Since the beginning of recorded sound as an industry, scandal has followed “music” (as the hipsters were calling it) like a bass line follows a… guitar riff. Perhaps it has something to do with how creative people’s minds work, or fame in general and the temptations that come with it, but there never seems to be an era of music that isn’t filled with different scandals, early deaths and drug/booze fueled nonsense.
In the era of social media and 24/7 connectivity, surprisingly we’re not seeing as much drama as one would expect but considering the fact that most popular musicians don’t play instruments perhaps you can’t have sex and drugs without, you know, the Rock and Roll. So, with that in mind let’s kick back and look at the good old days and break down the Top 10 scandals in music history!
10. Ashlee Simpson on SNL
It wasn’t quite the Milli Vanilli moment but it was close enough to create the nightmare that I’m sure every pop-star has had before performing on the last truly live variety show on television: Saturday Night Live. Back in 2004, the younger Simpson lass was performing on the show to support her bafflingly popular debut album. The less attractive of the two sisters, clearly she had to show more personality and “edge”, so she suddenly decided that she was a rockstar and formed a band. In addition to her popular debut album, Ashlee followed her sister’s footsteps with her own reality show on MTV (back when pop-stars and former actresses could form bands, like Lindsay Lohan and Hillary Duff). Now, in retrospect, again this wasn’t a Mili Vanilli type moment as it’s understood and even accepted that most singers either completely lip sync or use a backing track to help their voice sound fuller and less “terrible” on the air. But, because of how things went down and how it looked, it was pretty bad for Simpson who came out to perform her second song while the “backing track” from the song she had performed earlier in the night started playing again. Not knowing what to do, Simpson decided to perform an awkward jig and run off of the stage. At the end of the show, she attempted to blame her “acid reflux” for needing the backing track at the end of the show, which didn’t help her cause as she would’ve needed to be regurgitating the acid of one of the Aliens from … Alien(s) to hurt her voice enough to have to lip sync. Either way, after multiple other apologies online, Simpson basically faded into obscurity and was never heard from again. Part of that was that she received a nose job after the incident and was hardly recognizable, a lot like Jennifer Grey from Dirty Dancing, but if you performed the jig heard round the world you’d probably want to disappear, too.
9. The Super Bowl Half-Time Disaster
It was announced this week that Justin Timberlake is in serious talks to perform at the halftime of the Super Bowl this year and if those reports are true it could be a huge turn-around for the star that was part of the most infamous (and one of the first live events that took advantage of TiVo in television history) live performances of all-time. He was still relatively fresh from his time in N Sync and was performing songs from his solo debut onstage with Janet Jackson back during the halftime show for Super Bowl XXXVIII in February of 2004. It was during the medley portion of Jackson’s performance where she was performing some of her songs, like beginning with “All for You”, “Rhythm Nation” and a brief excerpt of “The Knowledge” before surprise guest Timberlake appeared to perform a duet version of his hit song “Rock Your Body”. During the lyric “Have you naked by the end of this song”, Timberlake pulled on Jackson’s bra and somehow coined a brand new term, changed the history of broadcast television and helped sell more TiVo’s than a billboard on the moon all at once. Instead of showing some sort of under-bra, Jackson had a “wardrobe malfunction” (the coined term) and the majority of her breast was exposed, with a small and beautiful pasty covering up her modesty. Some have questioned why she had such an elaborate pasty if the entire thing wasn’t planned but it’s safe to say that after the outrage the incident created that neither Jackson nor Timberlake would admit that that’s what they were going for. There was a ton of fines for CBS (the channel that hosted the game) and even changed the rules of live performances on television forever (implementing a mandatory 5-second delay for any live performances). Either way, it was truly much ado about nothing but because of the backlash and the fact that the case almost reached the Supreme Court, it definitely should be on this list.
