The rise of the blasphemy bop
As religion's role in politics continues to increase, pop music has got more and more sacrilegious.
Since the 70s, impious lyrics and provocatively anti-religious imagery have been dropped into pop music and music videos of artists unafraid of the wrath of the church. Be it John Lennon imagining a world with no religion, Madonna's stigmata and burning crucifixes in her "Like A Prayer" video, Kanye announcing he is a god, Lady Gaga's love letter to Judas or Lil Nas X lap dancing on Satan, pop stars have dabbled in the sub-genre of, what we're calling, the blasphemy bop — to both grapple with concepts of shame and sin, whilst also courting controversy. Who can forget Nicki Minaj being exorcised during her performance of chaos anthem "Roman Holiday" during the 2012 Grammys too? In turn, religious leaders and organisations and right-wing politicians have come out in righteous indignation, criticising the blasphemy bop for its usurping of people's sacredly-held beliefs.
Most recent to explore blasphemy is UK pop icon Rina Sawayama, whose lead single, "This Hell", from her upcoming second album, shades anti-LGBTQ+ religious groups and those who try to shame queer people and women for their sexuality. "God hates us? Alright then. Buckle up, at dawn, we're riding," she sings with demonic eyes in the song's music video before getting married as part of a throuple in the presence of a priest.
"It's an important song for me given the human rights that are being taken away from minorities at a rapid rate in the name of traditional religious beliefs," Rina said in a statement. "More specifically I was thinking about the rights being taken away from the LGBTQ community when I wrote this song." In the weeks prior to the song's release, the UK government did a U-turn on their oft-delayed commitment to banning conversion therapy by excluding trans people, while Florida signed into law what has been dubbed the "Don't Say Gay" bill, aimed at restricting discussions of sexuality and gender identity in schools. Since, Texas has planned legislation to ban children from drag queens and the Supreme Court overturned Roe V. Wade, with some of the judges citing their religious beliefs as their reason for making a right to abortion no longer the law of the land.
Thus, as right-wing evangelicalism's chokehold on UK and US politics — and resultantly our very being — seems to be growing at a scarily fast rate, it seems more and more artists are ready to put a middle finger up to religion in their music and visuals. In "Good Ones", Charli XCX, dancing in a bikini at her funeral, seductively crawls along her casket as ushers hold burning bibles around her. In "Beg For You", also featuring Rina Sawayama, a Jesus-like cult figure welcomes the two pop girlies into his satanic circle. In "Used To Know Me", Charli wears black cut-out lingerie and a nun's habit, kneeling in prayer in front of an altar covered in votive candles and a luminescent cross. Just as iconically brash in their sexually-charged blasphemy is Demi Lovato, whose upcoming album, Holy Fvck – meant to be their most personal album yet – has them tied up in leather bondage in the cover art, lying in wait on a crucifix-shaped mattress awaiting their dom.
Christian shame and the problems with organised religion are explored in depth in the recent acclaimed conceptual epic Preacher's Daughter from Ethel Cain. The album tells the story of an all-American girl who runs away from her family and the cultish Christianity they're deeply entwined in before she meets her end in the freezer of a cannibal. Songs like "Family Tree (intro)" and "Ptolemaea" feature the sound of a southern pastor, whilst "Televangelism" explores the artificiality of religion in the American South, and "Sun Bleached Flies" speaks to accepting God's rejection. Ethel herself grew up with a pastor as a father before being ostracised when she came out as queer and later transgender.
There is, of course, an element of seduction in angering the church by bastardising centuries-old doctrines and iconography. The shock value of a blasphemy bop no doubt helps play into the artist's marketability as cool, even punk. It's that which the church has often used to dismiss the songs. Both Madonna and Lady Gaga are two artists very familiar with outrage at the blasphemy in their work, with the former being accused of "open hostility" by the Vatican when she crucified herself on stage in Rome in 2006. Gaga was later called "a Madonna copy-cat" without "the looks or the talent of her role model" by the Catholic League for her "Alejandro" music video in which she dressed as a nun and deepthroated rosary beads.
