Nicki Minaj: Grammys 2012 (video capture)
Nicki Minaj: Grammys 2012 (video capture)

How Pop Music Mainstreams Religious Weirdness

With its devils and aliens, pop music can be a “window on the weird”, sweeping odd material lodged in subcultural pockets into the broader currents of culture.

Pop megastar Lil Nas X seems to have ended his flirtation with the devil, or at least significantly tapered off the devil-branded publicity blitz for his March 2021 song “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)”.

Coming off of his 2019 smash hit “Old Town Road” and its record-breaking 19 weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart, the out singer sought to ensure a continuing career with this personal and mildly cryptic song about a closeted lover, as well as a controversial video that ends with Lil Nas X riding a stripper pole into hell and grinding a harness-clad Satan before offing him and taking his place. Coordinated merchandising most prominently included a limited edition of unauthorized “Satan Shoes” with the number 666 and human blood inside, resulting in a now-settled lawsuit from Nike.

Since then, late May saw him appear as the musical guest closing out the season of Saturday Night Live; seemingly ending this discrete phase of his career, his staging of “Montero” looked backward to the video imagery via flames and a stripper pole, while his overall performance tried to look forward and build professional momentum by emphasizing a newer and less inflammatory single, “Sun Goes Down“.

To take stock of this striking episode, though, what exactly is up with this sudden burst of religiously coded imagery into the pop culture mainstream?

In relation to his video’s specific contents, Lil Nas X has commented that “i spent my entire teenage years hating myself because of the shit y’all preached would happen to me because i was gay.” In other words, by owning going to hell, he uses devil imagery to tweak looming religious homophobia that’s largely tacit throughout the video proper, apart from more explicit moments like the briefly-glimpsed Pentagram around Satan’s throne and its Latin inscription Damnant quod non intellegunt (“They condemn what they don’t understand”).

Rather transparently, too, one can see shock value at play, where transgressive imagery causes buzz and increases circulation of the song and especially its visuals. In both of these ways, it’s not unlike his idol Nicki Minaj’s infamous 2012 Grammy performance, where her gay alter ego Roman Zolanski faced off against an exorcist resembling the late Roman Catholic Pope John Paul II; there too, the artist intended a pro-LGBTQ statement with a flipped script where a demonic queer protagonist claimed the ethical high ground against the real baddies of moralistic Christian authorities.

However interesting it might be to dissect various references or check in on the response of the Church of Satan, though, to linger on the gay and the Satanic actually hinders a fuller assessment of how Lil Nas X’s video relates to religion. Instead, for this purpose, it’s better to move a bit beyond Beelzebub and think through a second set of unusual images from the pop culture mainstream.

Although it’s not widely appreciated, modern pop music has seen a rather surprising number of songs about aliens, and from major artists, too. Think David Bowie’s 1972 “Starman”, the Carpenters’ 1977 novelty cover “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft”, and most recently Katy Perry’s 2010 hit “E.T.

At first glance, the Katy Perry song seems analogously threatening and sex-tinged, albeit without the fig leaf of political consciousness. In tension with her evangelical roots and resultant spiritual and activist-y ethos, the singer channels the lascivious vein of “I Kissed a Girl” and the threesome shoutout in the chorus of “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F.)” (‘We went streaking in the park/ Skinny dipping in the dark/ Then had a ménage à trois/ Last Friday night’). Here, she turns her attention to sexualized alien encounters where, in an unironic cascade of rape-y imagery, she proclaims herself “ready for abduction” and demands that her lover “from a whole ‘nother world” “infect me with your loving” and “fill me with your poison”.

Against the backdrop of the other, earlier pop songs about aliens, however, the historical particularity of Katy Perry’s contribution snaps into focus: during and after the 1980s, research has suggested that aliens were increasingly conceived of as malevolent intruders best known for abductions and even experimentation on humans, and less often viewed as superior and otherworldly benefactors, as they more regularly were during much of the mid-20th century (Lewis 2000, Partridge 2003, Wojcik 2003). As the squeaky clean brother-and-sister duo behind “We’ve Only Just Begun” and “Close to You”, the Carpenters can come off as naïve at best, even amidst their lives’ tragedies; as has been related in Ray Coleman’s The Carpenters: The Untold Story, brother Richard received mockery at their record company for having problems with (just) Quaaludes, while sister Karen ate ice cubes and drank iced tea and gradually succumbed to anorexia, even as she somehow managed to needlepoint for her therapist a wall hanging “You win ~ I gain” (Coleman 1994).

Nevertheless, the naïvete of “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft” stems more from the times than from them, in both its use of the earlier conception of aliens and a certain blind trust in law enforcement. A remake of the Canadian group Klaatu’s tribute to World Contact Day – a day when people gathered en masse to telepathically contact aliens – the song and its trippy video envision mentally reaching outwards in space towards “interstellar policemen” who can come and resolve planetary problems since “our earth may never survive”.

Surprisingly, this innocence is more or less paralleled in and perhaps even exceeded by the otherwise notoriously debauched David Bowie’s lasting 1972 earworm “Starman”; delivered in his famed Ziggy Stardust persona, the rockstar parallels and enacts the song’s titular starman, a counterculture figure who’s “waiting in the sky” and “thinks he’d blow our minds”, not by enlightening all humankind and ending political disputes, but rather by skirting wary parents in order to “let all the children boogie”.

Very importantly, within this rough overall transition in cultural conceptions of aliens from benefactors to predators, discernible within the songs’ references is the crucial issue of various levels of transparency and distance from cultural source material.

