19 Rock Videos That Were Banned by MTV
Part of rock's inherent appeal is that it's the music of rebels. Throughout the genre's history, many of its most legendary artists have been notorious rule breakers.
When MTV debuted on Aug. 1, 1981, it tried to embody rock's rebellious attitude. Still, it's difficult to please everyone - viewers, advertisers, executives and the FCC - while also maintaining that defiant spirit. The network had to create its own guidelines for what it would and wouldn't allow. This meant that many videos, even those by some of music's biggest acts, would be banned.
In general, the network decided to draw the line at nudity, overly sexualized content and violence. Language that was profane or hateful in nature - including racist and homophobic lyrics - was routinely censored, though most videos were not banned exclusively because of this. MTV also treaded lightly around religious imagery and maintained strict rules against videos that promote any kind of satanic worship.
We take a look at 19 Rock Videos That Were Banned by MTV below.
Queen, “Body Language” (1982)
Early in MTV’s existence, the network was especially skittish around naked (or near-naked) bodies. So, when Queen decided to fill the video for their 1982 single “Body Language” with as much flesh as possible, it was an easy call for the network to reject the clip. By today’s standards, the sight of male and female models writhing around in a locker-room shower with almost nothing on is relatively tame. Still, it was scandalous at the time of release and quickly became the first video ever banned by MTV.
Van Halen, “Oh, Pretty Woman” (1982)
You’d be hard pressed to find a more innocuous song than Roy Orbison's “Oh, Pretty Woman.” Still, Van Halen managed to make the track controversial, thanks to the strange music video for their cover of the song. In the clip, the band members - dressed as a samurai, Tarzan, a cowboy and Napoleon - are enlisted by a hunchback to save a damsel in distress who is being tied up and fondled by two dwarves. After coming to the rescue, it’s revealed that the woman is actually a drag queen. This revelation, coupled with the unwanted groping seen early in the video, was enough for MTV to limit the number of plays. So, while the video wasn't outright banned, most viewers probably never got a chance to see it.
Motorhead, “Killed by Death” (1983)
Decades later, Motorhead’s cheesy, low-budget video for “Killed by Death” seems practically charming. Still, in 1983, MTV did not care for it at all. The sight of frontman Lemmy Kilmister flipping off the camera, getting shot by riot police and executed in an electric chair, only to rise from the dead while riding his motorcycle, was all too much for the network to handle. The video was banned by MTV due to its “excessive and senseless violence.”
Queen, "I Want to Break Free" (1984)
Two years after they had the honor of being the first band to have a video banned by MTV, Queen once again found their material rejected by the network. For the group’s 1984 song “I Want to Break Free,” the legendary rockers decided to parody an English soap opera called Coronation Street. “We dressed up as the characters in that soap. And there were female characters, so we were dressing up as girls, as women … we had a fantastic laugh doing it,” guitarist Brian May later recalled. MTV, however, was not laughing. The network wasn’t interested in supporting a video that it believed promoted cross-dressing. “I remember being on the promo tour in the Midwest of America and people’s faces turning ashen,” May recalled. “And they would say, ‘No, we can’t play this. We can’t possibly play this.’”
Twisted Sister, “Be Chrool to Your Scuel” (1985)
Twisted Sister enlisted a cavalcade of talent for 1985’s “Be Chrool to Your Scuel." Alice Cooper, Clarence Clemons, Billy Joel and Brian Setzer all contributed to the track, while its music video featured comedian Bobcat Goldthwait and future 90210 star Luke Perry. Still, none of this A-list star power would help the clip get airtime on MTV. The video's plot centered on Goldthwait, who played a teacher unable to connect with his students. Frustrated, the character goes to the teacher’s lounge and listens to some Twister Sister. Suddenly, the students become zombies, with Goldthwait and another teacher turning into Dee Snider and Cooper, who do their best to elude the seemingly endless army of undead. "They told us that the zombie content was 'too gross' for MTV and absolutely no amount of editing would fix it," Snider wrote in his memoir Shut Up and Give Me the Mic. “It was no worse than Michael Jackson's 14-minute, MTV Award-winning zombie opus for 'Thriller,' but ours was un-airable?” The Twisted Sister frontman believed his band was made an example of due to recent outrage from the Parents Music Resource Center. “Like the fans, MTV discovered they could throw concerned parents a bone with Twisted Sister that would have little effect on their viewership. Scumbags."
