Lil Nas X, a 21-year-old musical artist first famous for his rap/country hit Old Town Road, has ruffled quite a few feathers with the release of the video for his new single Montero: Call Me By Your Name. He’s long been a controversial online figure, due in part to his charming and frenetic social media presence and the homophobic attacks he has received since proudly and publicly announcing that he is gay, has been gay, and will remain gay until the world stops spinning. Absurd conspiracy theories have followed him – from claims that he is brainwashing kids into queerness to his potential ties to the ever-present Illuminati.
Lil Nas X has embraced the hate and conspiracy with his latest song and the accompanying video, which satirically doubles down on the idea that his sexual orientation will send him to hell by visually traveling there himself, lap-dancing for the devil, and usurping him as the king of the underworld. This, along with his limited release of custom Satanic-themed sneakers made with a trace amount of human blood, has brought a furor of condemnation and fresh conspiracy theories that Lil Nas X worships the devil, is trying to brainwash children, and/or has ties to secretive and sinister organizations.
This use of satanic images, and the attacks on the artist flaunting them, is nothing new. It is part of a long history of misdirected moral outrage in the United States, one that blames artists for the social ills of society while ignoring the real reasons young people turn away from religion or act outside of the confines of the dominant culture. The controversy also shows a lack of understanding of the origins of the hodgepodge character of Satan and the imagery that has become associated with the fallen angel.
If the story of a potentially Satan-worshipping artist leading the youth astray sounds familiar, it’s because this tune has been played to death. From the bat-biting Ozzy Osbourne to the cryptically named Memphis rap group Three Six Mafia, parents have railed and rallied against innumerable artists over the last few decades. The “satanic panic” has been around for centuries and Christian accusations of devil-worshipping have historically been leveled against women, Jewish people, and other religious groups. Aja Romano, a culture writer at Vox, discussed its modern incarnation in a recent article:
Modern evangelical Christianity is largely influenced by the kind of epic Christian fantasy that emerged during the 1980s when writers like Frank Peretti turned the concept of “spiritual warfare” into, ironically, a kind of Dungeons and Dragons-like role play that saw good Christians quite literally fighting and defeating actual demons … that version of Christianity spread like wildfire across the country.
Overzealous Christians would demonize everything from the aforementioned tabletop game to heavy metal lyricists whose satanic instructions could purportedly be heard by playing their music backwards. This led to the “ritual abuse scare” that started in the 1980s and still lingers today, a pre-QAnon conspiracy theory which held that daycare teachers around the country were sexually abusing children as part of a massive satanic cult. Mary de Young, a sociology professor, recently explained an underlying cause of the panic to the New York Times:
More women were going to work, by choice and necessity in the wake of the women’s rights movement and as the country struggled with a recession. Conservatism and the religious right were ascendant, and both emphasized the nuclear family. Good daycare was hard to find … and many parents felt guilt for relying on it.
After numerous lives were ruined, the panic turned out to have little evidence behind it. Artists like Marilyn Manson deliberately played on parents’ fears and adopted the cult-like images that threatened them. Like many of the artists who came before him, Lil Nas X is sporting the satanic aesthetic as a means to court controversy, and to deliver a message about the hellishness of contemporary life and its arbitrary yet harmful social restrictions.
The modern understanding of Satan has at least partially been driven by artists like Lil Nas X and Hollywood producers seeking to scare and titillate audiences. The Old Testament itself doesn’t exactly contain the full character of Satan as we know him today; it was later assembled over the years, partially borrowed from the religion of the also monotheistic Zoroastrians. The New Testament introduced Satan more formally, often used as a character to explain away the ills of the world like disease and struggles with mental health; it was also weaponized against Jewish people, with claims that they did the work of the devil. According to Rebecca I Denova, a scholar who studies early Christianity, the image of Satan was later crafted, drawing from the horned Greek deity Pan, and retroactively given shape-shifting powers so that he could take the role of the deceitful serpent who tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden – a relationship that would be used to blame women for various social problems and the fall of man.
Much of the other imagery we associate with Satan is fairly modern. For example, the image of Baphomet, the goat-headed man, in an inverted Pentagram has origins in the 1897 work of the occult author Stanislas de Guaita. These images were then purposely adopted by the Church of Satan in the 1960s, and the Satanic Temple in 2012, two groups that don’t actually believe in the existence of Satan but use the image to generate controversy. The Church of Satan is mainly concerned with issues concerning freedom of religion and spends more time lobbying than worshipping the devil. Much like artists like Lil Nas X, they courted the imagery because they knew it would draw attention.
If anything, Christian churches themselves are doing a great job at pushing people away from the pews. In a 2019 survey of young people who stopped going to church, conducted by Lifeway research – a Christian research organization – 73% of all respondents listed the church or their pastor as a reason they stopped attending, including specific reasons like political differences and hypocrisy. While there are many progressive religious organizations in the United States, some of the largest religious institutions have a history of protecting sexual predators, and condemning people for whom they love – while some denominations, including many composed of white evangelicals, have essentially become far-right political factions.
Despite all this, the kids are for the most part still living the dreams of many a Christian parent. Gen Z is relatively more “moral” on paper than most previous generations. Members of Gen Z have less sex, and the rate of teen pregnancies has plummeted. They are less likely to use drugs than their predecessors and have turned away from the American pastime of binge drinking. They are more likely to see themselves as activists and more likely to believe that racism is real. While many of these behaviors are ethically neutral and more about the social conditions driving them to prioritize survival above all else, it speaks to the fact that young Americans are not becoming the Satan-worshiping sex addicts that people fear that artists like Lil Nas X will turn them into. They are in fact a generation preparing themselves to face the existential threats of climate change, capitalist overconsumption, and growing pollution-induced infertility. Let them be gay, let them be free, let them have their music.