Music History

Time to Revisit This: 10 Hit Songs from the Past That Would be Judged Politically Incorrect, Inappropriate or Even Racist Today

Harvey Weinstein. Charlie Rose. Matt Lauer. Kevin Spacey. Al Franken. The list of famous men accused of sexual misdemeanors of all levels just keeps growing. Meanwhile, Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore of Alabama just won’t go away despite all the allegations against him. One supporter, Joel Pollak, a senior editor at Breitbart, even stooped to using Ringo Starr in his pro-Moore debate with CNN morning host Chris Cuomo.

Pollak: “You know, in 1973, Ringo Starr hit Number 1 on the Billboard charts with the song ‘You’re Sixteen, You’re Beautiful and You’re Mine’ and it was a remake of an earlier song. He was 30-something at the time, singing about a 16-year-old. You want to take away Ringo Starr’s achievement?”

Cuomo: “You can’t be serious. You can’t be serious.”

Pollak: “YOU can’t be serious. You’re talking about…”

Cuomo: “I’m dead serious. You think that Ringo Starr’s song is supposed to be a nod towards allowing 30-year-old men to prey on teenagers? You don’t believe that Joel. You’re a parent. You don’t believe that.”

Watch it here.

This reminded me of a post by intern-in-residence Dorothy Lee on hit songs from the past that would be considered inappropriate today. What else could be added to this list?


Society is always evolving. Attitudes, talk, actions and beliefs that were once acceptable can morph into something that no one in their right mind would say out loud today. Intern Dorothy Lee has compiled this list of songs that if they were released today would probably be shouted down as politically incorrect, socially or sexually inappropriate or even racist today. Here are ten examples of songs with lyrics about prejudice and discrimination, various derogatory terms, homophobia, drinking and driving, sexism, violence, threats and murder.


1) “China Girl” by David Bowie

Bowie and Iggy Pop wrote this song about a real Vietnamese woman, Kuelan Nguyen, with whom Iggy had an infatuation. The song is about a relationship between the narrator of the song and his Asian girlfriend who is inappropriately called a “little China girl”. He also warns his Asian girlfriend about ruining her identity and culture.

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


2) “Half Breed” by Cher

Cher (who is Armenian-American) sings about a a woman who is half white and half Cherokee and the struggles she faces due to her ethnicity. The term “half breed” is considered inappropriate today, like the term “China Girl” in Bowie’s song. The offensiveness is blunted slightly by the fact Cher’s mother was at least one-quarter Cherokee.

My father married a pure Cherokee

My mother’s people were ashamed of me

The Indians said I was white by law

The White Man always called me “Indian Squaw

Half-breed, she’s no good they warned

Both sides were against me since the day I was born …

When you’re not welcome you don’t hang around

The other children always laughed at me “Give her a feather, she’s a Cherokee” “


3) “Island Girl” by Elton John

I’m sure that Elton John and Bernie Taupin were in no way racist when they wrote this song. But through today’s lens, however the lyrics can be interpreted as sounding, well, insensitive at best.. The song appears to be about a Jamaican woman who is working as a prostitute in Manhattan, and includes the following lyrics:

Island girl

What you wanting with the white man’s world?

Island girl

Black boy want you in his island world …

Well she’s black as coal, but she burn like a fire


4) “Short People” by Randy Newman

On the surface, it appears than Newman is making fun of short people and many radio stations refused to play the song when it came out, fueling quite a controversy. Newman insisted that the song was a comment on lunatic attitudes and prejudices and doesn’t reflect his personal attitudes.

Short people got no reason

To live …

They got little hands

And little eyes

And they walk around

Tellin’ great big lies

They got little noses

And tiny little teeth

They wear platform shoes

On their nasty little feet …

Well, I don’t want no short people …

Round here

However, the song uses the word “short” in a figurative way and states that short people are no different than anyone else:

Short people are just the same

As you and I

It’s a wonderful world

All men are brothers

Until the day they die

Seems that a lot of people missed that part of the song–as they probably would today.


5) “Money for Nothing” by Dire Straits

The original unedited version of this song was actually banned from public broadcast by the Canadian Broadcast Standards Council in Canada twenty-five years after its release after one person complained that the lyrics were homophobic. The ban was later lifted, thankfully.

Mark Knopfler has repeatedly explained that the song was written from the viewpoint of a stupid person who makes ignorant comments and assumes that musicians make “money for nothing”. In fact, the lyrics are based on real-life comments from delivery men working in a New York department store complaining about their jobs while watching MTV. Here are some of the lyrics:

You play the guitar on the MTV

That ain’t workin’ that’s the way you do it

Money for nothin’ and your chicks for free …

See the little faggot with the earring and the makeup

Yeah buddy that’s his own hair

That little faggot got his own jet airplane

That little faggot he’s a millionaire


6) “In the Summertime” by Mungo Jerry

It’s insane to learn that this single sold 30 million copies after it was released in 1970. It was supposed to be about the carefree days of summer. However, its lyrics seem to advocate for drinking and driving and treating women like sex objects, particularly if the woman is from a poor family. Here’s an example of some of the lyrics:

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


7) “School’s Out” by Alice Cooper

Is school out for summer or has it been blown up by some kind of Columbine psychos? If “School’s Out” were released today when school shootings are all too common, how would it be received? Maybe it would be okay, given that Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks” seems to be sung from the point of view of an active school shooter.

School’s out for summer

School’s out forever

School’s been blown to pieces


8) “Stranglehold” by Ted Nugent

Wow, Ted. Into misogyny and violence against women much? He’s claimed that this was just part of his act and that people shouldn’t take the lyrics literally.

