August 11 marks the anniversary of a press conference John Lennon held to apologize — quite reluctantly — for having said in an interview that the Beatles more "more popular than Jesus." In the subsequent decades, "bigger than Jesus" has become a shorthand phrase for the kind of statements that result in immediate rock-star damage control... although being "Dixie Chick-ed" has nearly replaced it as a catch-all for just what can happen to your career after a polarizing statement.
Here are a dozen of the most controversial things pop stars have ever gotten in hot water for saying, starting with St. John himself:
1. John Lennon: "Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue about that. I'm right and I'll be proved right. We're more popular than Jesus now. I don't know which will go first: rock & roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right, but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It's them twisting it that ruins it for me."
Lennon's remarks about Christianity on the wane were first published in the London Evening Standard on March 4, 1966, and caused nary a ripple at the time. But when an American teen magazine picked up the quotes, all hell broke loose, and U.S. preachers and even some disc jockeys began holding bonfires for Beatles records. So on August 11, on the eve of what would turn out to be their final tour, Lennon held a press conference in Chicago. “If I’d have said television is more popular than Jesus, I might have got away with it,” he said. “In reference to England, we meant more to kids than Jesus did, or religion at that time. I wasn’t knocking it or putting it down. I was just saying it as a fact and it’s true more for England than here.” Clearly, people wanted to hear the S-word, and he finally spat it out: "I apologize if that will make you happy. I still don't know quite what I've done... but if you want me to apologize, if that will make you happy, then okay, I'm sorry."
2. Natalie Maines: “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas.”
The Dixie Chicks singer's remark to a London audience on March 10, 2003 didn't cause the slightest stir in the hall, but after a local music critic offered a condensed version of the quote in a review, it became a firestorm back in their home country a few days later. Nearly every country radio station in the U.S. dropped their single, "Travelin' Soldier," which stood at No. 1 at the time. The Chicks have rarely been heard on the format in the decade since, although their next album swept the Grammys without benefit of radio play. Maines initially released two apologies, but then became emboldened enough to participate in a memorable nude Entertainment Weekly cover in protest against the backlash. This year, she said, “I would never take it back," death threats and all. "I’m so glad it happened. I feel like it sort of freed me in a lot of ways. I didn’t know people were misinterpreting who I was as a person, or making all of these assumptions because of the kind of music I played. I have no problem being a pro-gay, pro-choice, pro-woman, pro-free speech kind of a person."
3. Kanye West: "George Bush doesn't care about black people."
West was a celebrity presenter on a prime-time telethon for victims of Hurricane Katrina when he went off-script with his infamous anti-Bush line. The camera lingered just long enough to catch the stricken look on co-presenter Mike Myers' face before the director was able to abruptly cut away. Of course, Kanye is the modern master of the outrageous (and usually more self-aggrandizing) quote. An easy runner-up in his pantheon on bon mots: "Yo Taylor, I'm really happy for you... but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time."
4. Ted Nugent: "If Barack Obama becomes the president in November, again, I will either be dead or in jail by this time next year. Why are you laughing? Do you think that's funny? That's not funny at all. I'm serious as a heart attack.”
Hardly one to ever mince words, the right-wing rocker was at his least mincing when he addressed an NRA convention prior to the election of 2012. By the time he wrapped up his impromptu speech by exhorting, "We need to ride into that battlefield and chop their heads off in November!," it was all but inevitable he'd be getting a token visit from the Secret Service. But that hardly put a damper on his penchant for violent imagery. At subsequent concerts, he put a machine gun in his mouth and bellowed, “Hey, Obama, you might want to suck on one of these, ya punk!” — also offering a similar suggestion for Hillary Clinton.
5. Nathan Followill of Kings of Leon: "Dear Ryan Murphy, let it go. See a therapist, get a manicure, buy a new bra. Zip your lip and focus on educating 7-year-olds how to say f---."
To Kings of Leon's credit, they didn't start the Glee feud. Creator Ryan Murphy did, when he complained about the band refusing to license the show a song: "F--- you, Kings of Leon. They're self-centered ass----s, and they missed the big picture. They missed that a 7-year-old kid can see someone close to their age singing a Kings of Leon song, which will maybe make them want to join a glee club or pick up a musical instrument. It's like, OK, hate on arts education." Followill was criticized for his response to Murphy and how it was seen as mocking effeminacy. "I'm sorry 4 anyone that misconstrued my comments as homophobic or misogynistic," wrote Followill. "I'm so not that kind of person. I really do apologize."
6. Cat Stevens: "He must be killed. The Qur'an makes it clear: if someone defames the prophet, then he must die."
Did he or didn't he endorse the fatwa on Salman Rushie in 1989? Addressing an audience at London's Kingston University, Stevens —now known as Yusuf Islam — seemed clear enough on the concept of how his remarks about the Satanic Verses author's death sentence would be interpreted. Oldies stations began a ban on Stevens' pre-conversion 1970s hits, and 10,000 Maniacs had their sophomore album re-pressed to leave off their cover version of his "Peace Train." Stevens pleaded misunderstanding. "I never called for the death of Salman Rushdie; nor backed the Fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini," he wrote on his website. "When asked about my opinion regarding blasphemy, I could not tell a lie and confirmed that — like both the Torah and the Gospel — the Qur’an considers it, without repentance, as a capital offense... However, the application of such Biblical and Qur’anic injunctions is not to be outside of due process of law..."