8. Sinead O’Connor and the Pope
While one could argue that Janet Jackson’s career never recovered from the Super Bowl incident, very few careers have ended because of a single moment or decision (outside of people dying, obviously, or going to jail) that an artist has made. Another entry that has to do with Saturday Night Live, as well, Irish singer Sinead O’Connor appeared on the show in October of 1992 and performed a cover of Bob Marley’s “War” as her second song. At the end of that song, she stared at the camera and shouted “Fight the Real Enemy!” while holding up a picture of the Pope and tearing it into pieces. The crowd was shocked and no one applauded, I’m sure somewhere SNL Executive Producer Loren Michaels coughed up his white wine and had a mini-heart attack, and the portion of the nation that was awake went absolutely insane. Despite the fact that JFK was the first Catholic President in US History and that he was only elected about 30 years prior to this, the response to O’Connor was swift and pretty much unanimous from sea to shining sea. While O’Connor has struggled, mightily, with mental health issues over the course of the past few years, she has said in recent interviews that she doesn’t regret her decision as she was protesting the abuse that was taking place in Catholic Churches (and that wasn’t really as well known when she did this, but would really almost vindicate her about a decade later when it became front page news across the world). So, while her career never recovered, she did two cover songs on Saturday Night Live (her big hit, Nothing Compares To You, was written and originally performed by Prince) and also brought some light to the tragedies that the Catholic Church had been committing for centuries. So, good for you, Sinead.
7. Milli Vanilla Pulls an Ashlee Simpson Over a Decade Before She Does!
In addition to apparently having access to a time machine, Milli Vanilli personified terrible music in the late 80’s and early 90’s. While there was still a decent amount of good rock and roll and even rap music then, it was just an overall terrible time to be alive from a creative standpoint as a couple of guys who lip-synced over the voices of men in their 60’s somehow became the winners of Best New Artist at the Grammy Awards. Yeesh. Because they were young, good looking and could dance, they were hired to perform as the public face of a group called Milli Vanilli. Both had thick European Accents and people began to wonder why they didn’t sing with any sort of semblance of their accents, or really in voices that sounded like them in any way, shape or form. So why even people who weren’t alive at the time that they got caught lip syncing have heard the story, most don’t know that there was a lot of grumbling about the potential of them lip syncing going around for a good year or two before they were “caught”. Like Simpson, listed above, the group was caught red-handed while performing a concert that was also being broadcast on MTV. Instead of the wrong song being played, though (like Simpson), their tape actually skipped over and over and over again and the duo just kept on dancing like it was part of the show before running off the stage (they could’ve saved it had they just done a jig!). That all but validated the rumors that people had been hearing for awhile and the duo came out and apologized while returning the Grammy’s that they didn’t technically even win. It’s actually a pretty sad story as one of them (I think Vanilli?) ended up committing suicide about a decade after the scandal, which goes to show you, if you’re going to make terrible embarrassing music, make sure it’s really you doing it.
6. Taylor Swift Caught Red-Handed
Now, it’s actually really hard to side with Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, who may be the most unlikable couple since Hitler and Ava Braun. However, if there’s one person that society as a whole is beginning to dislike more than them, it’s Taylor Swift. America has a long-standing tradition of building up someone, typically a female singer, and then delighting in tearing them down (with the hopes that they can celebrate when they shake things off and rebuild their image/career). Britney Spears is a great example of this and it was only a matter of time before people started turning on Taylor Swift (like they have with Jennifer Lawrence). So, even before the whole “Famous” scandal, people had begun turning on Swift as she was just too perfect, too good at music, too quick to write a song about a famous break-up, too quick to become the victim. Everyone knows how the Bad Blood (See? I’m hip!) between Kanye West and Taylor Swift began, but they seemed to have buried the hatchet and befriended one another after West apologized (and then didn’t apologize, and then did, and then took that back). So, after Kanye West released his single “Famous” which contained the lyrics: “I think that me and Taylor still might have Sex, I made that B**** Famous”, Swift’s fans were quick to damn the lyric and the rapper for re-igniting a beef that people thought was over. On top of that, Swift came out and stated that West had no right to say what he said and that it was sexist and that she was a victim. She also used her acceptance speech at the Grammy’s to shun West, slamming him for attempting to take credit for a woman’s “accomplishments”. The only problem with this was that both West and Kardashian West had claimed that West asked Swift’s permission to record the song and played it for her, something that Swift initially denied. Luckily for West/Kardashian, Kim felt like perhaps Swift was a snake and decided to record the phone call on her phone. She released that footage and broke Swift’s brain/social media. Every response to her explanation(s) of the footage was millions of people just posting the snake emoji, for example, which lead to over a year where Swift disappeared from the public eye and even deleted her social media presence. She returned this summer with a gigantic song titled “Look What You Made Me Do” in which she (finally) embraces her role as the villain and it looks like she may end up getting the last laugh after all, as the song is a record-breaking smash. Either way, this definitely wasn’t a good luck for Swift.
