From the Beatles and KISS to Nicki Minaj and Billie Eilish, reactionaries have been freaking out about the devil in pop culture for decades.
The release of Lil Nas X’s video for “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” has catapulted the charming pop star to the middle of yet another unsurprising controversy. While the 21-year-old’s career originally skyrocketed after his breakout single “Old Town Road” was egregiously booted from the Billboard country charts, he’s now face to face with reactionary critics who are upset because his video features a tongue-in-cheek depiction of a cartoonish devil. At the end of the video, Lil Nas X gives Satan a lap dance and snaps his neck. It’s a lot of fun, and it’s sent conservatives into a predictable tailspin.
Despite Fox News segments and Candace Owens tweets, Lil Nas X is no Satanist. In an open letter he wrote to his closeted 14-year-old self, he says the song is about him grappling with his own sexuality and that he hopes the song and accompanying video “will open doors for many other queer people to simply exist. People will be angry, they will say I’m pushing an agenda. But the truth is, I am. The agenda to make people stay the fuck out of other people’s lives and stop dictating who they should be.” Lil Nas X also announced a new limited-edition “Satan Shoes” sneaker collaboration with streetwear brand MSCHF, which contains a drop of real human blood in the sole. Lil Nas X has been taking the criticism in stride. He dunked via Twitter on Gov. Noem who said the shoes signified the battle for the “soul of our nation,” made fun of the critiques from sports figures like Trevor Lawrence and Nick Young, and posted a joke apology video to his YouTube channel.
The devil in pop culture.
In March 1966, John Lennon interview comments sparked protests, boycotts, and even death threats against the Beatles. “Christianity will go,” he said. “It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that; I know I’m right and I will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now. I don’t know which will go first—rock & roll or Christianity.” At a tour stop in Memphis, the Ku Klux Klan picketed their show and threatened violence for Lennon’s “blasphemous” comments. Bizarrely, almost 50 years later, the Vatican’s official newspaper forgave the Beatles for saying ” “they were bigger than Jesus and put out mysterious messages, that were possibly even Satanic.”
Televangelist Paul Crouch claimed in 1982 that there were secret satanic messages hidden in Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” He said if you played the song backward, you’d hear “Here’s to my sweet Satan/The one whose little path would make me sad, whose power is Satan/He will give those with him 666/There was a little toolshed where he made us suffer, sad Satan.” Whether or not Crouch just saw the “backward message” scene from the Exorcist and lost his mind or actually thought Led Zeppelin were Satanists is unclear but the band denied the accusation. “Who on Earth would have ever thought of doing that?” Robert Plant said to Rolling Stone. “You’ve got to have a lot of time on your hands to even consider that people would do that.” Several classic rock bands including the Beatles and the Eagles have faced similar conspiracy theories. Watch Paul Crouch Jr. discuss modern day good vs. evil – CMCTV
With their outlandish costumes and face paint, hedonistic lyrics, and devilish iconography, KISS’ silly brand of rock music definitely turned heads. They faced accusations from Christian groups that their name is an acronym for “Knights In Satan’s Service” and dealt with minor boycotts at the peak of their fame. While the controversies never stuck, the band did donate their blood to be fused with red ink for a printing of a 1977 Marvel Comic, which was seemingly uncontroversial when it was released. Even Lil Nas X’s blood-infused shoe is nothing new when it comes to artist-led merchandise.
As VICE’s Jelisa Castrodale points out in her interview with MSCHF’s head of commerce Daniel Greenberg, Madonna also had her own controversy when she released her video for “Like a Prayer” in 1989. The clip depicted her kissing a Black saint in a church and dancing in front of burning crosses, which led to then-Pope John Paul II publicly denouncing her, calling the video blasphemous, and asking Italian fans to boycott her upcoming tour. The American Family Association lambasted it and Pepsi-Cola, which paid her more than $5 million to use the song in a TV commercial, dropped the campaign.
By Josh Terry