The music industry, populated by outlandish personalities and mercurial performers, is no stranger to scandal. Over the past 50 years, musicians have been at the center of controversies ranging from theft to fraud to murder, and the tabloid media has been there to catalog every misstep.
There's something oddly satisfying about watching the most successful and glamorous people on Earth make career-defining mistakes. But, as this list proves, the consequences of those mistakes can be troubling, and sometimes even tragic. Without further ado, here are 35 of the Biggest Music Industry Scandals of All Time.
Michael Jackson is accused of child abuse
What Happened: The 2019 release of Finding Neverland forced Michael Jackson fans to accept what they had long feared: the King of Pop was a serial sexual predator who preyed on young children for decades.
The Fallout: Michael Jackson’s legacy is endlessly complex. He was unquestionably one of the most talented, influential, and charismatic performers the world has ever known. He was an electric dancer, an otherworldly vocalist, and a divinely talented musician. His success also emerged from a traumatic, abusive childhood.
None of that forgives that he groomed and sexually assaulted an unknown number of children over many years. The fallout from Michael Jackson’s child abuse scandal remains to be seen; the wounds are still too fresh.
Janet Jackson's Super Bowl wardrobe malfunction
What Happened: Janet Jackson performed a medley of hits during the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show. She was joined on stage by Justin Timberlake, and the pair performed a duet of Timberlake’s hit “Rock Your Body.” During the final seconds of the performance, Timberlake yanked off part of Jackson’s costume, briefly exposing her breast.
The Fallout: You know a moment’s iconic when it births new language. We’d never heard of ‘social distancing’ before COVID-19, and we didn’t know about ‘wardrobe malfunctions’ until Super Bowl XXXVIII. Conservative Americans were apoplectic that their wholesome tradition had been usurped by seedy show business elites. The Parents Television Council promised to file an indecency complaint, and the FCC received more than half a million negative comments from the public.
R. Kelly is a pedophile
What Happened: R. Kelly is one of the most prolific and talented R&B vocalists of the past 30 years. He is also one of the music industry’s most irredeemable figures. In the mid-90s, then 27-year-old Kelly illegally married then 15-year-old Aaliyah. In the late-90s and early-2000s, evidence emerged that Kelly was a serial sexual predator and pedophile. In 2017, Kelly was accused by multiple women of running an abusive sex cult involving minors.
The Fallout: For years, R. Kelly escaped persecution from the law and from his fans. A leaked video that showed him committing indecent acts with an underage girl caused a brief stir, but his career continued. It is only in the last few years, particularly following the 2019 release of the documentary Surviving R. Kelly, that the Chicago native has faced any consequences for his actions. He is currently on trial for federal child pornography charges.
Chris Brown assaults Rihanna
What Happened: For a time, Chris Brown and Rihanna were the king and queen of pop. They were both jaw-droppingly gorgeous, both talented performers entering their primes, and both happy to flaunt the relationship on camera. But in 2009, Brown assaulted Rihanna, leaving her with facial injuries that required hospitalization.
The Fallout: Rihanna’s success has continued unabated. Shockingly, so too has Chris Brown’s. After being briefly ostracized, Brown has continued to release successful albums, perform before sold-out crowds, and collaborate with some of the music industry’s biggest names.
Kanye disses Taylor Swift at the VMAs
What Happened: Kanye at his mercurial finest happened, that’s what. As Taylor Swift accepted the MVA for best female video in 2009, Kanye stormed the stage, grabbed the mic, and let the world know that Beyoncé had been robbed. He was right, but much of the world (even President Obama!) saw him as the villain.
The Fallout: Kanye was widely condemned for his actions, and not just by Swift’s furious hordes of internet warriors. His actions were seen as unseemly and unprofessional. He was panned in the mainstream media, and Obama called him a “jackass” on a hot mic. The event also sparked a years-long, on-and-off feud between him and Swift.
The Beatles say they're more popular than Jesus
What Happened: God, what an all time flex: In 1966, in an interview with The Evening Standard, the Beatles’ John Lennon suggested that his band had become “more popular than Jesus.”
The Fallout: Pretty much what you’d expect: Christians around the world freaked out, which of course made the Liverpool foursome even more popular. The furor was particularly acute in the United States’ Bible Belt: radio stations boycotted the band; records were burned in public ceremonies; and the Ku Klux Klan protested a concert. You know you’re on the right side of history when the Klan hates you.
Milli Vanilli didn't sing their own songs
What Happened: Milli Vanilli, the duo comprised of Rob Pilatus and Fab Morvan, skyrocketed to fame in the late ‘80s, powered by infectious production and unforgettable style. Their debut album, Girl You Know It’s True, yielded five top five singles in the United States, and the pair won the Grammy Award for Best New Artist in 1990. Later that year it was revealed that Milli Vanilli didn’t sing their own songs, and the duo’s success evaporated.
The Fallout: The public was furious. Pilatus and Morvan blamed producer Frank Farian. Their Grammy was revoked, and the duo faced a string of lawsuits. After several failed comeback attempts, they agreed to reunite with Farian to produce a new album in the late ‘90s. Tragically, Pilatus passed away in April 1998, and the album was never released.
Britney Spears has a breakdown
What Happened: After almost a decade as the Princess of Pop, Britney Spears suffered a public breakdown over several months in 2006 and 2007. Her marriage to Kevin Federline ended, her aunt passed away, she shaved her head, she bounced in and out of rehab facilities, and she lost custody of her children.
The Fallout: Spears’ public collapse forced America to look – briefly – inward. It was seen as evidence that America’s celebrity culture is deeply toxic, and that the music industry’s sexualization and exploitation of young performers can leave permanent psychological scars. And then, nothing changed. Britney continues to charm the world as a cooky entertainment icon, and the music industry continues to relentlessly eat up and churn out young, often female performers.
Miley Cyrus twerks on Robin Thicke
What Happened: In one of the most grotesque awards show performances of all time, Miley Cyrus permanently shed her cutesy Hannah Montana persona by stripping down to a latex bathing suit and rubbing herself all over Robin Thicke who, incidentally, was dressed like Beetlejuice.
The Fallout: America mourned the fall of a Disney Channel icon, and Miley embarked on a highly questionable period of her career. For a few years, Cyrus became one of the music industry’s most provocative acts. She’s walked back the overt sexuality and cultural appropriation since then, but we’ll always have the 2013 VMAs to cringe at.