5. Swift Interrupted by West
As stated above, the beginning of all of the drama between Taylor Swift and Kanye West occurred at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. During the Best Female Category, in which Taylor Swift was nominated against Beyonce (The wife of West’s (perhaps former) mentor and BFF, Jay-Z) against Taylor Swift, who was at that time as close to America’s Sweetheart as anyone has been since… Topanga from Boy Meet’s World? Kayne, admittedly drunk on Hennessey (Which was backed up by pictures of West alone on the red-carpet, drinking Hennessey), decided to storm the stage and rant to the world that Beyonce “Had the best video of ALL-TIME!”. In retrospect, and considering the fact that there have been murders and molestations in music, it’s actually kind of surprising that this blew up to such a level that the then President of the United States called him a “Jack-ass” (back when that made news). West grabbed the mic from Swift and politely told her that he was “gonna let her finish” before ranting to a completely stunned Beyonce, who had one of the better reactions in the history of Award Show reactions. It seemed like West learned from this, though, at least at first, as he apologized a ton of times and seemed to be a semi-normal human being (with emotions and junk). However, after he almost did the same thing a few years later when Beck bested Beyonce for Album of the Year and denied that it was a joke (as people, including his wife thought/hoped) and the whole cycle started all over again. Perhaps not surprisingly, West ended up under a psychiatric hold in 2016 after a stressful period where his incredible debts became public and his records finally stopped selling at the level he’d become accustomed to so hopefully he’ll be back and better than ever after some much-needed rest.
4. Chris Brown and Rihanna
In the 00’s there was no bigger R&B couple than Chris Brown and Rihanna. The two youngsters were at the prime of their popularity (Rihanna’s hasn’t really changed and while Brown is still popular, he’s no-where near the level he was in 2009) and seemed like the perfect fit but as interviews after the fact have shown us, things weren’t as rosy as they seemed. After a party for Clive Davis, a titan in the music industry, apparently, Rihanna had become enraged because she and Brown had run into a woman that Brown had previously had sex with. The couple was extremely volatile and according to Brown Rihanna had hit him on multiple occasions while screaming as well. Regardless, there’s still no excuse for what occurred next, which was that Chris Brown started beating Rihanna pretty heavily while driving his car after leaving the party. Because of the veracity of the beating, which occurred in 2009, Rihanna screamed to a passerby that Brown was trying to “kill” her and the police quickly arrived, arrested Brown and took pictures of Rihanna’s face. Once the pictures hit the internet it’s actually pretty surprising that Brown still has a career, considering, but he somehow weathered that storm (and a few others) and still is a pretty major figure in the R&B and hip-hop worlds. Even Rihanna has forgiven him, and the two even reconciled for a time and while many bemoaned that fact and felt like Ri-Ri was letting them down, she’s a grown woman and can make her own decisions and if what Brown says is true, perhaps she feels like she could’ve handled things better too. Either way, this will go down as the biggest domestic assault case in media since Tina and Ike Turner and it’ll stick with Brown for the rest of his life.
3. R. Kelly’s Chocolate Factory
If you actually look into the history of music and the groupie scene that has always followed singers/musicians around, you’ll see that a lot of people in the music world have surrounded themselves with really, really young children for sexual purposes. From Ted Nugent or the lead singer of Aerosmith Steven Tyler actually getting custody of girls under 15 in order to sleep with them, to the fact that a group of groupies was so young back in the 70’s that they were referred to as “Baby Groupies”. So, it’s probably not that big of a surprise that R&B Singer R. Kelly ended up in the middle of a scandal involving a video of him having sex with the daughter of one of his friends, who was under the age of 15 during the filming of the video which leaked onto the internet and showed Kelly having oral and vaginal sex with the girl and then urinating on her. Kelly claimed that it wasn’t him in the video, but it clearly was so he was indicted not for sleeping with the girl but because he filmed the video himself and thus creating child pornography (he was indicted for 21 counts of child pornography). Somehow he was found not guilty, again despite the fact that it was clearly him in the video, a good 5-years after the video and accusations shocked the world. While he had a platinum album around this time, that video combined with the fact that he had a history of being a creep (he married singer Aliyah when she was 15 or 16) and that’s carried into the current day. It was recently reported that Kelly had numerous young women enslaved at his home in Chicago (and elsewhere) and that the families of some of the women are worried that they’ve been brainwashed. Either way, Kelly’s career disappeared not long after that and “Remix to Ignition” stopped playing on the radio and while that clearly hasn’t stopped numerous women from attempting to work with him in the hopes that he will help them with their singing careers, perhaps articles like this will.
