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Katherine McCabe / Gavel Media

The New Satanic Panic

History, as noted in a fake Mark Twain quote, rarely repeats itself. Yet cultural trends of old can and do find new life decades later, often by design in films and other mass media. But just as aging generations want their childhood reflected in movies and TV, they also fear the rise of new culture: new music, actors, careers, and trends. In the 1980s, this reaction was exemplified by Tipper Gore and the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC) in their crusade against metal and pop music. In 2021, a new generation of cultural reactionaries are targeting Lil Nas X’s new song, “Montero (Call Me By Your Name).” The hysteria around the new song and its related imagery and marketing mirrors the “Satanic Panic” of the 1980s, contributing to a broader culture of paranoia.

To begin, it helps to understand the prior culture war over pop music. Before the Grunge Era of the 1990s and the explosion of rap as a genre of popular music, the 1980s boasted the height of rock and roll decadence with music like Hair Metal. While most older generations have disapproved of newer popular music, the 1980s saw an increase of this tension with the rise of the PMRC. Formed by the wives of powerful Washington figures, the group focused on what they called “porn rock,” songs and artists with sexually explicit or otherwise dangerous content. According to PMRC co-founder and future Second Lady Tipper Gore, the crusade was sparked in part by the Prince song “Darling Nikki.” The song off Prince’s 1984 hit album, "Purple Rain", refers to the title girl “in a hotel lobby masturbating with a magazine.” Gore heard the lyrics after buying "Purple Rain" for her tween daughter and was immediately incensed that unwitting parents might expose their kids to such content.

Using their influence, Gore and the other founders of the PMRC created a list of songs they felt were most dangerous for children called the “Filthy Fifteen.” They also pressed for more regulation of the music industry, including potentially printing the lyrics to every song on an album on the cover. This culminated in a Senate hearing on the regulation of rock music, in which artists John Denver, Frank Zappa, and Dee Snider all testified against the proposed limitations. Their testimony turned the tide on the moral crusades of the PMRC, defending future artists from the strict limitations and rating systems the group proposed.

The PMRC did eventually get some concessions from the music industry, requiring Parental Advisory stickers to be put on albums containing “explicit content.” But this certainly wasn’t enough to stifle the creation of such content. The 1988 Danzig song “Mother,” featured a direct reaction to the PMRC. Also released in 1988 was the album "Straight Outta Compton" by Los Angeles rap group N.W.A. The album predictably received the Parental Advisory label, but that didn’t stop it from becoming the first gangsta rap album to go platinum

An artist who knows a bit about popularity, Lil Nas X is at the center of another musical controversy after the release of his new song, “Montero (Call Me By Your Name).” The song, whose title evokes the 2017 film of the same name, explores Lil Nas X’s sexuality as an openly gay man. Inspired by a man he was involved with last year, Lil Nas X also frames the song as an open letter to his younger self, who never believed he’d publicly come out. 

This lyrical content from a queer artist is already enough to set off reactionary forces. However, the real crux of the current cultural frenzy stems from the song’s music video, which depicts Lil Nas X riding a pole down to Hell and giving Satan a lap dance. This, naturally, set off conservatives and Christians, who took to social media to criticize the video and its artist. To his credit, Lil Nas X has responded in kind, gaining further attention for the song by clapping back at critics like Candace Owens, Kaitlin Bennett, and even Gov. Kristi Noem of South Dakota. 

These reactions decry the imagery in the music video, as well as a collaboration from Lil Nas X and art collective MSCHF for a new shoe containing  references to Satan and the occult, including a bronze pentagram. Use of these occult messages and branding might seem a bit out of the ordinary for Lil Nas X, who rose to fame due to his notably kid-friendly song “Old Town Road.” However, the ensuing paranoia about the impact of this media on kids is nothing new; in fact, it almost perfectly mirrors the Satanic Panic that led to groups like the PMRC in the 1980s. Lil Nas X being gay also fans these flames, since Christians already may have disapproved of him after he came out, only using the music video and shoes as further proof of the artist’s corrupting influence.

Lil Nas X isn’t the only musician fighting against conservative disapproval lately. Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B, whose song “WAP” sparked immediate backlash, are also familiar with navigating conservative disapproval. That criticism rose up after the song’s release, as well as after the artists’ Grammy performance. This again mirrors the 80s PMRC-led paranoia, which was fueled by artists like Madonna and songs like Prince’s “Darling Nikki.” Both of those were targeted for dealing in female sexuality and empowerment, so it is unsurprising that their modern day equivalents are two female rappers who are particularly body and sex positive in their work. 

Rap itself is a male-dominated industry, with artists like N.W.A and Lil Nas X more frequently breaking records than Cardi B or Megan Thee Stallion. Yet when major female rappers deal in the same “vulgar” language as the boys, it becomes a cultural fixation. It’s here that the through-line between the PMRC and modern music criticism is strongest. Was Tipper Gore’s problem really the abundance of sexual imagery in songs, or was it that Prince dared to describe a woman satisfying her own urges? In the same vein, does Ben Shapiro really have a problem with songs that describe sex as a whole, or simply those written and performed by women?