Motley Crue, “Girls, Girls, Girls” (1987)
The ultimate stripper song was filmed at Motley Crue’s favorite strip club, the Seventh Veil in Los Angeles. The original version, featuring exotic dancers in the nude, was unsurprisingly rejected by MTV. So, the band returned with a slightly less risque clip, this time showcasing dancers in bikinis. The changed version was accepted, and quickly became one of the most popular music videos of 1987.
Motley Crue, “You’re All I Need” (1987)
Unlike their other entry on our list, Motley Crue’s “You’re All I Need” banning had nothing to do with sexual content. Instead, the clip was vetoed by MTV due to its violent nature. The video’s plot centered on an abusive relationship that eventually ended in murder, a concept the network found too intense to air. “'You're All I Need' doesn't condone or exploit this tragedy,” Motley Crue bassist Nikki Sixx explained at the time. “It clearly shows how one life is destroyed and another ruined forever. And it's probably a lot less graphic than much of what we see on the 6 o'clock news every night."
Megadeth, "In My Darkest Hour" (1987)
One of the rare instances where lyrical content led to a video being banned by MTV, Megadeth’s “In My Darkest Hour” was rejected by the network in 1987. MTV believed that lines like “Things will be better when I'm dead and gone” and “But I got to die first / Please, God, send me on my way” promoted suicide. Though Dave Mustaine disputed those claims - noting that the song was inspired by the death of Metallica bassist Cliff Burton - MTV remained firm in its decision.
Neil Young, “This Note’s For You” (1988)
Despite its status as a rebellious network for young people, MTV never wanted to ruffle too many feathers. The decisions on this list show just how nervous they were to outrage viewers with graphic content. Still, the network’s No. 1 priority was arguably its advertisers. Anger a fan and they turn off the TV; anger a company and they pull valuable revenue from your station. So, when Neil Young decided to skewer commercialism with the video to 1988’s “This Notes for You,” MTV wanted no part in it. “What does the M in MTV stand for – music or money?” Young said in an open letter to the network, labeling MTV executives as “spineless jerks.” In the end, the rocker had the last laugh: “This Note’s for You” won Video of the Year at the 1989 VMAs, honored by the very network that banned it.
Billy Idol, “Cradle of Love” (1990)
We know what you’re thinking: “MTV didn’t ban ‘Cradle of Love.’ I remember seeing that video in heavy rotation!” You’re only partly correct. “Cradle of Love” was released in May 1990, less than a year after comedian Andrew Dice Clay was banned from the network for performing a misogynistic stand-up routine during the 1989 MTV Video Music Awards. The original video for “Cradle of Love” featured clips from Clay’s feature film The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, but network executives refused to let that version air. It wasn’t until Clay was completely edited out of the video that “Cradle of Love” reached the MTV airwaves. The song, and its music video, would become massive hits for Billy Idol, reaching No. 1 on the Mainstream Rock chart.
Sepultura, "Arise" (1991)
The first official single from Sepultura didn’t get released until the band’s fourth studio album. “Arise” - taken from the LP of the same name - helped anoint the group as one of metal’s newest powerhouses, but its music video never made it to MTV. Throughout the clip, images of gas-masked individuals nailed to crosses are shown onscreen. The graphic Christ-like visuals, complete with bloodied bodies and hands, was enough for MTV to officially ban the video.
Soundgarden, "Jesus Christ Pose" (1991)
The song’s title probably give this one away, but Soundgarden’s “Jesus Christ Pose” was banned from MTV because of - you guessed it - graphic religious imagery. The band actually foresaw potential backlash for the song and tried to preempt any outrage by distributing a press release along with the clip. “‘Jesus Christ Pose,’ despite the song's title, has no religious meaning,” the statement read. "It doesn't have anything to do with religion or my view on it,” added Chris Cornell. “It just has to do with people exploiting a symbol. I think it's silly for other people to exploit it on the basis that it is sacred. Sometimes songs just beg for ideas like that or certain titles, and then they end up with them – which will probably never be understood because people will just see the title of the song and make a monster out of it.” Despite Cornell’s explanation, MTV seemingly couldn’t get past the image of a woman being crucified in the video and banned the clip.