7. Jerry Lee Lewis: "I can assure that my wife is all woman, even though she looks kinda young.”
Lewis was on top of the world when he landed at London's Heathrow Airport for a British tour, but the reporters who greeted him couldn't help but notice that the new bride he was showing off looked a little wet under the chin. Asked how old she was, Lewis lied, "Fifteen" — adding two years to his cousin/newlywed's tender age — and then he offered the aside about how fast he'd grown her up, which didn't help. His performances across the pond were greeted with an odd mixture of pandemonium and boos after that, and the tour was called off after the third gig. His career recovered, to a degree, but has always been clouded by the 13-year-old cousin jokes.
8. Michelle Shocked: "If someone would be so gracious as to please tweet out, ‘Michelle Shocked just said from stage, God hates faggots.’ Would you do it now?"
A bizarre and rambling on-stage speech by the folk-rocker at Yoshi's in San Francisco this past March led much of the audience to walk out and the club to finally pull the plug. Three days later, Shocked issued an apology, saying, "When I said 'Twitter that Michelle Shocked says "God hates faggots,"' I was predicting the absurd way my description of, my apology for, the intolerant would no doubt be misinterpreted." But a leaked audiotape of the performance further inflamed passions as the singer was heard talking about her friends' belief that gay marriage would hasten the apocalypse. A disjointed prime-time chat with Piers Morgan on CNN didn't help, nor did Shocked showing up in costume to protest her own canceled concerts.
9. Public Enemy's Professor Griff: "Jews are responsible for the majority of the wickedness that goes on across the globe."
Flavor Flav may have worn a clock around his neck, but Griff was the millstone around the neck of the hip-hop collective. When It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back was coming out to great acclaim in 1988, their Black Muslim Minister of Information" did a series of interviews spreading information like "There's no place for gays" and "If the Palestinians took up arms, went into Israel and killed all the Jews, it'd be all right." Asked about Griff's incendiary statements, Chuck D tried to strike a balance between distancing the rest of the group and not throwing his compatriot under the bus, saying, "I back Griff." Eventually the disassociation became more clear, but much damage was already done.
10. Johnny Rotten: "F---in' good riddance to bad rubbish. I don't give a f---in' s---, and nobody else does either. It's just fun to fake sympathy, that's all they're doin'."
The "bad rubbish" that Rotten was happy to see go was Elvis Presley, who had just died in 1977 when the Sex Pistols' singer was asked for his reaction. Given the 35 years of insults to other musicians that have followed, his dissing Elvis hardly seems out of character now, but his contempt for his rock forebears and death-related decorum still shocked the world at the time.
11. Elton John: "Anyone who lip-synchs in public on stage when you pay £75 to see them should be shot... She looks like a f---ing fairground stripper.”
Elton was referring specifically to his old nemesis, Madonna. It was hardly the first time he'd gone over, since his public dismissals dated back at least to the time when he bashed "Die Another Day" in 2002 as "the worst Bond tune ever." Before the Super Bowl halftime show she did, he'd helpfully offered in public: "Make sure you lip-synch good." Generations of music fans sick of performers who don't sing live rushed to embrace his comments — not minding that Madonna really does sing live through most of her sets, and certainly more so than her younger dance-pop imitators. But this spring he revealed he'd run into her in a French restaurant and they'd made up. "I apologized profusely because what I said should never have appeared in public. She accepted our apology, and then we bought her dinner. That's over and done with. She was really great about it."
12. Madonna: "How many people in this crowd have seen Molly?"
Madonna used the slang term for MDMA, the active ingredient in the drug ecstasy, while exhorting the crowd at the EDM-focused Ultra Music Festival in Miami. Her album title at the time, MDNA, was also a sort of pun on the chemical. Producer Deadmau5, a leading figure in the scene, used social media to go after Madonna for her apparent pro-drug reference: "Very classy there, Madonna... You're a role model to 100's of millions. You have a powerful voice, EDM could use your positive influence, not 'molly' talk... f---ing cant smack my head hard enough right now." Madonna responded to the controversy by claiming, "I don't support drug use and I never have. I was referring to the song called 'Have You Seen Molly' written by my friend Cedric Gervais." A similar controversy erupted this year when Miley Cyrus referenced "molly" in her latest smash, only to have her producer claim she was really saying "Miley," only to have Cyrus admit everyone had been right in the first place.
13. John Mayer: "My (sexual organ) is sort of like a white supremacist. I've got a Benetton heart and a f---in' David Duke (sexual organ). I'm going to start dating separately from my (sexual organ)."
Mayer was trying to explain to Playboy magazine in 2010 that while he was open to interracial dating in theory, some part of him — a very specific part of him — was less open to the idea. This was also the interview where he said that dating Jessica Simpson "was like napalm, sexual napalm." It didn't help that the controversy over Mayer's seeming insensitivity was compounded when Taylor Swift released her "Dear John" song. In a rare example of a public figure actually being chastened by the attention to his public words, Mayer subsequently stopped doing interviews for the next two years and got off Twitter.