9 chart-topping hits that stirred controversy

'Rich Men North of Richmond' and 'Try That in a Small Town' are the latest musical hits to generate cultural furor

Jason Aldean.
The music video for Jason Aldean's 'Try That in a Small Town' drew backlash when it was released in July
(Image credit: Joshua Applegate / Getty Images)

Topping the Billboard Charts is typically a crowning achievement for a musician — but that doesn't mean every song that achieves such a feat is without controversy. From political anthems to sexually-charged pop hits, here are nine chart-topping singles that stirred cultural furor.

'Rich Men North of Richmond,' Oliver Anthony

"Rich Men North of Richmond" is a country song by Oliver Anthony, described by The New York Times as a "previously unknown songwriter and one-time factory worker." The song became instantly polarizing, its lyrics awash with references to conservative talking points like politicians looking for "minors on an island somewhere" and the welfare state. While many on the right, such as columnist Matt Walsh, praised the song as "raw and authentic," it was meanwhile lambasted by a wide swath of liberals and even a fraction of conservatives. "The singer voices cruel, reactionary sentiments about the poor and obese and is therefore deserving of cruel mockery himself," Intelligencer reported.

'Try That In a Small Town,' Jason Aldean

Country superstar Jason Aldean's "Try That In a Small Town" was similarly praised by conservatives and criticized by liberals amidst continued political polarization in the United States. Filled with right-wing ideals such as decrying "wokeism" and gun rights, the song has been decried by liberal politicians as racially charged, partially because its music video was filmed at a Tennessee courthouse that was "the site of race riots in 1946 as well as a 1927 lynching," NPR reported. Aldean has denied that the song is racist, writing there is "not a single lyric in the song that references race or points to it."

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

'WAP,' Cardi B featuring Megan Thee Stallion

Songs that are inherently sexual are often as controversial as those that are political, and Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion's "WAP" was no exception. Described by GQ as "a gleefully filthy sonic and visual ode to [both rappers'] genitalia," the song stirred anger among conservatives like pundit Ben Shapiro, who sarcastically said the rap number was "what feminists fought for." The drama didn't stop it from remaining No. 1 on the Billboard charts for four weeks, though, or from receiving a nomination for MTV's Video of the Year in 2021. Cardi B herself acknowledged that "other people might think it's strange and vulgar, but to me, it's almost like really normal."

"I Kissed a Girl,' Katy Perry

"I Kissed a Girl" was a song that "symbolized and sensualized bisexuality in a titillating and revolutionary way" when it was released in 2008, Billboard wrote. However, the song, which Billboard noted was "a far cry from the more wholesome fare of Perry's beginnings as a contemporary Christian singer," was criticized after its release for being offensive to the LGBTQ culture, particularly about bisexuality. Years after its release, Perry herself admitted that the lyrics had "a couple of stereotypes" and that, "if I had to write that song again, I probably would make an edit on it."

'Brown Sugar,' The Rolling Stones

Described by Vulture as a "dirty song about slavery and sex," the rock number "Brown Sugar" by The Rolling Stones has gained controversy over the decades for its lyrics. The song "explores the sexual exploitation of a black woman by slave traders and slave owners in America's south," The Conversation reported, and presents "a sexualized view of a marginalized group" alongside lyrics about drug use. While the Stones continued to perform "Brown Sugar" for years, the band seemingly stopped playing it in 2021, though guitarist Keith Richards told the Los Angeles Times he didn't understand the controversy because it was "a song about the horrors of slavery. But they're trying to bury it."

'Montero (Call Me by Your Name),' Lil Nas X

"Call Me by Your Name" drew the ire of conservatives for its sexually-charged lyrics and depictions of homosexuality. In this case, though, the anger was centered mostly around the song's music video, in which Lil Nas X is seen on a stripper pole giving the devil a lap dance. This "comes directly from the paranoia of the '80s — parents claiming that they don't want their children to be 'turned' or influenced negatively by Satanic, sexually explicit imagery," Billboard opined. The singer has notably hit back against those who have criticized the song.

'Like a Prayer,' Madonna

Decades before Lil Nas X, Madonna's "Like a Prayer" sparked worries of Satanism after its music video saw the singer "dancing in front of burning crosses, experiencing stigmata and kissing a statue of a Black Jesus who comes to life in a church," per The Hollywood Reporter. The song included lyrics such as "I'm down on my knees / I wanna take you there," which also drew the ire of religious groups in the United States. The Vatican even tried to boycott Madonna's tour when the song was released in 1989, to which the singer replied, "I think I'm offending certain groups, but I think that people who really understand what I'm doing aren't offended by it," per Entertainment Tonight.

'Justify My Love,' Madonna

Not one to shy away from controversies, Madonna also stirred up furor with 1990's "Justify My Love." Beyond its sexual lyrics ("I want to run naked in a rainstorm / make love in a train cross-country"), the song's real controversy began when MTV decided not to air its promotional video, music industry outlet Dig! noted. The sexuality and nudity in the promo "were provocative enough in a more sheltered era, but the fact it was being issued by such a major star was extraordinary," Dig! added, writing that the song was "about wanting more than just one type of sex." This made it even more rife for controversy, though it continued to climb the charts.

'Nothing Compares 2 U,' Sinéad O'Connor

The recently-deceased Sinéad O'Connor released her cover of Prince's song "Nothing Compares 2 U" in 1990 — and in this case, the controversy lay not within the song itself, but on the business side of things. More specifically, Prince's estate didn't let O'Connor use her version of the song for a 2022 documentary about her life. Prince's half-sister Sharon Nelson told Billboard she "didn't feel [O'Connor] deserved to use the song my brother wrote in her documentary so we declined. His version is the best." The year prior, O'Connor had told People, "I won't lie. I didn't like the man," calling him a "devil" and a "monster of a man."

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.

Justin Klawans

Justin Klawans is a staff writer at The Week. Based in Chicago, he was previously a breaking news reporter for Newsweek, writing breaking news and features for verticals including politics, U.S. and global affairs, business, crime, sports, and more. His reporting has been cited on many online platforms, in addition to CBS' The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.

He is also passionate about entertainment and sports news, and has covered film, television, and casting news as a freelancer for outlets like Collider and United Press International, as well as Chicago sports news for Fansided.