NPR logo

From Elvis To Lady Gaga: Playing With Shock Value In Music

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
From Elvis To Lady Gaga: Playing With Shock Value In Music

From Elvis To Lady Gaga: Playing With Shock Value In Music

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Rock musicians have always tried to generate interest in their music by shocking people. Elvis swung his hips, Madonna sang about her non-virginity, and Marilyn Manson named himself after a convicted murderer.

NPR's Neda Ulaby wondered how much shock value has changed since Ozzy Osbourne supposedly bit the head off a bat.

NEDA ULABY: Can you imagine if the Internet had been around during that bat-biting incident?

(Soundbite of song, "Diary of a Madman")

Mr. OZZY OSBOURNE (Singer): (Singing) Screaming at the window.

ULABY: The story is something of an urban legend, and that's part of its power, says Tavia Nyong'o, a professor of performance studies at New York University. No one had cameras in their phones back then, so the shock came from repeating the story: Did you hear? Ozzy Osbourne bit the head off a bat.

Professor TAVIA NYONG'O (Performance Studies, New York University): Shock just works differently now because that distinction between the live and the mediated is far more blurred.

(Soundbite of crowd)

Unidentified Man: You got to stay on the line for Gaga.

ULABY: Pop musicians have always played with shock value. Internet videos gave them a new way to deploy it. Three were recently banned or censored by MTV or YouTube.

(Soundbite of song, "Telephone")

LADY GAGA (Singer): (Singing) Hello, hello, baby, you called? I can't hear a thing.

ULABY: "Telephone" by Lady Gaga, "Born Free" by M.I.A., and Erykah Badu's "Window Seat" are all still easily seen online.

Cultural critic Ronda Penrice does see a difference between the way musicians used shock value in the 1980s and today.

Ms. RONDA PENRICE (Pop Culture Critic): I think that it's increasingly harder to shock people, but what is relevant with these three particular works is that they're by women. And I don't think in the time of Ozzy Osbourne, that women could make as strong a statement as these three women are making now.

ULABY: At least not in mainstream media. And the Internet has changed what counts as mainstream. It used to be much harder to find the kinky images that used to be a shortcut to shock. Now, you just have to Google them.

It's also easier to access cutting-edge, avant-garde work, like the video by Matt & Kim that inspired Erykah Badu's. It begins with the singer strolling through Dallas.

(Soundbite of song, "Window Seat")

Ms. ERYKAH BADU (Singer): (Singing) So can I get a window seat...

Ms. PENRICE: It starts out very pedestrian. She's walking, it's all going good. Then she starts stripping.

ULABY: By the time Badu is fully naked, she appears to get shot right where President Kennedy was assassinated.

Prof. NYONG'O: I think that what was shocking about it was that she did it without permission, and she did it in a guerilla style.

ULABY: Professor Tavia Nyong'o says you find yourself looking for shock on the faces of the people she passes.

(Soundbite of song, "Window Seat")

Ms. BADU: (Singing) I need you to want me.

ULABY: Nyong'o says the shock of the singer's nudity was amplified by her location in Dealey Plaza, a sort of hallowed ground, a site of profound shock in American political history. And he says that's what made it inspired.

Prof. NYONG'O: Shock itself is part of our daily life - you know, the risk of a shock, of a terrorist attack or a natural disaster.

ULABY: Our fear and anticipation of those kinds of shocks may sit closer to the surface than in Ozzy Osbourne's heyday. Terrorism is a theme in M.I.A.'s video "Born Free."

(Soundbite of music video, "Born Free ")

ULABY: Soldiers violently round up insurgents - all redheaded young men - and kill them. Nyong'o says as a political allegory, it sounds more fantastical than shocking.

Prof. NYONG'O: It's almost funny. I mean, it's hard to laugh at it directly. But when one describes it - you know, the U.S. Army going in and grabbing everyone who's redheaded and putting them into an internment camp - you can see the absurdity, if not the humor, in that, right?

ULABY: Nyong'o says M.I.A. and her director, Romain Gavras, are part of a long tradition of artists who use shock in the service of nudging people into considering real issues, ones that can be hard to talk about.

Of course, some people shock just for the fun of pushing buttons. But that can have political consequences, too, says a well-respected performance artist who admits to dabbling in shock.

Mr. VAGINAL DAVIS (Performance Artist): I'm considered like, a provocateuse.

ULABY: Meet Vaginal Davis. It may not surprise you to learn that his work plays on race, queerness and gender. While that's well-trod turf in the shockosphere, Davis says real shock demands surprise, which in turn demands a kind of subtlety.

Mr. DAVIS: If you're trying hard to shock people, it just comes off as lame and tired.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ULABY: Which is why if Ozzy Osbourne bit the head off a bat today, people would want to see the video. And even then, Ozzy bat truthers would probably have their doubts.

Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

(Soundbite of song, "Crazy Train")

Mr. OSBOURNE: (Singing) I'm going off the rails on a crazy train. I'm going off the rails on a crazy train. Let's go. I've listened to preachers. I've listened to fools.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.