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Politically Incorrect Songs From the Past: Were We Paying Attention to Lyrics? Or Has Our Culture Shifted That Much?
Put this in the category of "What were we thinking?" When I was growing up, there were plenty of songs that I didn't quite know the lyrics to. Plus, we didn't have the Internet.
If a tune on the radio seemed catchy, then we danced to it and tried to sing or hum along. But looking back on favorite songs of yesterday using today's lens, there were some really awful and surprising words lurking in some of those hits.
The controversy that some of them caused at the time is incomparable to what they'd receive in today's climate. Standards and values have changed such that if these songs were released now, they wouldn't receive much radio air time—at least not without creating significant pushback. Some might see the light of day due to editing for radio play.
Granted, we do have gangsta rap now. And country music has an awkward fascination with violence, drinking (with a wink to drunk driving), plus stereotypes of women as sex objects.
While those are topics for another discussion, let's take a look at examples of 1960s–90s pop, rock, and country tunes that just wouldn't fly in today's climate. These were popular songs that advocated, for example:
- sex role stereotyping and misogyny,
- racism or intolerance towards a specific group,
- inappropriate or illegal relationships, and/or
- illegal drugs.
How many of these songs did you sing along to? Did you realize what you were singing? Do you agree or disagree that society has changed enough that we wouldn't let these songs fly today?
1. "Under My Thumb" by The Rolling Stones
This 1966 rock song is about a couple's sexual power struggle, and at the time of its release, it was criticized by feminists for subjugating the woman like "a squirming dog." The woman only speaks when spoken to, and the narrator is allowed sexual freedom while her eyes are meant for only him.
While Jagger defended the song as a turning of the tables, the song just wouldn't fly today. While it may be a popular "throwback" tune, it is a relic from the past. Real men today don't resort to misogyny.
2. "Johnny Get Angry" by Joanie Sommers
Girl, go get yourself some counseling.
In this 1962 pop hit, it's the boyfriend who is the victim of sex role stereotyping. A young woman wants her beau to behave more like a brute. She tries to provoke the fellow into jealousy and showing her who is boss. Then she claims that every girl wants a man like that to look up to. (NO!)
Read More From Spinditty
Oh, Johnny get angry, Johnny get mad
Give me the biggest lecture I ever had
I want a brave man, I want a cave man
Johnny, show me that you care, really care for me.
3. "Stand By Your Man" by Tammy Wynette
The Queen of Country Music co-wrote this 1968 song in just 15 minutes, and it came to define her career. The song caused controversy even then with the burgeoning feminist movement, as her lyrics were perceived as encouraging women to overlook infidelity and forgive their husbands' marital transgressions. That lop-sided approach just wouldn't fly today.
You'll have bad times, and he'll have good times
Doin' things that you don't understand
But if you love him, you'll forgive him
Even though he's hard to understand.
4. "In the Summertime" by Mungo Jerry
You may like this song as much as I do, but the lyrics would raise more than a few eyebrows if it were released today. The 1970 pop song describes the carefree days of summer, and it was an international best-selling hit at the time.
However, it also advocates drunk driving and treating women as sex objects, especially if they are from poor families:
Have a drink, have a drive
Go out and see what you can find.
If her daddy's rich, take her out for a meal
If her daddy's poor, just do what you feel.
5. "Run for Your Life" by The Beatles
To hell with peace and love. The Beatles were singing about stalking, domestic violence, and threats of murder here. In this 1965 rock song, a self-described wicked guy who was born jealous tells his girlfriend:
I'd rather see you dead, little girl
Than to be with another man.
He says he is giving her a sermon and is "determined." While today's songs do feature stalking and violence, this song seems much more direct. Lennon and McCartney co-wrote it, and Lennon later acknowledged it was his least favorite Beatles song. He should be embarrassed. But we do have to remember that stalking wasn't a "thing" then and it certainly wasn't against the law. Times have changed.