On the one hand, there stands material like the alien violations at the center of Katy Perry’s “E.T.” abduction. Unsurprisingly, the tropes there are of a piece with fabled invasive tests, a well-known cultural reference found in places like the very first episode of South Park, “Cartman Gets An Anal Probe”. Also unsurprisingly, tropes such as this were crystallized through major works at the crux of the 1980s transition in the conception of aliens (Lewis 2000, Wojcik 2003).

For example, Whitley Strieber’s influential 1987 bestseller Communion: A True Story details recovered memories of multiple abductions–including “being shown an enormous and extremely ugly object, gray and scaly, with a sort of network of wires on the end… at least a foot long, narrow, and triangular in structure”, which was placed into his rectum and “seemed to swarm into me as if it had a life of its own” (Strieber 1987). Although potentially unknown to the lyricists and audience of Katy Perry’s “E.T.”, this reference point is ‘spitting distance’ from the other strands of influence and largely akin to it in ways that would shock no one.

On the other hand, though, there stands material like the alien savior conception surfacing in the work of the Carpenters and Bowie. Believe it or not, scholars view this idea as emerging through esoteric channeling groups of the late 19th century and beyond who blended disparate religious traditions and thought of contacting “Ascended Masters” for wisdom: primarily, the Theosophy of Helena Blavatsky; the Anthroposophy of Rudolf Steiner that birthed biodynamic farming and Waldorf schools; the I AM movement of Guy Ballard; and Elizabeth Clare Prophet’s Church Universal and Triumphant, which influenced Eragon novelist Christopher Paolini (Lewis 2000, Partridge 2003). Such groups largely see wisdom as embodied in a world-spanning array of august sages like Jesus, the Buddha, and their groups’ own leaders.

Yet, some channelings in some groups have claimed to contact entities residing on other planets, most notably the I AM movement’s claimed interactions with Venusians back in the 1930s, thus helping to crystallize a perspective that became detached from these groups and lodged within broader and less explicitly religious conceptions of extraterrestrials. Within this intellectual genealogy –that is, from Theosophical traditions to UFO culture to the Carpenters and David Bowie–the distance from cultural source material is palpable and it would be surprising if the artists and their audience were aware of it.

Taken all together, both these aliens and the devils of others, what one sees is the potential for pop music to be a “window on the weird” and–to take a sociological twist-help funnel odder material lodged in subcultural pockets out of that dead-end and sweep it into the broader currents of culture. Within the Religious Studies subdiscipline of New Religious Movements (also known as “cults”), a common analytic framework stemming from British sociologist Colin Campbell posits a cultural gestational area of a ‘cultic milieu’, perhaps better called a ‘milieu of oppositional subcultures’; that is, a variegated fringe area distant from the cultural center where, among groups and persons of unconventional persuasion, alternative content is bandied about and considered and combined, with some innovations falling away, but other innovations encountering success and percolating more up into the cultural mainstream (Kaplan and Lööw 2002).

Concretely, examples not only include various shades of New Age belief and practice, but also the far right subcultures most recently evident in the 6 January 2021 armed insurrection of the US Capitol and its mix of Proud Boys, conspiracy theorists, and the Q-Anon Shaman. Although this theory’s originator now wonders whether contemporary pluralism has obliterated any distinction between fringe and center, many scholars still find it intellectually productive–including the question of which paths and forces serve as mechanisms permitting subcultural material to bubble up into the mainstream.

Within this framework, the songs of Lil Nas X and Nicki Minaj happen to have a little synchronic variety–the former’s personal experience with presumably Protestant churches, the latter’s manipulation of standard imagery around Roman Catholic exorcism. So does Katy Perry’s “E.T.”, with its evocation of customary abduction tropes. The alien songs of the Carpenters and David Bowie, however, happen to show a bit more diachronic reach, opening up windows back into fringier religious groups whose ideas of alien saviors got churned up and spit out for hearers, circulating through this very day. Although sex and transgression adhere to some of this material, it is not essentially characteristic, and it is entirely absent from the Carpenters’ novelty song cover, for example.

Rather, sex and transgression are common but not necessarily results of pop commercialism’s constant and more overarching search for something fresh in order to attract the attention of listeners. In such a way, the religious detritus of even fringe groups can surface in transmogrified form, as part of a larger set of cultural entries that includes a potshot at a dead pope and pleasuring a devil tricked out in BDSM gear.

Whether truly edgy or just merely perceived that way, such artistic moments occasionally elevate and help to normalize what is relatively more distant from the cultural mainstream, as well as create little cultural time capsules with bundles of references that open up to understanding when subjected to a careful and informed scrutiny.

The easy thing to say when seeing Lil Nas X’s dalliances with the devil is that it’s merely pop froth–and to some extent that’s right. But within the larger constellation of pop music, such moments can be very important as part of a larger cultural ferment, when stars expose their listeners to and even sell them on experiences of the strange and the devilish. In reaching out for inspiration and marketability, artists occasionally do grasp onto something truly fresh.

Works Cited.

Ray Coleman, The Carpenters: The Untold Story, 1994.

Jeffrey Kaplan and Heléne Lööw (eds.), The Cultic Milieu: Oppositional Subcultures in an Age of Globalization, 2002.

James R. Lewis, UFOs and Popular Culture: An Encyclopedia of Contemporary Myth, 2000.

Christopher Partridge, “Understanding UFO Religions and Abduction Spiritualities”, in UFO Religions (ed. Christopher Partridge), 2003.

Whitley Strieber, Communion: A True Story, 1987.

Daniel Wojcik, “Apocalyptic and Millenarian Aspects of American UFOism”, in UFO Religions (ed. Christopher Partridge), 2003