2. Biggie and Tupac Die
You knew at some point that this would make the list and while other shootings/deaths aren’t on the list (like the death of John Lennon, for example) this becomes a scandal because neither murder has been officially solved (either because of a lack of witnesses or police indifference, or a combination of both). While most people seem to understand now what happened at least to Tupac (he was gunned down by Orlando Anderson, the Crip who he had assaulted hours earlier and who definitely also provided security for Biggie’s Bad Boy Records when they traveled to the West Coast/was also partying with Biggie the night he died in Los Angeles), Biggie’s situation isn’t as cut in dry. Either way, their deaths (which occurred about six months apart in late 1996/early 1997) were the tragic end to the darkest era in hip-hop history and a definite case of life imitating art. Their stories read a lot like a Shakespeare tragic comedy, really, in that the two used to be good friends who performed on more than one song together (mostly before Biggie blew up). After Tupac was shot while arriving at a music studio that Biggie also happened to be at, Tupac blamed Biggie and his manager/hype-man Puff Daddy, who it’s been confirmed definitely knew that Tupac was at least going to be robbed that night (thanks to the confession by Dexter Isaac, who said that Jimmy Henchman, a hip-hop manager, paid him to rob/shoot Tupac) and because of that, sadly, Tupac had a point that Biggie had betrayed him and so it really actually makes you think about who the actual victim in this situation was (as most feel like Biggie was, but it’s actually more complicated than that). Either way, if you’re a fan of hip-hop it’s safe to say that you were at least one of the victims as the two are often called the number’s one and two on the greatest rappers of all-time list(s), considering that both were only 24-25, imagine the music they could’ve made together had they remained friends and lived. Considering that rappers like Jay-Z, Eminem and Nas are still going strong and around the same age as both, it’s hard not to think that they’d still be super heavy in the game.
1. Michael Jackson’s Child Molestation Scandal(s)
There’s no denying that Michael Jackson, at one point, was the most iconic and successful solo artist the world had ever seen. After a decade of releasing classic song after classic song, including on the best selling album of all time Thriller, the 90’s were the beginning of the end for the King of Pop. Jackson was always a strange person that the tabloids loved to write about but most of that was written off as the eccentricities of a man who was so famous that the entire world knew him and also of someone who had a full-time job basically from the time he could walk. It was that missed childhood that people used as an excuse when Jackson began surrounding himself with children and because of his fame and fortune, many people weren’t there to tell him that he was making bad and really creepy decisions. The main part of that, which is something that he admitted to in the now infamous interview with Martin Basheer that lead to the second investigation of child-abuse (this one actually went to trial, he was found Not Guilty) as it showed Jackson hugging a child who claimed to love him and admitting that he shared his bed with that 12-ish-year-old boy because it’s, in his words, the most loving thing a person can do. While that trial seemed like a long time coming, the initial report that Jackson was investigated for child molestation (something that he settled out of court for over $20 million dollars) took the world by storm back in 1993. Jackson appeared on MTV to explain the warrant that was issued in that case, describing the humiliating process in a video that didn’t help his case (as he described the police taking pictures of his penis, buttocks, and inner-thighs). While he did settle that case out of court, his career never recovered and it very well could’ve lead to his early death as he couldn’t sleep and relied on anesthesia for shut-eye. Either way, it’s hard not to think that something was strange about that entire situation and even if he was found not guilty, a lot of people couldn’t stomach supporting a 40 something man sleeping with 12-to-13-year-old boys. For good reason. Either way, though, that was by far the biggest scandal in music history and gets the top spot on this list.