6. "Getting Better" by The Beatles
The lyrics in this 1967 Beatles song would create a lot of heat today because they seem to normalize domestic violence against women:
I used to be cruel to my woman
I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved
Man, I was mean, but I'm changing my scene
And I'm doing the best that I can (ooh).
Lennon later admitted in interviews that this part of the song was autobiographical. He abused women he had relationships with and regretted it.
7. "Your Squaw Is on the Warpath" by Loretta Lynn
Today we handwring over whether to use the term "Native American" or "American Indian." There have also been significant movements to change sports team mascots that are said to perpetuate negative stereotypes of indegeous people of America.
However, such cultural sensitivity didn't exist in 1969 when this country song was released. Can you image the reaction if it were released today?
The song is about a woman whose "big brave chief" of a husband was out too late drinking "firewater." The self-described "squaw" warns him to "get off my huntin' grounds" and complains:
Well, you leave me at home to keep the teepee clean
Six papooses to break and when wean
Well ,your squaw is on the warpath tonight.
8 "I'm an Indian Outlaw" by Tim McGraw
This 1994 song is just plain ridiculous, and I'm betting Tim McGraw looks back and cringes a little at his first Top 40 hit. Complete with tom-tom drums, the song describes a rebellious Native American who is painted in cliches, from his wigwam to his peace pipe to his buffalo briefs. There is no way this over-the-top song would fly these days.
9. "Ahab the Arab" by Ray Stevens
Although released as a 1962 novelty song (a song intended as comedy), it became a Top 40 hit. Just try playing this song today on the radio or out loud. Given the political climate and cultural changes, it won't get the same reaction, particularly since Ray Stevens actually mocks the Arabic language. (Never do that.) He also refers to his character as an "Ay-rab" to rhyme with "Ahab."
Full of cliches, the song describes a camel-riding, wealthy sheik who meets up with a sultan and his harem. This is one of the most politically incorrect songs ever.
10. "Short People" by Randy Newman
Why pick on the vertically challenged? It's just so unnecessary.
The pop song caused controversy when it was released in 1977, but can you imagine today? These days we stipulate under the Americans with Disability Act that individuals who are 4'10" or less can be regarded as having a disability.
But this joke of a song took a different stance, saying that people of short stature didn't deserve to live! It also poked fun at them in other awful ways:
They got little hands
They walk around
Tellin' great big lies
They got little noses
And tiny little teeth
They wear platform shoes
On their nasty little feet.
11. "Brown Sugar" by The Rolling Stones
One of Rolling Stone magazine's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time, this 1971 classic rock song was at least partially inspired by an African American actress who became the mother of one of Mick Jagger's children. The song features so many taboo subjects, including forced sex with an underage slave girl, that Jagger said that he would censor himself today.
12. "A Boy Named Sue" by Johnny Cash
Today we take a harder stance against deadbeat dads, bullying, and insinuated gay shaming, but in 1969, it was a different world.
This classic country song is about a boy whose father left him when he was three. The only thing his deadbeat dad gave him was the effeminate-sounding name, "Sue." The child was teased mercilessly for it growing up.
As an adult, a life-hardened Sue is determined to find his father and kill him in revenge. However, upon finding his old man, he is surprised to learn that there was a reason for his "sissy" name. The father figured that with a name like Sue, the boy with no dad would teach himself to fight.
13. "One in a Million" by Guns 'N Roses
What was Axl Rose smoking when he wrote this? Why wouldn't he respect the opinion of his fellow bandmate, Slash (whose mother is half-black), and think twice about releasing this song?
The 1988 rock song describes Axl Rose's experience getting hustled at a Greyhound bus station when he first came to Los Angeles. In the lyrics, the following groups are denigrated:
- the police
- black people (and he uses the "n" word)
- immigrants and
- gays (calling them "f*ggots").
As you might expect, the song caused controversy at the time. Today, the reaction would be significantly worse.
