When the British singer-songwriter Sam Smith performed the lusty EDM hit “Unholy” with the German pop star Kim Petras at the 2023 Grammy Awards in February, few could have predicted that the mildly risqué performance would incite allegations of Satanism. The appearance, which featured Smith emerging from flames wearing a devil-horned top hat and flanked by dancers clad in red, quickly caught the attention of US alt-right media personalities, who began sharing clips and screengrabs of the performance with the consistent messaging that it was “Satanic”. Two months later, the Daily Mail published a news item criticising Smith’s UK arena tour, which features a similar routine with the same costumes, also dubbing it “Satanic”.
“Satanism is the worship of the self,” said the US conservative pundit Matt Walsh following the Grammy Awards performance. “Much of modern pop music is satanic in this sense. Leftism is satanism. The only change is that now they’re being more explicit about it.” The hard-right congresswoman and conspiracy theorist Marjorie Taylor Greene joined the dots between the performance and unfounded allegations of Satanic rituals involved in abortion care. This quickly turned into street abuse for Smith, who was harassed while walking in Central Park, New York by a woman claiming that Smith was “demonic” and a “paedophile”.
Is Smith operating at pop’s demonic edge? Not really. The 30-year-old’s arc has been a journey from lovelorn mid-tempo balladry to the gently subversive maximalist pop of this year’s album Gloria. This is reflective of wider transformations in Smith’s private life that may give you a clue as to why there is so much alt-right attention. In 2019, Smith came out as non-binary and uses they/them pronouns. Kim Petras, the buzzy cult pop artist with whom Smith duetted at the Grammy performance that night, became the first openly transgender woman to win a Grammy Award in the half-century since the electronic music pioneer Wendy Carlos won three for her Switched-On Bach album. The conservative moral panic around pop music, sexuality and satanism has a long history.
For as long as popular music has existed, there have been those who have looked into its glittering mirror balls and seen the devil reflected back at them. In New Orleans, basements and nightclubs as the first scions of jazz emerged, parents’ groups and clerics branded these developments “the devil’s music”. It stuck. “Jazz was originally the accompaniment of the voodoo dance, stimulating half-crazed barbarians to the vilest of deeds,” proclaimed the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, a powerful alliance of women’s social and reform groups that launched a crusade against this radical new music, while the Atlantic claimed that the influence of jazz was “vastly more calamitous than was the material havoc wrought by the [First] World War”.
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Though rock’n’roll flirted with Luciferian imagery in the 1960s – particularly as the occult figure of Aleister Crowley bled into the work of acts like Led Zeppelin and David Bowie – it would take until the 1980s for a genuine moral panic over rock’s Satanic potential.
The Satanic panic defined Reagan’s America: thousands of baseless allegations of ritual Satanic abuse were levelled at pre-schools and daycare centres through the 1980s. At the height of the outrage, the Parents Music Resource Center – the action group responsible for the parental advisory stickers on CDs and vinyl records to this day – issued the “Filthy Fifteen”, a list of songs that posed a threat to American values.
Two songs – Mercyful Fate’s “Into the Coven” and Venom’s “Possessed” – were included as incitements to occultism. In 1990, the UK heavy-metal group Judas Priest were ruled not liable for the deaths of two young men who had killed themselves after listening to the band’s album Stained Class. The men’s parents had sued the band and CBS Records for more than $6m in damages over claims that messages such as “try suicide” and “let’s be dead” had been subliminally hidden into their cover of Spooky Tooth’s “Better by You, Better than Me”.
In the 21st century, accusations around Satanism have moved almost exclusively to queer artists. In both 2012 and 2017, Lady Gaga has been subjected to allegations of Satanism, most prominently by the disgraced far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones characterising her 2017 Super Bowl performance as a Satanic ritual. The 2021 video for Lil Nas X’s “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” featured a figure sliding down a pole to hell and giving Satan a lap dance, which was met by remarkably similar condemnation. The governor of South Dakota, Kristi Noem, suggested that the US rapper was endangering “the God-given eternal souls” of American children, while the conservative author and vaccine-sceptic Candace Owens argued Lil Nas X was “destroying our youth”.
The QAnon conspiracy theory, which has accelerated in prominence during the past five years, has revived the Satanic panic. Conspiracy theories around “blood rituals” are at their most mainstream since the 1980s – instead of suburban daycare centres, the focus has shifted to a breathless fixation on Hollywood elites engaged in public Satanic rituals. It is this, and right-wing push-back against LGBT+ rights, that fuels hysterical accusations of Satanism.
British newspapers should be careful about contributing to a long and discredited history of reactionary conspiracy. In looking for Satan in Sam Smith, they are villainising an uncontroversial, almost boringly mainstream pop star, and rendering their agenda shamelessly transparent.