Lil Nas X Isn’t the First Pop Star to Spark a Satanic Panic

From the Beatles and KISS to Nicki Minaj and Billie Eilish, reactionaries have been freaking out about the devil in pop culture for decades.
Chicago, US
Lil Nas X in the "Montero (Call Me By Your Name)" video. 

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. 


While this whole outrage cycle seems especially silly in 2021 given that there are much bigger fish to fry instead of fictional devils in horny music videos, satanic panics about popular music are not new at all. In fact, these dust-ups go further back than the early 20th century legend that blues Robert Johnson allegedly sold his soul to the devil at a Mississippi Delta crossroads. The Roman Catholic Church banned the use of tritones or "the devil's interval" in church music in the middle ages and in 1903 even officially banned saxophones. The early years of jazz found the genre dubbed "the devil's music" and several prominent figures tried to censor its performers. 

Satan is everywhere but not in the scary way your youth pastor thinks. You're way more likely to laugh at a funny commercial showing Satan finding true love with an anthropomorphic 2020 than you are getting eternal damnation because of your listening habits.  The pearl-clutching over Lil Nas X is really nothing new, with conservative ire typically saved for metal acts directed at everyone from Madonna to Billie Eilish. There's a recent precedent dating back to the Beatles for these parents, squares, and conservative pundits finding outrage in some of mainstream pop music's antics and excesses. (We won’t be covering most Satan-adjacent controversies in metal because this piece would become too long to read, but trust us there’s a hell’s worth of satanic panic in the history of that genre).


The Beatles Were "More Popular than Jesus"

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. 


KISS's Blood-printed Marvel Comic 

kiss marvel comic.jpeg

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. 

The 1985 Parents Music Resource Center Congressional Hearings  

The 1980s were bizarre for a lot of reasons but one of them is Tipper Gore's puritanical campaign against explicit lyrics in popular music through her Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC). The organization released an arbitrary and bizarre Filthy Fifteen list, which ordered songs they claimed were the worst offenders (Bands Venom and Mercyful Fate were listed for "occult" themes in their music). The PMRC's activism led to ridiculous congressional hearings and the "Explicit Content" warnings that eventually landed on every CD case to warn parents of what their kids are listening to. 


Madonna's "Like a Prayer" video 

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. 

Red Hot Chili Peppers Thank Satan at MTV Awards 

If you play a word association game about the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the most common things you'll come up with are "funk-rock," "California," "socks," or "Flea." But if you're one of the handful of evangelical Christians who still protest their concerts, you'll think Satan when you think of the Anthony Kiedis-led band. At the 1992 MTV Awards, Anthony Kiedis kicked off his acceptance speech joking, "First of all, I'd like to thank Satan." Evangelical groups still have not gotten the joke. In his 2004 memoir Scar Tissue, Kiedis wrote,”I had to write Granny a postcard on her eightieth birthday, explaining that I wasn’t really a Satanist.”


Nicki Minaj's Grammys Exorcism 

When Nicki Minaj reenacted the exorcism of Emily Rose for her 2012 Grammys performance of her hit song "Roman Holiday," it didn't thrill Cahtolic advocacy groups. “Whether Minaj is possessed is surely an open question, but what is not in doubt is the irresponsibility of The Recording Academy,” wrote Bill Donohue, perpetual outrage machine and Catholic League president after the performance. “Never would they allow an artist to insult Judaism or Islam.” Fox News later ran a piece earnestly titled  "Pop artists turning to Satanic imagery to drum up controversy, sales, experts say." 

Lady Gaga Being Lady Gaga 

On Nov. 3, 2020, USA Today ran a story titled "Fact check: There is no evidence to support claims that Lady Gaga is a witch" combating misinformation from your most deranged aunt's Facebook feed. The details of these bonkers claims aren't important but the most zealous and chronically-wrong corners of the internet have been leveling accusations of Satanism and ritualistic child abuse ever seen the pop star wore a meat dress in 2010. Her relatively tame 2017 Super Bowl halftime show even garnered similar critiques from right-wing figures. In 2011, she also angered Christians when she dressed as Mary Magdalene in the video for "Judas." She told E!, “The only controversial thing about this video is that I’m wearing Christian Lacroix and Chanel in the same frame.” 

Billie Eilish, "all the good girls go to hell.”

Billie Eilish's video for her song "all the good girls go to hell" depict the then-17-year-old pop star as a fallen angel with lyrics like, "Peter’s on vacation, an open invitation" and “even God herself … will want the Devil on her team.” It's honestly pretty tame but that didn't stop a wave of pearl clutching blog posts like Everyday Christian Parents' "Why I tell my kids to avoid listening to Billie Eilish songs." In the blog, the author claims his very real teenage daughter burst into tears listening to her music, saying, "Dad, you should watch her video, she’s evil, she’s demonic, she even mocked Jesus, I don’t like her anymore.” The controversy was negligible enough that the Guardian ran a piece that settled it once and for all: "Is Billie Eilish a devil worshipper? Hell, no."