14. "Half Breed" by Cher
Although a number one pop hit for Cher in 1973, Native Americans didn't like it even then. The song describes the cultural ostracism experienced by a woman of half-Caucasian and half-Cherokee descent.
When the song came out, Cher suddenly remembered that she was one-sixteenth Cherokee on her mother's side. (Does that make the song okay?)
The term "half-breed" is now considered pejorative and racist. "Multicultural" or "mixed" are examples of more accepted terms today. I'm convinced a song like this just wouldn't fly today.
15. "China Girl" by David Bowie
These days "China girls" are "Asian women," and it's inappropriate to refer to any woman as a little girl.
This international rock hit from 1983 is about a relationship between the narrator and his Asian girlfriend. It expresses concern that he may negatively influence her culture and identity:
My little China girl
You shouldn't mess with me
I'll ruin everything you are
I'll give you television
I'll give you eyes of blue
I'll give you man who wants to rule the world.
16. "Kung Foo Fighting" by Carl Douglas
This catchy tune from 1974 was never intended to be the international hit it turned out to be. It was recorded in two takes as a vinyl "side B." Perhaps you regard it as only mildly cringeworthy with its references to "funky China men from funky Chinatown" and "funky Billy Chin and little Sammy Chung."
But consider this: In 2011, a British man was arrested for singing it with his band after a complaint was racial abuse complaint was filed by a man of Asian descent who heard the song!
17. "Island Girl" by Elton John
In 1975, this rock song was a chart topper. But it reeks of racism that wouldn't sit so pretty in today's world. It's about a Jamaican woman, "black as coal," who works as a prostitute in Manhattan. A "black boy" is trying to take her back to the island and asks, "What you wanting with the white man's world?" This wouldn't fly today.
18. "Money for Nothing" by Dire Straits
Based on a real conversation with a guy in an appliance store, this 1985 rock song raises more than a few eyebrows. It's about a guy who is watching MTV.
He provides color commentary about the musician "banging on the bongos like a chimpanzee" while there's a woman "stickin' in the camera; man we could have some fun."
He further described the singer in homophobic terms:
See the little f*ggot with the earring and the makeup?
Yeah, buddy that's his own hair
That little f*ggot got his own jet airplane
That little f*ggot he's a millionaire.
In 2011, Canadian radio banned the original, unedited version of the song from radio play on account of its anti-gay namecalling.
19. "Hot Child in the City" by Nick Gilder
A chart-topper in several countries, this 1978 pop song might sound catchy and innocent, but it's about underage prostitution. That "hot child in the city" is a teenage runaway:
Danger in the shape of something wild,
Stranger dressed in black, she's a hungry child.
No one knows who she is or what her name is.
I don't know where she came from or what her game is.
Would we allow the song to be played today on radio stations, or would there be significant uproar? The song made Nick Gilder a one-hit wonder.
20. "You're Sixteen" by Ringo Starr
This is a 1973 remake of a 1960 rock hit. Out of fairness, we don't know what age the guy is, although he is allowed to drive: "You walked out of my dreams, and into my car."
However, the narrator seems overly fascinated with the fact that his girlfriend is so young and tender you can stick a fork in her:
You're all ribbons and curls, ooh, what a girl
Eyes that sparkle and shine
You're sixteen, you're beautiful and you're mine.
21. "War Is Hell (On the Homefront Too)" by T.G. Shepard
Ew, just ew.
In this 1982 country song, it's 1942, and the men are off fighting World War II. Meanwhile, the women were sitting at home allegedly bored and horny. (Really?)
A teenage boy delivers a married woman's groceries when he is pressed into service for his country, if you know what I mean:
War is hell on the homefront, too
God only knows what a woman goes through
She still needs what a man that's gone can't do
I can't fight this fire alone stay with me until it's gone
Oh, war is hell on the homefront, too.
22. "Fat Bottomed Girls" by Queen
A true Queen classic, this rock song from 1978 features a narrator who developed a love for fat-bottomed ladies as a result of sexual abuse many years prior.