Got you in a stranglehold, baby

You best get outta the way …

And if a house gets in my way, baby

Ya know I’ll burn it down …

I got you in a stranglehold, baby

You better trust your fate …

I got you in a stranglehold, baby

That night I crushed your face


9) “Run for Your Life” by The Beatles

This song is based around a line from Elvis’ song “Baby, Let’s Play House.” The lyrics include:

I’d rather see you dead, little girl

Than to be with another man

While Elvis’ song is a fairly innocent expression of desire, John Lennon and Paul McCartney turned the lyrics into a song about jealousy, possessiveness and murder threats. Lennon later admitted he “always hated” the song and said it is his “least favourite Beatles song”, although he added that it was one of George Harrison’s favourites.


10) “Killing An Arab” by The Cure

With such an overtly controversial title, this song is often interpreted as being racist which is no surprise. Right from the very start of the song, the lyrics are immediately provoking and disturbing. Every once in a while, there’s a furor over the song by people who don’t understand that it’s based on a classic book called The Stranger by Albert Camus.  But without that context, it’s easy to get freaked out. ). There’s a passage where the main character reflects on the emptiness of life after he kills a man on a beach for reasons even he can’t explain, and the song is about alienation and existentialism.

Lol Tolhurst, former member of The Cure, has explained “”It was about alienation and existentialism – things more relevant to us then. Obviously events of the last two decades have changed the perception of the song’s meaning. Totally erroneously I might add, as it has nothing to do with racism or killing at all.”

Standing on the beach

With a gun in my hand

Staring at the sea

Staring at the sand

Staring down the barrel

At the Arab on the ground

I can see his open mouth

But I hear no sound

I’m alive

I’m dead

I’m the stranger

Killing an Arab




BONUS: “You’re Sixteen” Ringo Starr

Although not a Ringo original (it was written by Richard and Robert Sherman for rockabilly singer Johnny Burnette in 1960), it’s still creepy to hear an album man lusting over an underage girl.

You’re my baby, you’re my pet,

We fell in love on the night we met.

You touched my hand, my heart went pop,

Ooh, when we kissed, i could not stop.

You walked out of my dreams, into my arms,

Now you’re my angel divine.

You’re sixteen, you’re beautiful, and you’re mine.

ANOTHER BONUS: “Brown Sugar,” The Rolling Stones

The first verse and the chorus just wouldn’t fly in a society in which Black Lives Matter exists.

Gold Coast slave ship bound for cotton fields
Sold in the market down in New Orleans
Scarred old slaver knows he’s doin’ all right
Hear him whip the women just around midnight
Brown Sugar, how come you taste so good
Brown Sugar, just like a young girl should


AND STILL ANOTHER BONUS: The Vapours, “Turning Japanese”

This ode to onanism takes its title from how the dude in the song imagines his eyes going just ahead of his climax. It’s interesting to note that the song did have some sales success in Japan after it was released in 1980.

As you can see, many of these songs that seem to be inappropriate today are actually not inappropriate at all if you dig deeper to discover the true meaning behind the song. The problem is, as we all know, people rarely take the time to do this. More likely than not, we often jump to conclusions regarding what the song is about; or on the other hand, we sing, hum, bounce or dance along to music without even realizing what the lyrics are at all.

Anything else we should add to this list?

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

Alan Cross has 37816 posts and counting. See all posts by Alan Cross

18 thoughts on “Time to Revisit This: 10 Hit Songs from the Past That Would be Judged Politically Incorrect, Inappropriate or Even Racist Today

  • Er, some of these are in character. On top of that, some are being deliberately shitty characters (eg: Money For Nothing).

    • The main point we can take away from all this is that context is no longer relevant or in some cases even considered.

  • I Shot the Sheriff, Hey Joe.

  • what about Sweet Home Alabama?

  • What about “Oliver’s Army” by Elvis Costello?

  • There are probably any number of songs involving older men and teenage women. Domino by Kiss springs to mind.

  • another Ringo classic:
    The No No Song.

    i love ALL these songs,
    and i like knowing that i (we)
    grew up in a world where
    these songs existed.
    : )

  • The Beatles had a few questionable songs in their early days. I Saw Her Standing There opens with “She was just 17, you know what I mean.” (Granted, they were in their early 20s, but still…) And what does “Please please me, oh yeah, like I please you?” refer to? Use your imagination.

  • Interesting article.

    _- Beastie Boys – Girls

    I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t write a song like that today, but they were ‘kids’ when they wrote it…
    Times change and people grow up and our thoughts and standards evolve. Evolution is a good thing, so this kind of stuff is interesting, but not offensive to me, taken in context.

    Girls – to do the dishes
    Girls – to clean up my room
    Girls – to do the laundry
    Girls – and in the bathroom
    Girls – that’s all I really want is girls
    Two at a time – I want girls
    With new wave hairdos – I want girls
    I ought to whip out my – girls, girls, girls, girls, girls!

  • In the flesh – Pink Floyd

    Are there any queers in the theater tonight?
    Get them up against the wall
    There’s one in the spotlight, he don’t look right to me
    Get him up against the wall
    That one looks Jewish!
    And that one’s a coon!
    Who let all of this riff-raff into the room?
    There’s one smoking a joint!
    And another with spots!
    If I had my way
    I’d have all of you shot!

  • Original Sin by INXS

  • You have to remember that songs are a reflection of the time when they came out, and I think that means something. People today are way too uptight and need to lighten up a little and not take everything so seriously, and some people really need to take that cork out of their ass.

  • Little Red Riding Hood. Chantilly Lace. Hong Kong (Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, though I’m not sure that was ever really a hit). And, seasonally, Baby, It’s Cold Outside.

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