Even famously rebellious priest's daughter Katy Perry subtly called Gaga out on Twitter, arguing that "using blasphemy as entertainment is as cheap as a comedian telling fart jokes." Then again, who could forget this headline from 2019: "Every twist and turn in Katy Perry's bitter legal battle with nuns over her purchase of their former convent?".
This criticism is also often used to pivot the conversation away from the actual issues facing the church and society. When Ariana Grande released "God Is a Woman" in 2018, religious folk were quick to criticise the lyrics due to their belief that the divine is neither male nor female, but instead ascends concepts of gender (God said non-binary rights!). But if that's the case, then why were they not as offended by the continued use of he/him pronouns for God as Ariana using she/her? Similarly, when Lil Nas X faced a barrage of attacks online for his music video for "Montero (Call Me By Your Name)", which he admitted was having an emotional toll on him, he said: "There is a mass shooting every week that our government does nothing to stop. Me sliding down a CGI pole isn't what's destroying society."
The irony of the blasphemy bop, though, is that while they may be on the surface angry, disobedient and heretical, at their very core, they're usually rooted in love, compassion and community, more so than most pop songs. In fact, these songs are very rarely about faith and belief in a higher power at all; they're specifically about concepts of morality being imposed on one another by other humans through the guise of religion. And in unapologetically airing these frustrations that many feel, these songs speak to people on a spiritual level and are part of the reason artists like Madonna, Lady Gaga and Lil Nas X are often credited with helping those from minority communities learn to accept themselves and heal in a world that is often against them.
The controversy of the title track has made many forget that the Like A Prayer album is one of Madonna's most personal, with songs about her relationship with her father, domestic abuse and the loss of friends in the AIDS crisis. "She bared her navel on the album's cover, and her soul in its songs," Nick Levine wrote for Vice for the album's 30th anniversary. The record came with a fact sheet about AIDS at a time when the government was doing little to help the LGBTQ+ community facing an epidemic.
Similarly, Lady Gaga has stated that "Judas", a song about being unable to leave behind what she knows is wrong for her, was not meant to be viewed as an attack on Christianity. "I don't view the video as a religious statement. I view it as a social statement. I view it as a cultural statement. It's a metaphor," she told E!. "The only controversial thing about this video is that I'm wearing Christian Lacroix and Chanel in the same frame." Meanwhile, Lil Nas X has said that the "Montero (Call Me By Your Name)" music video was mainly to honour his younger self and other queer people: "I know we promised to never be 'that' type of gay person. I know we promised to die with the secret, but this will open doors for many other queer people to simply exist," the singer posted on Instagram.
But while previously the blasphemy bop was a way for these artists to speak for both themselves and those feeling oppressed by religious morality, TikTok has allowed for those listening to speak back, share their own stories and find a supportive community. That's the case with Peach PRC, whose song, "God Is a Freak", calls out the "fucked-up priorities" of a higher power who is apparently focused on "hating the way he creates" or watching us "get railed on a couch" rather than many other issues in the world. The sound has now been used in over 10.5k videos on TikTok as a way for users to express the weird ways religion has been used to shame, limit or patronise them, or alternatively, share affirming things that have happened in their lives, such as seeing nonbinary-inclusive signs in public or finding queer books. The comments under these videos are also largely supportive, reveling in the absurdity of the shaming they've faced and showing love towards the creator.
There's a hypocrisy in the criticism directed at the blasphemy bop. The pop stars are accused of appropriating sacred Christian beliefs and religious imagery for shock value, but as religion's influence in politics increases, the morals and ideologies of a few are being held against us all, whether we choose them for ourselves or not. In reality, these songs, considered the result of an immoral, Godless society, become a vehicle of love and community to those feeling trapped by religion and catharsis for those of us tired of being shamed. But the call is coming from within the chapel, and if you want pop stars to stop with the sacrilegious lyrics and burning upside-down crosses, all you have to do is leave our bodies and our lives alone.