If you're like me and love the song because you grew up on it, I get that. But let these truly cringeworthy lyrics sink in for a minute:
But I knew love before I left my nursery
Left alone with big fat Fanny
She was such a naughty nanny
Heap big woman, you made a bad boy out of me.
23. "Hot for Teacher" by Van Halen
These days, the lusty schoolboy sentiments expressed in this 1984 rock song are considered just plain icky, not to mention illegal.
Context is everything, however. The song was before the Mary Kay Letourneau legal case and the subsequent rash of other teacher/student relationships. (What's wrong with people abusing their power like that?)
In this 1980s Van Halen song, however, it wasn't a pervy, totally gross subject yet:
Oww got it bad, got it bad, got it bad,
I'm hot for teacher.
24. "Don't Stand So Close to Me" by The Police
It's songs like this 1980 pop hit that Gen X parents have playing in the back of their minds when they send their kids off to high school. A schoolgirl and teacher twice her age cross a dangerous line by having an illegal and inappropriate affair.
There is longing, frustration, temptation, and confrontation by superiors. He tells his student not to stand so close to him so as not to arouse further suspicion and his desires. Behavior like this now would land him on the 6 o'clock news in handcuffs. The song simply wouldn't fly today.
25. "Go Away Little Girl" by Donny Osmond
Unique for making the Billboard Top 20 three times by different artists, this 1971 pop tune no doubt creates different reactions in a modern world. It's about a man who is in a committed relationship, but he is very attracted to a younger (we'll say) woman.
Rather than taking personal responsibility—because he is the freaking adult in the situation—he tells her to leave because she's too hard to resist:
Go away, little girl
I'm not supposed to be alone with you
Oh, yes, I know that your lips are sweet
But our lips must never meet
I belong to somebody else and I must be true.
26. "Cocaine" by Eric Clapton
Today's songs about illegal drugs seem to be less obvious, sanitized for radio, or don't glorify drugs (e.g., "Took a Pill in Ibiza" or "Gorilla"). Not this 1977 rock classic. It's right out there:
If you want to hang out, you've gotta take her out, cocaine
If you want to get down, get down on the ground, cocaine
She don't lie, she don't lie, she don't lie,
Ironically, Eric Clapton claimed that the song actually has an anti-drug message. Would a radio play this song today?
27. "Heroin" by The Velvet Underground
Although this band later denied that the song advocated heroin, this 1967 rock tune seems to speak for itself. It describes the elation of putting a needle into one's vein and not caring about the ruinous and potentially deadly consequences. It is one of Rolling Stone magazine's 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.
Even More Songs From the Past That Wouldn't Be Okay Today
|Song & Year Released||Artist||Lyrics That Would Not Fly Today|
28. Lola (1970)
Well I left home just a week before / And I'd never ever kissed a woman before / But Lola smiled and took me by the hand / And said, 'Dear boy, I'm gonna make you a man.'
29. Smokin' in the Boys' Room (1985)
Smokin' in the boys room / Teacher don't you fill me up with your rules / Everybody knows that smokin' ain't allowed in school.
30. Cradle of Love (1990)
It burned like a ball of fire / When the rebel took a little child bride / To tease yeah, so go easy yeah.
31. Fire (1978)
The Pointer Sisters
You're pullin' me close I just say 'no' / I say I don't like it / But you know I'm a liar / 'Cause when we kiss/ Ooooh, fire.
32. Father Figure (1987)
That's all I wanted / But sometimes love can be mistaken / For a crime.
33. Young Girl (1968)
Gary Puckett & The Union Gap
Young girl, get out of my mind / My love for you is way out of line / Better run, girl / You're much too young, girl / With all the charms of a woman / You've kept the secret of your youth / You led me to believe you're old enough / To give me love / And now it hurts to know the truth.
