11 Hit Songs Musicians Have Refused to Play
By Jake Rossen
A hit song can be a career-making achievement for recording artists, who can sometimes dine out on just a handful of popular singles for decades. But for some musicians, being expected to play the same tune during tours or public appearances leads to exasperation—and sometimes even outright refusal. Take a look at 11 hit songs that were never guaranteed to make it to a concert.
1. “Smells Like Teen Spirit” // Nirvana
The grunge era of the 1990s was encapsulated—and often rejected—by Nirvana, the Seattle-based rock group led by Kurt Cobain. In 1991, the group exploded with their Nevermind album and “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” a wildly popular anthem that was so commercially successful that it seemed counter to the group’s counter-culture approach. Not long after the group performed the song on Saturday Night Live, Cobain began refusing to play it during live shows. Cobain’s apathy seemed to hit a crescendo in Buenos Aires in 1992, when a raucous crowd booed Nirvana’s opening act, the all-female group Calamity Jane. Cobain was so incensed by the audience’s disrespect that he taunted them by continually playing the opening notes to “Smells Like Teen Spirit” without ever actually launching into it.
“Before every song, I’d play the intro to ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ and then stop,” Cobain later said. “They didn’t realize that we were protesting against what they’d done. We played for about forty minutes, and most of the songs were off Incesticide, so they didn’t recognize anything. We wound up playing the secret noise song [‘Endless, Nameless’] that’s at the end of Nevermind, and because we were so in a rage and were just so pissed off about this whole situation, that song and whole set were one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had.”
2. “(You Gotta) Fight For Your Right (to Party!)” // Beastie Boys
The unlikely rap group broke big in the 1980s with this single from their 1986 Licensed to Ill album that was intended to satirize frat boy and jock culture. When actual frat boys started enjoying it unironically, the group became reluctant to repeat it in concert. When the Boys released a best-of compilation album, the liner notes referred to “Fight For Your Right” as “sh*t.”
“I don't think we realized that it was going to be the sort of main focus of the album," the late Adam Yauch told NPR in 2011. "I think the way we were looking at it, we were just kind of making this dumb song that would sit somewhere on the album. But I think that CBS and [producer] Rick [Rubin] saw it as being able to be something much larger than what we imagined, and they kind of made it the main focus of the album.”
3. “Big Me” // Foo Fighters
This 1996 hit from the Foo Fighters's self-titled 1995 debut album didn’t quite land the way frontman Dave Grohl and the band intended. After filming a successful music video for the single that cast the group in a parody of the kitschy Mentos commercials of the era, fans began throwing candy at them during live shows. Grohl later estimated they stopped playing the song for six or seven years afterward and didn’t return to it until Weezer began playing it in tribute.
“And they played it every ... night,” Grohl said in 2006. “And we actually started to miss it. So once that tour ended and we went back out on our own, we kinda threw it back into the set list. But we did stop playing that song for a while because, honestly, it's like being stoned. Those little ... things are like pebbles—they hurt.”
4. “Stairway to Heaven” // Robert Plant
The iconic rock anthem was a signature of Led Zeppelin since its release in 1971, but when lead singer Robert Plant went out on his own, he largely ignored the audience pleas to play it for the next 40 years, succumbing only when the group performed reunions in 1985, 1988, and 2007. (“Stairway to Heaven” was also the subject of a 2014 copyright case in which a trustee suing on behalf of music group Spirit claimed the song drew heavily from a 1968 track, “Taurus." Led Zeppelin won a trial in 2016.)
5. “Nothing Compares 2 U” // Sinéad O’Connor
This slow, sad, beautiful ballad helped make Sinéad O’Connor a star in 1990 and moved millions of copies of her debut album, I Do Not Want What I Haven’t Got. By 2015, O’Connor announced that the song about love and loss, which was written by Prince, was something she could no longer personally identify with.
