Tame, Titillating Or Terrifying: What Age Rating Would Music’s Most Controversial Videos Receive?

This week, it was announced that age ratings are to be added to online music videos made by artists signed to UK arms of Sony, Universal and Warner Music. The British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) will be responsible for making the decisions, and the naughty list includes drug misuse, dangerous behaviour presented as being safe, bad language, sexual behaviour and nudity, and threatening behaviour and violence. In other words, you’ll probably have to click a box before ever seeing another Rihanna video.

Out of the 132 videos submitted thus far, only one has received an 18 certificate (“suitable only for adults”) – Dizzee Rascal’s ‘Couple Of Stacks’. In comparison, ‘What Went Down’ by Foals (“moderate threat, violence”) has been certified 12, while The Libertines’ ‘Gunga Din’ (“strong language”) and The Vaccines’ ‘Handsome’ (“moderate violence”) both get a 15.

But how would the most controversial videos of all time fare? NME consulted the BBFC guidelines – available on their website – to find out.

Madonna – ‘Like A Prayer’ (1989)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=79fzeNUqQbQ

What happens: Never a stranger to controversy, Madge takes a machete to religious, racial and sexual taboos by dancing in front of a field of burning crucifixes and copping off with a black Jesus. The then-Pope, John Paul II, perhaps more of a Kylie man, was so incensed by the blasphemous content that he urged people to boycott her Italian performances and the furore caused Pepsi to pull their $5m advertising deal with her.

Naughty bits: Few pop fans would be shocked by the notion of a black Jesus now – it’s probably how Kanye signs his Christmas cards – and Catholic-baiting has lost its surprise factor so much that if Justin Bieber released a promo featuring a circle jerk with the Father, The Son and The Holy Spirit, not many eyelids would be batted. While there’s nothing explicit, at one point a woman is attacked by a group of white thugs (before an innocent black man is arrested) and Madge sees the stigmata in her hands.

Rating: 12 (Moderate sex references, moderate physical threat, moderate violence)

Nirvana – ‘Heart-Shaped Box’ (1993)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n6P0SitRwy8

What happens: Trippier than untied shoelaces, this Anton Corbijn-helmed work shows an elderly man on a crucifix clad in a Santa hat (so emaciated, he resembles a grunge remake of The Nightmare Before Christmas), singing crows and a girl in Ku Klux Klan robes ‘foetus-scrumping’ in a tree.

Naughty bits: While you might conclude that it’s more the unsettling atmosphere of Nirvana’s last video that would make parents fire off an email to crymeariver@outraged.com, key moments include an overweight woman in a suit of human organs, which looks like the best Halloween costume of all time, and the old dude attached to an IV drip with another foetus inside.

Rating: 15 (Strong threat and horror)

Aphex Twin – ‘Come To Daddy’ (1997)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h-9UvrLyj3k

What happens: In the shadow of a dilapidated tower block, a gang of deformed children – all bearing Richard D’s face – indulge in a smash and grab, and terrorise passer-bys with feral glee. Think: The Krankies meets David Cronenberg, with a soupcon of Being John Malkovich. Creepier than a Tinder message from R Kelly, it was voted one of the 100 Greatest Scary Moments by Channel 4.

Naughty bits: It’s all in the menacing, horror film atmosphere conjured up by Chris Cunningham, but the moment where an evil spirit screams into the face of a sweet old pensioner may be the money-shot.

Rating: 15 (Antisocial behaviour, Strong threat and horror, disturbing imagery)

Duran Duran – ‘Girls On Film’ (1981)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KCjMZMxNr-0

What happens: Like Robin Thicke and Pharrell’s dads, here Duran Duran – at their most bouffant – introduce various scantily-clad models into a boxing ring to pillow-fight, pour champagne over each others’ cleavages, and generally re-enact other hackneyed porny tropes. With mild-BDSM, it’s 50 Shades Of Hairspray. The Godley & Creme-helmed video was banned by the BBC and is arguably the most ill-advised thing the new romantics ever did – and this is a group where one-time member Warren Cuccurullo released a dildo.

Naughty bits: What may have seemed ineffably glamorous at the time now resembles one of those old softcore smut-flicks you may accidentally catch on Channel Five in the wee small hours. There’s a model draped over a chair naked, rubbing ice cubes on her nipples and a brunette in translucent pants mud-wrestling.

Rating: 18 (Strong sexualised nudity)

The Prodigy – ‘Smack My Bitch Up’ (1997)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2DPF_pWIy3w

What happens: If the lyrics caused a commotion, then this initially banned Jonas Åkerlund-directed promo took things to the next level. Shot from the perspective of the main character, it shows a night in London with drink driving, heroin, brawls and coitus with a stripper. Or as Fat White Family would call it, “just another Tuesday.”

Naughty bits: Where to start? It’s a full house in outrage bingo. Needles being injected into arms, a hit and run, vomiting, abuse of women, female nudity and then a full-blown sex scene.

Rating: 18

MIA – ‘Born Free’ (2010)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IeMvUlxXyz8

What happens: It’s hair-based genocide as red-headed children are rounded up by SWAT teams and tortured in this nine-minute dystopian promo, inspired by the slaughter of Tamil males by the Sri Lankan Army. It was yanked off YouTube the day it was uploaded faster than Twitter could make a tasteless joke involving Ed Sheeran.

Naughty bits: Aside from the bracing political allegory, there’s an old man smoking crack, realistic violence, and that’s before the youngest child gets a bullet ploughed into his skull while another seraphic-faced kid is torn asunder by a landmine, his limbs and entrails exploding like the Death Star. There’s also the repeated use of the F-bomb – as a general rule of thumb, you could get away with four ‘fucks’ in a 12A film. Presumably this will be different for the compressed time limit of music videos: Rat Boy’s ‘Sign On’, where Jordan Cardy exclaims “Fuck’s sake!” once, is rated 15 for its “very strong language.”

Rating: 18

Justice – ‘Stress’ (2008)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QWaWsgBbFsA

What happens: Zut alors! Directed by Romain Gavras (of MIA ‘Born Free’ notoriety), a gang of hood rats from the banlieue – the desolate and poor areas on the edge of French cities – rampage through the streets in Justice ‘cross’ jackets, trailed by a documentary-style camera crew. Premiered on Kanye’s website, and with the memory of the 2005 riots across Paris and the rest of France still raw, it incited a media storm with thinkpieces accusing it variously of racism, stigmatisation of the poor and being a pure old fashioned voyeuristic video nasty.

Naughty bits: Bottles are smashed over heads, there’s a scuffle with the police and a joyride. The nine minutes ends with the car set ablaze and the cameraman beaten unconscious.

Rating: Considering Peace’s ‘Gen Strange’, which has Harry Koisser and co getting up to graffiti and destruction based hi-jinx (and might be considered a kind of Byker Grove version of Justice’s vid) was rated 15 for its “dangerous, anti-social behaviour”, ‘Stress’ would be a firm 18.