Imagine, for a hot second, that Taylor Swift released “Shake It Off” in 1992. How would it have gone down? Would someone have written an article in The Times about racial appropriation? Would there have been a letter writing campaign to Taylor about the subtle difference between cliche and stereotype? Or, would it have provoked a lot of 12 year-olds to start wearing animal print crop bomber jackets and loads of fake bling?
Things were different back then, weren’t they, in 1992. Old dudes could sing about their dicks in a room full of children without question, bands could write songs about wanting to bone underage girls to critical acclaim, and Gwen Stefani could say “Super kawaii!”, continuing the ongoing minstrel show that is her Harajuku girl fetish, and everyone would respond by gluing bindi’s to their foreheads like she did in “I’m Just A Girl”.
Now that we live in a time where two female pop stars can’t make a song about how buff they are without being labelled a disgrace to feminism, it’s easy to forget just how many artists narrowly escaped a digital flogging because their #problematic thing was released before social media existed. Here are a small number of those artists and the public shaming misfortune they escaped only by the good grace of Tumblr not being invented until 2007.
The Beatles - “I Saw Her Standing There”
Yo waddup it’s ya bois, The Beatles, here with the most inappropriate piece of music since Bill Cosby’s improv album featuring the tracks “What Ya Think 'Bout Lickin' My Chicken” and “That’s How I Met Your Mother”. There aren't even any insidious metaphors here though, just a straight up on the nose proclamation of wanting to bang a teenager. When your opening gambit is “Well she was just 17 / You know what I mean” there’s pretty much no path you can go down that won’t end in a police blockade and the words “Hi, I’m Chris Hansen with Dateline NBC...”
In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked “I Saw Her Standing There” at #139 on their list of the 500 Greatest Songs of All Time. In 2015? Lolita probably would have ended with Humbert Humbert on trial for sexual harassment, pointing to these lyrics as evidence for his innocence.
The Offspring - “Pretty Fly (For A White Guy)”
I feel like The Offspring’s intention here was to mock white guys who adopt black culture by portraying a caricature of a skinny white nerd who fails miserably at being a caricature of hip-hop. But that’s probably being a bit too kind when you consider that a) it rolls out pretty much every racial stereotype in the book along the way, b) the video only portrays women of colour as vessels of lust for white men, and c) they hired a female vocalist to sing the sexually suggestive bit of the chorus in a Latino accent.
Britney Spears - “Hit Me Baby (One More Time)”
A symphony of teenage lust, “Hit Me Baby (One More Time)” accelerated Britney from the ranks of The Mickey Mouse Club to the poster girl of pop, essentially condensing Miley Cyrus’ entire career to date into one year. But because this was her first single, she’s choreographing her way like a boss around a school campus in bunches and knee-high socks, and she was just 16 at the time. There’s a “Sophia Grace” type of argument to be had here in terms of what’s actually being sold to us. Is this a) a 16 year-old Britney unequivocally owning her shit, or is this b) a 16 year-old Britney being a singing, dancing American Apparel advert whose entire image is based on the exploitation of the “Catholic schoolgirl fantasy” and Lolita-style over-sexualisation of teenage girls? Enter: Comment Is Free. If Britney came out today there would be a war of the thinkpieces so brutal and endless that it would go on until there was nothing left of Britain but threadbare fingers of overworked Vagenda writers.
For what it’s worth in 2015, Britney said this in response to parental criticism at the time: "Me showing my belly? I'm from the South; you're stupid if you don't wear a sports bra [when you] go to dance class, you're going to be sweating your butt off."
N*E*R*D - “Lapdance”
Somehow, Pharrell Williams got off pretty lightly on his involvement with “Blurred Lines”. I will never understand how that is possible, especially when you consider that Pharrell has some serious priors. For example, in 2001 N*E*R*D released “Lapdance”, which nobody really batted a feminist eye at back then because mainstream pop culture thrived exclusively on American Pie, Jackass, and internet porn.