Nine Inch Nails, "Happiness in Slavery" (1992)
Years before breaking into the mainstream, Nine Inch Nails battled MTV over the track “Happiness in Slavery.” The video for the 1992 song featured graphic images of torture, as a man is strapped to a machine that tears, drills and grinds his body until he eventually dies. The individual - played by performance artist Bob Flanagan - responds with a mix of pain and pleasure throughout the piece, showcasing an extreme form of sadomasochism. MTV thoroughly rejected the clip, and NIN opted against creating another video. The band would later include it in the 1997 video album Closure.
Tool, “Prison Sex” (1993)
Unlike most entries on this list, Tool’s video for “Prison Sex” did air a few times before ultimately getting removed and banned. The clip was directed by the band's guitarist Adam Jones and utilized stop-motion animation. Its plot followed a small, human-like doll that is tormented by a larger, demon-like creature. The overarching symbolism, which related to child abuse, was deemed too controversial and graphic for MTV. “What got to me about the whole situation was, here you have these other videos where Steven Tyler's daughter is stripping in front of old men, or where Janet Jackson is practically having oral sex,” frontman Maynard James Keenan later explained to the San Francisco Chronicle. “I kind of find that disturbing, yet it's something that's just thrown in people's laps and they don't think twice about it. So I guess anything that deals with that sort of subject matter [in 'Prison Sex'] is going to end up hitting road blocks.”
Nine Inch Nails, "Closer" (1994)
Another instance where an original concept had to be edited down in order to make it on the airwaves, Nine Inch Nails again pushed the boundaries of art and taste with their 1994 video for “Closer.” The clip featured a laundry list of red flags for MTV, including nudity, bondage and religious imagery (including a monkey strapped to a crucifix). These, coupled with the song’s profanity-laced chorus - “I wanna fuck you like an animal” - made “Closer” ripe for banning. In order to make it on the air, the video was edited into a more commercially palatable form, with a title card reading “scene missing” often taking the place of removed content. The “Closer” video quickly became a hit with MTV viewers, elevating the band’s star to new heights. “It was a pretty ballsy and extravagant thing for Trent [Reznor] to do,” director Mark Romanek recalled to Entertainment Weekly years later. “But MTV liked it, so that started a long negotiation of how we can get it on the air. I want to go on record about the monkey: That monkey was not in any danger, even though he appears to be in distress. The monkey was just munching on bits of banana and enjoying himself. We had an ASPCA person on the set. It wasn't harmed and actually got paid more than some of the crew.''
Megadeth, "A Tout Le Monde" (1994)
Different year, same story for Megadeth. The metal giants had their video “A Tout Le Monde” rejected by MTV, with the network once again interpreting their lyrics and glamorizing suicide. The song’s words included lines such as "These are the last words I'll ever speak / And they'll set me free," and the video’s visuals included Dave Mustaine digging a grave. Making matters worse, the band’s album at the time was titled Youthanasia, a play on the word euthanasia.
Megadeth, "Reckoning Day" (1994)
Make it a trifecta for Megadeth, who had yet another video from Youthanasia rejected by MTV. The reason behind this ban is less understood, as there were no accusations of questionable lyrics. Instead, it's believed that a dispute between the band’s label and MTV - likely related to the two previous video bans - played a role in “Reckoning Day” getting the ax.
Smashing Pumpkins, “Try, Try, Try” (2000)
Smashing Pumpkins made a bold decision with their 2000 single “Try, Try, Try,” enlisting Swedish auteur Jonas Akerlund to direct. What he created was unquestionably artistic and moving, but also difficult to watch. The extended version - which ran 15 minutes in length - followed the lives of a heroin-addicted couple. The pair live on the streets, begging, robbing and selling their bodies to feed their addiction. Things reach a dramatic climax when the woman becomes pregnant, only to overdose and miscarriage. The content - which included realistic portrayal of drug use - was too heavy for MTV to handle.
Foo Fighters, “Low” (2003)
Dave Grohl and Jack Black have a long chronicled friendship, but things were taken to the next level (and then some) in the video for Foo Fighters’ 2003 single “Low.” In the clip, Grohl and Black appear as hillbilly versions of themselves, meeting up at a dive motel for a bit of fun. It starts with whiskey and arm wrestling but soon shifts into something very different, as both men put on lingerie and romp around. “It’s Dave and Jack Black being incredibly sketchy. It’s white-trash porn,” Foo Fighters guitarist Chris Shiflett explained to NME. “Dave’s a big man to let the world see him in that way. It’s a side of Dave Grohl you’ve never seen before!” MTV was unimpressed and banned the video for graphic content.