10 Popular Songs With Problematic Lyrics

Music has always been a powerful medium for expression, bringing to life emotions, experiences, and social commentary on a specific moment in time. However, there are some songs from decades past that, despite their popularity, contain particularly problematic lyrics.

Whether it be the themes they portray, the language itself, or their depiction of certain groups in society, the one thing these 10 songs below from a number of very popular bands have in common is the controversy and the social debate their lyrics have caused.

1. “Run for Your Life” by The Beatles (1965)

The Beatles, widely known for their groundbreaking, original music, are also no strangers to problematic lyrics. “Run for Your Life” from their “Rubber Soul” album, contains lines like “I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man,” which would seem to normalise violence against women.

And also the part in the lyrics „Well, you know that I’m a wicked guy / And I was born with a jealous mind” is also quite problematic, as it refers to the possible aggressive behaviour of the narrator. The album itself was a huge success in 1965, but the particular song received mixed critical responses, John Lennon even said that “Run for Your Life” was his least favourite Beatles song.

2. “Under My Thumb” by The Rolling Stones (1966)

The Rolling Stones’ famous track Under My Thumb,” has also faced criticism for its misogynistic lyrics. The song talks about a man’s control over a woman, which is seen as promoting unhealthy and unequal power dynamics in relationships. The song contains degrading lyrics about the woman, like „It’s a squirmin’ dog who’s just had her day”.

3. “Young Girl” by Gary Puckett & The Union Gap (1968)

Gary Puckett & The Union Gap’s “Young Girl” talks about a very young girl, far too young for a romantic or sexual relationship. This quie ecplicit with parts like: „You’re just a baby in disguise ” or „You led me to believe, you’re old enough to give me love / And now it hurts to know the truth, ohh”. And what’s more: the lyrics that suggest the underage girl is to blame for the man’s improper feelings. Victim blaming at its finest.

4. “Brown Sugar” by The Rolling Stones (1971)

Another song by The Rolling Stones, “Brown Sugar” has been criticised for its references to slavery and sexual violence. The lyrics depict the horrors of slavery in a seemingly casual and erotic manner, which sound particularly offensive and insensitive. The chorus is aggressive in itself, and is the basis for considering the song problematic: „Brown sugar, how come you taste so good? / Brown sugar, just like a young girl should ”

5. “Bennie and the Jets” by Elton John (1973)

Elton John’s “Bennie and the Jets” has been subject to interpretation, with some suggesting that it perpetuates stereotypes about women in music. The portrayal of Bennie and her band, especially in the lines about the way they perform, has been seen as reinforcing problematic gender stereotypes.

6. “Island Girl” by Elton John (1975)

Elton John’s 1975 hit “Island Girl” topped the charts, but its portrayal of a Jamaican escort led to accusations of stereotyping and racism. The song describes the woman in a way that reinforces negative and exotic stereotypes, which is problematic in its oversimplification and objectification of Caribbean women. Part of the lyrics can easily be offensive to ethnic minorities or women, like: „Well she’s black as coal, but she burn like a fire”, or „Tell me what you wanting with the white man’s world”.

7. “Every Breath You Take” by The Police (1983)

While often mistaken for a romantic song, “Every Breath You Take” by The Police is actually about stalking. The song’s lyrics, which include “Every move you make, every vow you break, every smile you fake, every claim you stake, I’ll be watching you,” have been criticised for romanticising stalking and possessive behaviour. If you read it without the music, the lyrics are more scary than romantic, more likely to remind you of the opening scene of a horror film than a confession of love.

8. “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” by The Police (1980)

Another hit by The Police, “Don’t Stand So Close to Me”, is about a schoolgirl’s crush on her teacher and the teacher’s uncomfortable feelings about it. The song has been criticised for its portrayal of a potentially exploitative situation. And there are parts of the lyrics which, if implemented, would today carry a prison sentence: „You know how bad girls get/ Sometimes it’s not so easy / To be the teacher’s pet”

9. “Money for Nothing” by Dire Straits (1985)

Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing” was a massive hit in the 1980s, but it faced backlash for its use of a homophobic slur, explicitly the word “faggott”.  Although argued to be a character narrative, the language used in the song has been widely condemned.
Song writer Mark Knopfler said in an interview that he knew the word was rude, but the narrator is a real hard hat mentality guy, who sees everything in financial terms and not afraid of using harsh words. But after understanding the problem,
Knopfler often use altered version of the specific word, like ’queenie’. Since then, radio stations have followed a different practice, some using the original text, but others bleeping out the problematic word.

10. “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke ft. Pharrell Williams and T.I. (2013)

A more recent example, “Blurred Lines,” faced enormous backlash for lyrics that appeared to trivialise sexual consent. The song’s repeated “I know you want it” line was interpreted by many as endorsing non-consensual behaviour and rape culture. Accusations of sexual assault during the filming of the music video have also made this song particularly divisive.

These songs reflect a time and mindset that, in many cases, is (thankfully) no longer acceptable today. Their continued popularity presents an opportunity to discuss and reevaluate societal norms and the evolution of cultural sensitivities.