“I don’t want audiences to be disappointed coming along to a show and then not hearing it, so I am letting you know here that you won’t,” O’Connor wrote on Facebook. “If I were to sing it just to please people, I wouldn’t be doing my job right, because my job is to be emotionally available. I’d be lying. You’d be getting a lie. My job is to give you honesty. I’m trained in honesty. I can’t act. It just isn’t in my training. I have ceased singing other songs over the years for the same reason.”
O’Connor reconnected to the song in 2016, performing it as a tribute to Prince shortly after the musician’s death that year.
6. “Mr. Roboto” // Styx
Fans said “domo arigato” to this silly synth song off the band’s Kilroy Was Here album in 1983, but the cheerfully broad tune created a division in the group. Members James Young and Dennis DeYoung disagreed on the creative direction sparked by “Mr. Roboto,” with Young feeling like it disenfranchised a portion of their audience and DeYoung looking to expand their horizons. DeYoung split from the group in 1984; the remaining members felt it was his song and that they had no reason to perform it live. The group didn’t change course until 2018, when encouragement from their merchandising department and fan requests led them to performing it for what Young dubbed the first time. DeYoung, he said, had only sung it to tape in 1983.
“For the most part, it gets a huge response," Young told AZCentral.com in 2019. “I mean, we’ve had a few people giving us the finger in the first row but not many.”
7. “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” // Bobby McFerrin
Whether you listened to “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” when it was originally released in 1988 or caught it on YouTube later, you might have been shocked to learn the a cappella track is undiluted Bobby McFerrin. The singer recorded six separate tracks and used no musical instruments in the song, an ironic ode to optimism that took its title from a phrase used by Indian guru Meher Baba. McFerrin, however, worried the song had become oversaturated, and he was not happy to be performing it. “I got tired of singing it,” he told USA Today in 2013. “I sang it millions and trillions of times.”
8. “Creep” // Radiohead
When Radiohead scored with “Creep” in 1992, elation gave way to disenchantment. The band reportedly stopped performing it live because it had become too popular and led the band into experiencing a kind of aural Groundhog Day moment. “We seemed to be living out the same four-and-a-half minutes of our lives over and over again,” band member Jonny Greenwood once said of performing the song live. “It was incredibly stultifying.” Greenwood added that some audience members would actually get up and leave after hearing “Creep.”
The prohibition lasted until the 2000s, when the band performed it at concerts and at Reading Festival in 2009. It surfaced again in 2017, when the band returned to it for the Glastonbury Festival. Lead singer Thom Yorke later said that performing it “can be cool sometimes” but that they might not always be in the mood.
9. “Shiny Happy People” // R.E.M.
R.E.M.’s “Shiny Happy People” was one of their biggest hits when it debuted in 1991 on their Out of Time album, but the infectiously, somewhat disingenuously upbeat song quickly became a source of contention for the group, which not only stopped playing it live but refused to allow it on their 2003 greatest hits album, In Time. Lead singer Michael Stipe said it had “limited appeal” for him.
10. “My Same” // Adele
“My Same” was a track on Adele's debut 2008 album 19, and she was inspired to write the song based on a friendship that began at age 16. At some point, the two had a falling out, and Adele stopped performing “My Same” live on the premise she didn’t want her friend to know she was singing about her. After the two reconciled in 2011, Adele added it back to her set list.
11. “1999” // Prince
The artist—who would later adopt a symbol as his stage name—made a tremendous splash in 1982 with 1999 and singles like "Little Red Corvette." The title track came from Prince and his entourage watching a special about the end of the century, which got him thinking about what that celebration might look like. Naturally, when the actual year 1999 rolled around, two things happened: Prince had a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity to perform the song at peak relevance, which he did for a pay-per-view concert, Rave Un2 the Year 2000. He also knew it would immediately be dated by the following day.
“This is going to be the last time we play it,” Prince told The Early Show on CBS in 1999. “We’re going to retire it after this, and there won’t be [a] need to play it in the 00s.”
Dated or not, fans were still enamored with the song. Prince brought it back for a 2007 Super Bowl halftime show and performed it at concerts until his death in 2016.