When M.I.A. held up her middle finger during Madonna’s Super Bowl Halftime Show last weekend, she dominated blog chatter for a few days and incited a few minor cable-TV debates. She could have to pay a fine, and she’s definitely changed the narrative around her next album. But she hasn’t gotten anywhere near the pantheon of music’s most controversial live-TV performances; she didn’t even hold that finger proudly up to the camera. If she really wanted to start riots, she should’ve taken note of the moments on our list below. Add your own picks to the comments section.
10. Fear on Saturday Night Live (1981)
Former cast member John Belushi was a fan, which somehow led to this, the most terrifying of the early California hardcore bands, getting booked onto live network television, playing to a group of slam-dancers that included Minor Threat’s Ian MacKaye, Negative Approach’s John Brannon, a couple of future Cro-Mags, and Belushi himself. Those dancers reportedly did thousands of dollars of damage to Studio 8H while the band bashed through three songs in quick succession and mercilessly mocked their own audience.
9. Jarvis Cocker and Michael Jackson at the Brit Awards (1996)
Jackson was in the middle of performing “Earth Song” while surrounded by kids and a rabbi at the UK’s Grammy equivalent when the Pulp frontman, evidently disgusted with all the pomp, rushed the stage to point his ass at Jackson and to show off his belly-button for no reason, wearing an expression of perfect British blankness. As big-time stage-invasions go, this tops even the notorious Bob Dylan/Soy Bomb moment at the 1998 Grammys.
8. Guns N’ Roses at the American Music Awards (1990)
GN’R won two on-air awards at this particular AMAs, and a supremely wasted Slash and Duff McKagan were both on hand to accept them. Both times, they managed to sloppily cuss at everyone. And thus, GN’R paved the way for every great drunken awards-show moment, including Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s infamous 1998 Grammys stage-rush and every Kanye West on-air rant ever. And unlike M.I.A.’s middle finger, there wasn’t a single calculated thing about this moment; they just couldn’t hold their shit together.
7. Madonna, Britney Spears & Christina Aguilera at the MTV Video Music Awards (2003)
Word is that the uber-professional Madonna is pissed at M.I.A. for overshadowing her Super Bowl performance with her middle finger. Madonna, however, is no stranger to attention-grabbing stunts like that, and her biggest came when she kicked off MTV’s big annual show by making out with her two most visible descendents in a moment that would’ve exploded Twitter if it’d existed at the time. And then Missy Elliott showed up.
6. The Doors on The Ed Sullivan Show (1967)
Before they appeared on the show, Ed Sullivan’s producers asked the Doors to remove the “get much higher” part of “Light My Fire,” something that the Rolling Stones had previously done on their rendition of “Let’s Spend The Night Together” on the same show. The band agreed. But Jim Morrison was either stringing them along, or he completely forgot. Nothing was changed, and an angry Sullivan canceled all the future performances that the band had planned on the show.
5. Kanye West on A Concert For Hurricane Relief (2005)
An anguished Kanye West went way the hell off-script, as only Kanye can do, at this 2005 Hurricane Katrina telethon, and the look on Mike Myers’s face said it all. (Actually, Myers’s attempts to keep that heartfelt teleprompter-talk going may be the most compelling thing about this clip.) This was Kanye at his best: Not exactly eloquent, not quite even making sense the entire time, but seizing his moment to say something that he felt had to be said. When he went after Taylor Swift a few years later, it was considerably less noble.
4. Sinéad O’Connor on Saturday Night Live (1992)
As a musical guest on the show, the Irish singer sang an a capella version of Bob Marley’s “War,” changing the word “racism” to “child abuse.” She then held up a picture of Pope John Paul II, ripped it to shreds, and said, “Fight the real enemy.” That act, and its response, may have pretty much destroyed her career. The SNL people pulled the performance from all reruns of the show. The next week, host Joe Pesci held up the picture, taped back together, and said that he would’ve “gave her such a smack” if he’d been there when she did it. Soon afterward, O’Connor was booed out of the building at a Madison Square Garden Bob Dylan tribute show. She handled it like a G.
3. The Sex Pistols on Today (1976)
The just-starting-out Pistols didn’t get a chance to perform on British TV, but the awesomely snide host Bill Grundy did spend 90 seconds interviewing them in a segment that would change just about everybody’s life. Grundy introduced the band as being “as drunk as I am,” and he goaded all of them on as they cussed him out. And when he hit on Siouxsie Sioux, who appeared as part of the band’s entourage, Pistols guitarist Steve Jones called Grundy a “dirty fucker” and a “fuckin’ rotter.” Grundy was suspended, the show was quickly canceled, and the Pistols went on to become darlings of the always-hungry British tabloid press.
2. Elvis Presley on The Ed Sullivan Show (1956)
60 million people, 83% of that night’s television viewing audience, watched Elvis’s air-humping dance. The New York Times called his appearance “a gross national disservice.” I suppose this one could’ve been #1, except that just about everyone who it offended is now dead.
1. Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake at the Super Bowl Halftime Show (2004)
Obviously. The cause of a $550,000 FCC fine and the reason every single sporting event is now shown on a 10-second delay. M.I.A.’s middle finger is just a distant echo.