On Feb. 6, 2023, certain corners of the internet could not stop talking about Sam Smith and Kim Petras. The night prior (Sunday, Feb. 5), the pair took home a Grammy Award for best pop duo/group performance, marking the first-ever victories for a non-binary or transgender artist in the category, respectively.
That historic victory, however, was not the main topic of discussion online. The next few days of Twitter discourse were instead fueled by puritanical accusations of “Satanic” imagery from their performance of “Unholy” at the ceremony. Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Marjorie Taylor-Greene called it “evil” and “demonic“; the FCC received over a dozen complaints regarding the performance’s hellish imagery; even the actual Church of Satan felt obliged to weigh in. The rumblings of a “culture war” from far-right political pundits grew to a deafening cadence.
This particular brand of outrage felt eerily familiar for writer and editor Paul Corupe. “You saw a lot of this same stuff in the ’80s,” he tells Billboard. “Everyone kind of distanced themselves from all of that for a while, and it seemed like we culturally agreed that this was a stupid concern in the first place. But in the last three or four years, these concerns have risen up again.”
Corupe, who co-edited the 2016 book Satanic Panic: Pop Cultural Paranoia in the 1980s, is far from the only one to take notice of this trend in our current cultural discourse; over the last few years, as claims of Satanic conspiracies within pop culture continue to earn renewed relevancy, many have noted the similarities to the infamous Satanic Panic of the 1980s. What many thought to be an antiquated witch hunt now dominated internet discussions, especially when it comes to LGBTQ artists.
GLAAD president and CEO Sarah Kate Ellis tells Billboard that this ages-old backlash to queer artists is not only unsurprising — it’s expected. “LGBTQ people are not aligning with Satan, we are people of faith and anyone who uses some stage costumes or a music video to make generalizations about LGBTQ people is falling into outdated and debunked fear tactics that are rooted in inaccuracies and anti-LGBTQ animus,” she says.
Dr. Joseph Uscinski, a professor at the University of Miami who studies conspiracy theories and their proliferation, agrees with Ellis; as queer and trans people become a political topic, outrageous accusations follow. “The beliefs [of the Satanic Panic] never went away, they just weren’t salient anymore to the national conversation,” he explains. “It feels like it’s coming out of nowhere today, but it’s largely being driven by politicians, pastors and pundits.”
Back in the late ’60s and ’70s, there was a growing fascination in the supernatural — horror films like Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist and Suspiria were gaining mainstream popularity, while tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons had grown dedicated followings. With the rise of interest also came concern. “By the time the ’80s came around, more parents were having to both work, leaving kids home alone. There came this parental anxiety about, ‘What are my kids doing, what pop culture are they absorbing when I’m not around?'” Corupe says.
“Experts” began to weigh in, claiming that Satanism is pop culture was poisoning kids’ minds — the since-discredited tell-all Michelle Remembers promoted the use of “recovered-memory therapy” to unmask a vast network of ritualistic abuse pervading modern society. By the mid-’80s, the Satanic Panic was in full effect.
One of the most famous targets of the ongoing conspiracy of the ’80s was metal music — artists like Black Sabbath, Mötley Crüe, Ozzy Osbourne and many others were accused of promoting devil-worship, drug use and even violent crime to the many young people listening. Corupe argues that outrage only drove more teens to listen. “It was huge wigs, makeup, vaguely Satanic symbols … it was all about rebellion, right?” he says. “It was a big shift for people who were already primed to think that these kinds of things were exposing children to ideas that they might otherwise not have, and therefore might make them turn to Satanism.”
The most-cited example of that “big shift” was the creation of the Parents Music Resource Center (or PMRC) by Tipper Gore and the other “Washington Wives,” in an attempt to crack down on vulgar content in music. Creating their list of the famous “Filthy Fifteen” and conducting one of the wildest Senate hearings in the chamber’s history, the PMRC managed to convince the RIAA to create the now-famous “Parental Advisory” label.
Both Uscinski and Corupe agree that, while there was much fanfare and outrage at the time, the PMRC’s greater cultural impact was minimal. “Are Gen-Xers worse off because of what they listened to in the ’80s? No,” Uscinski says. “There’s no evidence whatsoever for that.”
When he looks back at the Filthy Fifteen, Corupe can’t help but notice a troubling similarity to the artists being lambasted today. “A lot of those artists were playing around with gender and sexuality, even if it was just in their image,” he says. “That’s precisely what Prince was doing at the time. All of these glam metal bands were wearing makeup and sometimes wearing dresses. There was definitely a connection there, I think, between non-typical gender representation and the way that those bands were targeted.”