34. My Sharona (1979)
Never gonna stop, give it up, such a dirty mind / I always get it up, for the touch of the younger kind,
35. Johnny, Are You Queer? (1981)
Why are you so weird, boy? / Johnny are you queer, boy? / When I make a play / You're pushing me away / Johnny are you queer?
36. Cat Scratch Fever (1977)
The first time that I got it / I was just 10 years old / I got it from some kitty next door / I went and see the doctor and he gave me the cure / I think I got it some more.
37. They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa! (1966)
And they're coming to take me away ha-haaa / They're coming to take me away ho ho hee hee ha haaa / To the funny farm / Where life is beautiful all the time.
38. Hot Legs (1977)
Hot legs, bring your mother too. ... / 17 years old, he's trudging 64. You got legs right up to your neck. You're makin' me a physical wreck.
39. He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss) (1962)
Yes, he hit me / And it felt like a kiss / He hit me / And I knew I loved him.
40. If You Wanna Be Happy (1963)
If you wanna be happy for the rest of your life / Never make a pretty woman your wife / So for my personal point of view / Get an ugly girl to marry you.
41. Baby, It's Cold Outside (1964)
Al Hirt & Ann-Margaret
Beautiful, please don't hurry / (Well maybe just half a drink more) / Put some records on while I pour / (The neighbors might think) / Baby it's bad out there / (Say what's in this drink?)
42. Hey, Joe (1966)
Hey, Joe, I said where you goin' with that gun in your hand? / Alright. / I'm goin' down to shoot my old lady / You know I caught her messin' 'round with another man.
43. Stray Cat Blues (1968)
The Rolling Stones
I can see that you're 15 years old / No, I don't want your I.D. / And I've seen that you're so far from home / But it's no hanging matter / It's no capital crime.
44. Christine Sixteen (1977)
I don't usually say things like this to girls your age / But when I saw you coming out of the school that day / That day I knew, I knew (Christine sixteen) / I've got to have you, I've got to have you.
45. Turning Japanese (1980)
You've got me turning up and turning down, I'm turning in, I'm turning 'round / I'm turning Japanese, I think I'm turning Japanese, I really think so.
46. Play That Funky Music (1976)
Play that funky music, white boy / Play that funky music right, yeah.
47. The Homecoming Queen's Got a Gun (1983)
Debbie’s smiling and waving her gun / Picking off cheerleaders one by one / Oh, Buffie's pompom just flew to bits / Oh, no, Mitzie’s head just did the splits / God, my best friend’s on a shooting spree!
48. Judy Mae (1975)
My new mama … / Judy Mae / Oh, she sure had a way of looking after me / Yes, her eyes would sparkle and shine / Every time Papa got ready to leave.
49. Dance Hall Days (1984)
Take your baby by the hair / And pull her close and there, there, there / And take your baby by the ears / And play upon her darkest fears.
50. Everybody's Sweetheart (1988)
Well, she's everybody's sweetheart / Everybody's sweetheart but mine / I shoulda kept her barefoot / Barefoot and pregnant all the time.
51. Indian Giver (1969)
1910 Fruitgum Company
Indian giver Indian giver / You took your love away from me.
52. Dude (Looks Like a Lady) (1987)
She had the body of a Venus / Lord, imagine my surprise / That, that dude looks like a lady.
53. Midnight at the Oasis (1974)
I know your Daddy's a sultan / A nomad known to all / With fifty girls to attend him / They all send him / Jump at his beck and call / But you won't need no harem, honey / When I'm by your side / And you won't need no camel, no no / When I take you for a ride.
54. Walk on the Wild Side (1972)
Candy came from out on the island / In the backroom she was everybody's darling / But she never lost her head / Even when she was giving h--d.
55. Darling Nikki (1984)
Prince and The Revolution
I knew a girl named Nikki I guess you could say she was a sex fiend / I met her in a hotel lobby mast--bating with a magazine.
