Written by Sam Kohn
In the late 1980s, Madonna was on top of the world. Fresh off the back of three consecutive multi-platinum albums and a record-breaking world tour, it seemed like her star couldn’t shine any brighter – and then, on March 3, 1989, she released “Like a Prayer.” The ubiquitous smash hit topped the charts in 19 countries and went on to sell over five million copies worldwide. So popular was it, in fact, that PepsiCo paid Madonna $5 million to feature the song in a TV ad – an unheard of sum at the time. But exactly one month later, Pepsi announced it had banned all future broadcasts of the ad, canceled her contract, and pulled out of sponsoring her upcoming world tour. So what happened? And what does this have to do with Sam Smith? As it turns out, the Devil is in the details.
On its own, “Like a Prayer” was always going to offend some people – what with Madonna getting “down on [her] knees” to “take you there” – but it was the release of the music video that really kicked the controversy into high gear. In it, Madonna witnesses a white woman being murdered by a group of white men. When a black man is falsely arrested for the crime, she seeks refuge in a church where she kisses a black saint and dances in front of a field of burning crosses. Clearly designed to get people talking, Madonna got more than she bargained for when several Christian groups including the Vatican called for a global boycott of Pepsi and its subsidiaries. Pope John Paull II even waded into the debate, discouraging Italian fans from supporting the singer (“Like a Prayer” topped the charts there regardless). Within days, Pepsi was forced to drop the ad in a move described as “one of the most expensive advertising blunders ever”. And so despite the song’s success (and the lack of any outright Satanic images), the message was clear: fuck with religion and the establishment will have something to say about it.
Though this reaction may seem ridiculous in retrospect, it’s important to consider the sociocultural context within which “Like a Prayer” was released. This brings us to Satanic Panic – the aptly named wave of conservative hysteria which swept the United States (and later the world) in the 80s and 90s. The phenomenon refers to a series of moral panics over the supposed existence of underground networks of Satanic cults, who were accused of everything from mass child abuse, human ritual sacrifice, and cannibalism. Despite a lack of evidence for any of these claims, so powerful was the panic that ensued that parents began removing their children from daycares, authorities spent millions taking baseless accusations to trial, and vigilantes were even reported to have dug under preschools in search of secret abuse chambers. At the time, police departments swapped tips on how to identify pagan symbols, and reports from the public repeatedly pointed them in the direction of one particular group – heavy metal bands.
Once on the fringes of popular culture, heavy metal bands suddenly found themselves as the faces of Satanic Panic thanks to their heavy sound, dark lyrics, and penchant for horror-inspired imagery. Gene Simmons of Kiss was swiftly accused of having a cow’s tongue. Judas Priest was forced to go to court to defend themselves from accusations of subliminal Satanic messages in their music. And AC/DC were almost taken off the airwaves after a 17-year-old drug dealer and self-proclaimed Satanist murdered his friend in the woods. Why? Because he was wearing an AC/DC t-shirt at the time of his arrest. To pearl-clutching conservatives, this was the smoking gun, and the association between heavy metal and Satanism became codified in the public consciousness. Gospel, in other words. As cases slowly collapsed and common sense prevailed, Satanic Panic eventually began to lose steam, but recent developments suggest it never truly disappeared.
Cut to 2021. American rapper Lil Nas X is riding high off the global success of “Old Town Road”. The world is eagerly awaiting his next move. And then comes “Montero”, the lead single and title track from his debut studio album. Like “Like a Prayer”, the song alone was destined to offend conservatives thanks to its queer themes and sexually explicit lyrics, but it was the music video that truly made him a pariah. And who can blame them? In the clip, Lil Nas X rides a stripper pole down to Hell and gives Satan a lap dance, raising a big fat middle finger to religious groups, right-wing pundits, and politicians alike. It was an audacious move, obviously designed to make noise, and make noise it did. Prominent conservatives came out in droves to condemn the video, claiming it promoted devil worship and endangered children, once again recycling pages from the Satanic Panic playbook. How did Lil Nas X respond? By doubling down, of course.
Shortly after the single’s release, Lil Nas X collaborated with art collective MSCHF to create 666 pairs of Nike Air Max 97 “Satan Shoes”. The shoes featured pentagrams, inverted crosses, and were printed with ink mixed with one drop of human blood. Conservatives predictably lost their minds, with Governor Kristi Noem going as far to declare: “We are in a fight for the soul of our nation.” (Sole, anyone?) Critics called on consumers to boycott the product, but their protestations fell on deaf ears – the $1,018 shoes sold out in under a minute. It seemed Lil Nas X had played conservatives at their own game, flipping the culture-war on its head and letting them do his publicity for him. By embracing his villainy and capitalising on the ensuing storm, Lil Nas X signaled to queer artists everywhere that being a provocateur could be a lucrative gig if you knew how to piss off the right people. Enter: Sam Smith.
For the first 10 years of their career, Sam Smith stayed mostly out of the headlines and let their music do the talking. Then, in September, they released “Unholy”, and a big chunk of their fanbase got the shock of their their lives. The single, featuring trans artist Kim Petras, took over TikTok with its throbbing bassline and sexually charged lyrics, marking a seismic shift in Smith’s sound as well as his public persona. At the Grammys, their performance of the chart-topper featured fire, drag queens, and a pair of devil horns. In a surprise to no one, the right-wing commentariat arrived right on cue. “This… is… evil.” Ted Cruz Tweeted. Political commentator Liz Wheeler echoed his concerns: “Demons are teaching your kids to worship Satan.” U.S. Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene took it one step further, Tweeting: “The Grammys featured Sam Smith’s demonic performance and was sponsored by Pfizer.” The message? Evil forces are working together to brainwash your kids and reduce America to fire and brimstone.
As laughable as these Tweets may seem, it bears repeating that the consequences of Satanic Panic are anything but. Hate crimes against LGBTQ people are on the rise on both sides of the pond, and it doesn’t take a genius to see how online vitriol can spill over into real-world violence. Sam Smith, for one, was recently heckled in New York City by a woman who screamed: “You demonic, sick, twisted bastard!” and “Peadophile!” Indeed, it seems Satanic Panic has reared its ugly head once again, with queer artists now in its crosshairs. This development should surprise no one, really, because prejudice has always been at its heart. Because think about it… Were people really angry about Madonna burning crosses, or did they just not like seeing her kiss a black man? Was Lil Nas X really endangering children, or was a gay lap dance simply one step too far for conservatives? And last but not least, is Sam Smith a demon-worshiping paedophile, or are they simply a non-binary performer trying to exist and make art? Whatever the answer, the response from artists is clear: to hell with it.