As time wore on and more substantial evidence finally began to dismantle the baseless paranoia of the age, the Satanic Panic subsided in the mid-’90s. In researching for his book, Corupe says he couldn’t help but find the whole situation laughable. “It just seems totally ridiculous in hindsight. All of these people, these ‘experts’ who came forward with claims about Satanism, were exposed as frauds.” And yet, he can’t deny that the mentality has returned nonetheless. “It’s back, and it’s more overtly politically charged this time.”
Two decades after the “end” of the Satanic panic, conspiracy theories like Pizzagate and QAnon took shape online, once again asserting that the world was run by a cabal of cannibalistic, Satanic child abusers. While many theorize that these conspiracies would go on to warp unsuspecting minds, Dr. Uscinski’s research shows it’s really the opposite that’s true.
“Pizzagate and QAnon are both outcomes from the same thing driving all of this — what QAnon and Pizzagate did was take advantage of beliefs that were already widely held and package them in a way that made sense to people following it,” he explains. “A lot of the people who have bought into QAnon and who think there are Satanic sacrifices happening in pizza shops, they probably thought things similar to that prior.”
The data backs up Dr. Uscinski’s assertion — in his polling conducted for the London School of Economics’ USAPP, Uscinski found that 25% of Americans polled thought that Satanic ritual abuse was widespread across America; 33% said that members of Satanic cults were regularly abusing thousands of children every year; 28% said that there was a “secret gay agenda” to convert children to gay or trans lifestyles.
While ideas of Satanic abuse and queerness may seem entirely separate, Dr. Uscinski points out the conspiratorial through-line — the false narrative of queer and trans-identifying people as “groomers.” “The rhetoric coming from the top down is very Manichean in nature, in the sense that it’s saying, ‘These people are evil,'” he says. “It’s clearly calling out very specific groups in society, especially the LGBTQ+ community.”
This wave of fear and paranoia, naturally, began showing up in LGBTQ pop culture. When Lil Nas X unveiled his music video for “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” in 2021 — depicting himself pole-dancing down into hell and giving Satan a lap-dance — right-wing outrage was deafening. When Demi Lovato unveiled the bondage-meets-crucifixion album art for Holy Fvck in 2022, evangelicals were horrified enough to get the Great Britain’s Advertising Standard Authority to ban posters bearing the image in the U.K.
The most common refrain in these discussions of controversial queer art comes directly from the paranoia of the ’80s — parents claiming that they don’t want their children to be “turned” or influenced negatively by Satanic, sexually-explicit imagery.
Ellis, for one, rejects that narrative from “concerned parents” entirely. “Trying to censor or degrade out music artists is not about parents or the safety of children. It’s a tactic that anti-LGBTQ activists know builds support for their views by playing on the worst anxieties of parents,” she says. “Their goal, it seems, is to turn parents against each other and make music, classrooms, and other cultural institutions a battleground so they can further their anti-LGBTQ animus.”
Now, with Smith and Petras becoming the latest targets of the bolstered Satanic Panic, it’s become clear that our political reality — in which a record-breaking number of anti-LGBTQ bills have already been introduced around the country in 2023 — is bleeding into the music world.
“There does seem to be this correlation in people’s minds between using music as a gateway to Satanism and a gateway to ‘alternative’ sexuality,” Corupe says, exasperated. “I’ve seen the videos, and the performance at the Grammys, and it’s just theatrical expression of rebellion. It’s been in pop music for 100 years — if you want to talk about songs about the devil, go back to the blues in the ’30s. To think that this is something different or insidious is just wrong.”
While Ellis urges social media users to “report content that maligns our community” as a means of slowing misinformation, Dr. Uscinski says there is no simple “solution” that will “end” our current Satanic Panic. But he’s also quick to point out that this kind of reaction to what’s popular has persisted throughout most of history.
“Whether it was Elvis, or Ozzy and Judas Priest, or now Lil Nas X, this has always been the reaction to popular culture — that the ‘new culture’ is always dangerous. Pop culture makes for an easy punching bag, specifically for politicians and pundits, but ultimately, in order for popular culture to be popular, there needs to be some edge to it. Otherwise, it’s just more of the same stuff being repeated.”
But Corupe points out that ultimately, queer artists are not the ones who will ultimately have to suffer the consequences of this paranoia — as shootings, fire-bombings and armed protests all continue to occur at the expense of the LGBTQ community, Corupe knows from historical precedent that the true victims of the raging “culture war” are the non-famous members of the community being targeted.
“The artists in the ’80s emerged from this basically unscathed. The people who really got affected by this were the kids who were forced to get up on the witness stand and say ‘Iron Maiden made me do it,’ or kids who were wearing heavy metal jackets got targeted by bullies, or daycare workers who were falsely accused of abusing kids,” he says. “It isn’t the celebrities who are going to end up hurt here, it’s the regular people.”