Also known as the video every 00s teenager would stay up late waiting for Kerrang!’s watershed hours so they could masturbate to the explicit version, “Lapdance” basically uses sex-work as an aggressive metaphor for politics (“While the government is soundin’ like strippers to me / They keep sayin’ but I don’t wanna hear it”). As in, all politicians do is chat breeze and N*E*R*D are done listening, and similarly, when you’re all up in the club why would you want to have a conversation with a stripper? JEEZ. There is so much T&A in this video it’s impossible to dissect everything that’s going on but to summarise: pseudo-lesbian exhibitionism for the male gaze, Pharrell with a pornstache grabbing on a bunch of exposed boobs while fully clad in a polo shirt, and at one point rapper Lee Harvey pushes a woman away by the neck.
If N*E*R*D released this in 2015 instead of their soundtrack for Spongebob: Sponge Out Of Water, Pharrell wouldn’t have gone anywhere near Blurred Lines because he - like Robin Thicke today - wouldn’t have a career left.
Chico - “It’s Chico Time”
“Sometimes it feels so good,
I can't remember bad,
my 8 o'clock is tickin'
and in fact it drives me mad,
It's erotic, exotic, hypnotic, that's for sure,
put a smile on ya face,
and take u to a place,
you've never been before.”
Sings X-Factor quarter-finalist Chico Slimani, surrounded by a group of under 10s who are embarrassingly better at dancing than him. No smoke without fire.
Boyzone - “Melting Pot”
This is undeniably the most racist song since Skrewdriver’s greatest hits, with lyrics that make ethnicity sound like a Dulux paint chart and interracial sex sound like some kind of deeply offensive Viz cartoon. The opening lines are genuinely “Take a pinch of white man/ Wrap it up in black skin/ Add a touch of blue blood/ And a little bitty bit of Red Indian boy/ Curly, black and kinky/ Oriental sexy/ If you lump it all together/ Well, you've got a recipe.”
Imagine if One Direction released a song like that today. Twitter would have an aneurysm. There would be so many think pieces commissioned there would be a spike in global GDP. Genuinely this is a song which follows up with these Lion King lines about ethnicity with the words “The poorest and the wealthy/ Weakest and the healthy”. They are basically lucky that this track dropped a decade before the Racial Hatred Act otherwise Ronan Keating would be doing his Magic FM show through prison bars.
Extreme - “More Than Words”
Guys consent doesn't mean not saying no, it means saying yes. “More than words to show you feel. That your love for me is real.” Are you kidding me? Did you know that most victims of sexual assault know their attacker. How long can we live in this rape culture for?
The Knack - “My Sharona”
“Never gonna stop, give it up, such a dirty mind
I always get it up, for the touch of the younger kind
My, my, my, aye-aye, woo!”
Translation: HI EVERYONE I SHOULD BE IN PRISON HOW AM I NOT IN PRISON.
Gwen Stefani - “Hollaback Girl”
Gwen Stefani in 2004 was basically the same as Hayley Williams is today - the good-looking lead singer of a very successful poppish punk band who had always maintained that they were about the band and didn’t wanna be seen as a solo artist.
So imagine if today Hayley Williams came out with a massive Pharrell produced banger with a breakdown about shit being bananas and she was accompanied, for no discernible reason, by four mute Japanese teenagers who dressed up in cheerleader outfits and pushed Gwen around in a shopping trolley. Fuck it you don’t need to imagine because that’s exactly what Avril Lavigne did when she decided she wanted to be a tweeny bopper at the ripe old age of 28 and there was unmitigated outrage and she was widely accused of being a racist.
Also, categorical proof that Pharrell Williams co-stars in literally every #problematic video of all time.
Red Hot Chili Peppers - “Catholic School Girls Rule”
If you travelled back to 1985 and managed to pin down an extremely gak-fuelled Anthony Kiedis long enough to enter his brain, this is exactly what you would see: lots of presumed-to-be-sexually-repressed religious girls opening their mouths to “receive” various objects while he runs around shirtless in Christ-pose, culminating in the entire RHCP line-up getting toilet blow jobs. It's almost as if all Catholic schools are genuinely secret meet-up spots for rock star orgies, not a place where the main concern is trying to stop people getting abortions and voting for The Green Party.