56. When I Kissed the Teacher (1976)
My whole class went wild / As I held my breath, the world stood still, but then he just smiled / I was in the seventh heaven when I kissed the teacher.
57. The South's Gonna Do It (1975)
Be proud to a rebel 'cause South's gonna do it again.
58. Possum Kingdom (1994)
Do you wanna die? / I promise you / I will treat you well / My sweet angel / So help me, Jesus.
59. 1,2,3 Red Light (1968)
1910 Fruitgum Company
1, 2, 3 red light / Every time I make a move to love you / 1, 2, 3 red light don't stop me / Baby you ain't right to stop me.
60. Seventeen (1989)
She's only seventeen (seventeen) / Daddy says she's too young, but she's old enough for me.
61. Vehicle (1970)
The Ides of March
Well, I'm the friendly stranger in the black sedan / Oh, won't you hop inside my car? / I got pictures, candy, I'm a lovable man / I'd like to take you to the nearest star.
62. Alabama Song (1967)
Well, show me the way / To the next little girl / Oh, don't ask why / Oh, don't ask why.
63. Jack Straw (1971)
We can share the women / We can share the wine / We can share what we got of yours / 'Cause we done shared all of mine
64. I'm a Woman (1962)
I can wash out 40 four pair of socks / And have 'em on the line / I can starch and iron two dozen shirts / 'Fore you can count from one to nine
65. Francine (1972)
My Francine just turned 13 / She's my angelic teenage queen / And I love her, she's all that I want / And I need her, she's all that I need
66. Hot Blooded (1978)
Are you old enough? / Will you be ready when I call your bluff? / Is my timing right? / Did you save your love for me tonight?
Questions & Answers
Question: Is the 1970 song, "Cracklin' Rosie" by Neil Diamond one that would be considered politically incorrect today?
Answer: Many people mistakenly believe that the song is about a man's fondness for a prostitute, particularly because of the following lyrics:
Oh, I love my Rosie child —
You got the way to make me happy.
'You and me, we go in style ...
Cracklin' Rose, you're a store bought woman
You make me sing like a guitar hummin' ...
However, "Cracklin' Rose" is about a type of wine: https://people.com/music/neil-diamond-50th-anniver... That's why the song isn't on this list.
Question: Is "Chinese Rocks" a racist song?
Answer: The punk rock song, "Chinese Rocks" (1977) by Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers is about heroin. It's not a flattering song in its drug usage of the word, "Chinese" but doesn't otherwise include anything about Chinese people or culture.
© 2017 FlourishAnyway
Robert Sacchi on August 09, 2020:
FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on August 09, 2020:
JanM - Thank you for the song suggestion.
JanM on August 08, 2020:
How about "Travelin' Man" sung by Ricky Nelson? He has women all over the world, some identified by terms considered derogatory now.
FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on July 28, 2020:
NJM99 - Thanks for the song recommendation. Yes, that song references women as chattel to be shared, borrowed, possessed, owned, etc. I've added it at #63.
NJM99 on July 26, 2020:
Jack Straw by the Grateful Dead - “We can share the women, we can share the wine”
FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on May 19, 2020:
Canuck5 - Yes, there's also the line about "Well, I can look at you till you ain't no child no more" that's a little creepy. Makes you wonder just how young she is? Thanks for the recommendation. It was released in 1954. Otherwise, I would add it.
Canuck5 on May 18, 2020:
How about Joe Turner's, "Shake, Rattle and Roll", with its lyrics, "...you get in that kitchen, make some noise with the pots 'n pans"? In 1954, it might have been considered normal to expect a housewife to look after the cooking and cleaning, but decades later, that certainly isn't the case.
FlourishAnyway (author) from USA on April 17, 2020:
Peggy - Some are a bit shocking nowadays but then didn't cause much concern. Thanks for stopping by!
Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on April 17, 2020:
The times certainly have changed since these songs were written and sung. In some cases, I did not even realize the significance or meaning. I noticed in one of the comments that you indicated the same about some of them.