picture book over the years for its frightening elements.

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Elvis Costello's SNL Appearance (1977)

Elvis Costello might have seemed like a harmless replacement when he filled in for the Sex Pistols as the musical guest for a 1977 episode of SNL. After the punk band was denied a U.S. work visa, Costello was signed on. However, he wanted to play his hit song "Radio Radio," a song that criticizes media sensationalism.

Unhappy with the songs anti-media message, SNL creators explicitly forbade Costello from performing the song. Initially, he seemed to be playing ball when he started performing a different song on the live musical segment.

However, eight seconds into "Less Than Zero," he and his band immediately switched to "Radio Radio." After the incident, he wouldn't set foot on the SNL stage again until 1999 when he crashed the Beastie Boys rendition of his song for another cheeky wink.

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Our Bodies, Ourselves – Boston Women's Health Book Collective (1971)

Released during the apex of second-wave Feminism in the United States, Our Bodies, Ourselves was less of a novel and more of a health textbook written by a twelve woman workshop in Boston. Concerned about the inadequacies of the time regarding the teaching of women's health, the book also covered taboo topics like birth control, gender identity and sexual orientation.

Still widely printed and read to this day, it was challenged at the time for promoting homosexuality and perversion.

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The Catcher in the Rye – J.D. Salinger (1951)

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No one enjoys ticking off the authorities more than an angsty teenager, and for years the poster child of the rebellious youth was J.D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield. The Catcher in the Rye was (and still is), removed from classrooms for the frequency of Holden's profanity and undermining of public morality.

Unacceptable, obscene, blasphemous, negative, foul, filthy, were the words used to describe the novel. And to think it only includes a single major instance of the F-Word. The novel uses profanity to prove a point about innocence and the line between the worlds of children and adults.

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Sexual Behaviour in the Male/Female – Alfred Kinsey (1948)

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You may have heard of the Kinsey scale, a psychological spectrum which eschews traditionally binary thinking of hetero and homosexuality.

Originally published in 1948, Alfred Kinseys study of sexuality was the first of its scope and scale. Like anything that was the first of its kind, its ideas were hotly debated. Although nowadays it has formed one of the bedrock books of modern gender study.

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"God Save the Queen" – The Sex Pistols (1977)

An inclusion that will probably surprise nobody, British punk band The Sex Pistols were always conceived as a band that would offend first and play music second. Calling the British government a Fascist regime in their hit song God Save the Queen had them quickly being denied airplay on the BBC.

Still, the song was one of their biggest successes, peaking at number two on the charts. It is still speculated that the group actually did have the number one hit at the time, but were denied by the powers at be to keep them out of the top slot.

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The Scarlet Letter – Nathaniel Hawthorne (1850)

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Another book whose controversies seem almost quaint to us in the modern age. Nathaniel Hawthornes The Scarlet Letter has been banned repeatedly from classrooms through the years for its criticism of hypocritical moralism, especially in the way society regards sexuality.

Protagonist Hester Prynne conceives a daughter out of wedlock and finds herself an outcast in her puritan colony. Popping all kinds of monocles at the time, the book challenged conventional attitudes towards women and sex in society.

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Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band – The Beatles (1967)

Remember that pop music was a totally different landscape when the Beatles hit the scene in the 1960s. Songs were typically a bit more wholesome, and didn't usually concern themselves with taboo topics like sex, drugs and rock n roll.

The Fab Four were banned from British airwaves on two occasions, both Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds and A Day in the Life from the seminal Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band were targeted for their apparent encouragement of drug usage.

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Freaks (1932)

The early years of film were indeed a wild time for the medium. Without much formal understanding over what you could and couldn't do in film, and lacking much content regulation as well, anything was possible. Director Tod Browning was hot off of one of the most iconic horror films of all time, Dracula starring Bela Lugosi. For his next project he turned to the memories of his own teenage years with a traveling circus. The film infamously featured actual circus performers, including conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hamilton and human torso Prince Randian, who lights a cigarette without the use of arms or legs in one of the movies most iconic scenes.

Browning's intentions with the film was to create a sympathetic portrayal of the so called Freaks, who at the end of the day are possessed of the same human desires and feelings as the audience. However the graphic content of the film left censors and theatergoers aghast. Indeed, even the final scene of the film can be pretty disturbing today. In which the beautiful but condescending and manipulative Cleopatra is turned into a human duck.

At its release the films run time was slashed by nearly a third, and a phoney happy ending was tacked on by the studio. Today however, Freaks has become a respected cult classic of early cinema and has earned a spot in the Library of Congress.

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The Call of the Wild – Jack London (1903)

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Showing how much times can change over a century, Jack Londons magnum opus The Call of the Wild has gone from the banned book list to a quintessential classic of young-adult literature. Essentially an adventure story about a man and his loyal dog, the book was challenged for its dark tone and depiction of violence during the Yukon Gold Rush.

Perhaps the distance of the events it depicts have softened the reception of the book, but throughout the 20th century it was hotly debated and frequently banned. It was listed as too radical by the Nazi party, and burned alongside many other seminal works in state mandated public bonfires throughout the 20s and 30s.

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The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck (1939)

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Set in the barren California dustbowl during the Great Depression, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath courted controversy for its frank depiction of sexuality, profanity and poverty. Steinbeck was attacked on all sides and accused of spreading communist propaganda with the work, especially from farmers in California that objected to their depiction in the novel.

However, it has become a mainstay of English classes since then for its impeccable writing and relevant themes. In 1962 it was cited as one of the main contributing works to Steinbeck's Nobel Prize for Literature.

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The Dixie Chicks (2003)

Country music trio The Dixie Chicks made headlines in 2003 when singer Natalie Maines criticized President George W. Bush's involvement in the Iraq War. They became the centre of hotly debated discussions about free speech after the remarks resulted in their music being pulled from over 262 radio stations. Angry country music fans even bulldozed piles of their records in public events.

The debate went all the way up to Washington, where Senator John McCain called the radio stations' decision to ban the Dixie Chicks an erosion of the First Amendment.

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