Of course, there are still distinctions between the 1980s moral panic and the current one, since Tipper Gore didn’t have a Twitter profile. Social media has decentralized these moral crusades, allowing naysayers who would ordinarily form groups like the PMRC to simply shout their complaints directly and publicly at artists and “offensive” individuals. In one sense this has been generally a good thing, at the very least because it’s prevented hours of Senate testimony about the lyrics of “WAP.” However, social media has also made the cultural paranoia of the 1980s more easily stoked and omnipresent than it ever was before.

Nowhere is this more clear than in the controversy surrounding an Airbnb from September 2020. After arriving with his family at a secluded cabin in Upstate New York for a staycation, writer Frederick Joseph was shocked to find what he described as perverse decorations. In a Twitter thread, Joseph documented all of these insidious artifacts, like pictures of topless women and a small statue of Satanic god Baphomet. Other commenters chimed in too, heightening the paranoia with more baseless claims, including that a bathtub outside was used for bloodletting and cleaning up after grisly acts.

These ideas were all, unsurprisingly, false. The homeowner, who is not a Satanist of any kind, discovered that the eclectic decorations he tried to conceal suddenly had him accused of serious crimes and perversions. Joseph took to the court of public opinion with his theories rather than contacting the Airbnb host himself. In doing so, he sparked a social media frenzy that jumped from a few questionable decorations to a crusade against the macabre in mere minutes. 

Such conspiratorial logic frequently goes viral on social media, leading to instances like TikTok users accusing Wayfair as being a front for human trafficking, or saying the 2019 movie "Joker" might inspire acts of mass violence. These and many more instances have contributed to a generally paranoid American culture, where hidden meanings are expected and weaponized content could be around every corner. While there is some logic to this mindset, given how truly horrifying big corporations can be, it also finds evil plots that were never hatched. By doing so, proponents of these theories channel public energy towards dead ends rather than making in-roads to upend the powerful

Once again, this phenomenon echoes the moral panics of the 1970s and 80s. Movies like "The Exorcist" brought the idea of demonic possession into the mainstream, while real-life examples like the Manson cult murders heightened fears of evil conspiracies hiding in plain sight. This led to concerned parents forbidding games like "Ouija" or "Dungeons and Dragons", as well as a string of accusations that children were being abused by Satanists in daycares. This is the root of the “Satanic Panic” as we know it, a frenzy that ultimately resulted in dozens of teachers and parents wrongfully imprisoned for child abuse.

The parallels between this past frenzy and the present one are clear, even though modern crises aren’t given the same mainstream attention as the Satanic Ritual Abuse scandal was. A present cultural fascination with true crime and even the same serial killers that gripped the public attention in the 70s and 80s certainly contributes to broader fears of murder and the occult. Movies like "Joker" or "Hereditary" further stoke these fears, using dangerous figures and occult influences the same way "Taxi Driver" and "The Exorcist" did decades ago. In fact, one of Frederick Joseph’s reasons for leaving his Airbnb was because it, “Looks like a scene from Hereditary.” Modern fears about child trafficking by large corporations also mirror the fears of daycare workers performing ritual sacrifice, except no Wayfair executive faced prison time for these baseless claims. 

The previous Satanic Panic was fueled by broader socioeconomic changes. As more women entered the workforce, they began leaving children at daycares that were primarily staffed by other women and in some cases gay men. It is difficult to pinpoint where exactly the present craze is coming from, however there are a few general trends that might be contributing to it. The pandemic has cooped Americans up for over a year, leading to social isolation and a higher potential to enter a social media echo chamber. Also, real-life conspiracies like the Jeffrey Epstein case prove that there are dark forces at work in America. Such a climate isn’t new, since the era of the previous moral panic was also concurrent with scandals like Watergate and Iran-Contra. 

There are also broader social changes occurring in recent years that fuel conservative reaction, as LGBTQ rights advance and the public calls for more progressive policies and representation. Modern conspiracies have coincided with the ascendance of Trumpism in American politics, just like how previous ones intersected with the Reagan Revolution. Conservatives still have a strong hold on American politics in 2021, leaving many liberals to turn to culture as their battleground for supremacy. Further, the fact that popular culture is resistant to conservative regression stokes anger and reaction from the Right, intensifying the public debate about media and values. Not to mention, there’s currently a historic disparity between a booming economy and pervasive economic inequality. This is rooted in Reaganism, making the economic landscape of 2021 look similar to, if not worse than, the economy of the 1980s.

Ultimately, there are many parallels between the social, cultural, and political issues of 2021 and those of the 1970s and 80s. As a result, the same cultural criticisms that ran wild back then are re-emerging today. In order to combat this, people like Lil Nas X and Megan Thee Stallion must distinguish between music and behavior in the same way that artists like Dee Snider or Ozzy Osbourne did when accused of corrupting the youth. Further, addressing the underlying ails of American society is the only way to fully extinguish these fears. Chief among these is the isolation of the pandemic and the resulting hyper-fixations of social media. While Americans continue to open themselves up to progressive ideas and culture in the 21st Century, they must also guard themselves from letting past trends drag them back into the Dark Age.