Shout at the Devil

An Old Accusation

“It’s Satanic! It’s devil worship!” My cousins and I couldn’t stop laughing. My aunt was trying to warn us about the unholy music we were listening to on a new album I’d just bought. It wasn’t Slayer or Black Sabbath. It wasn’t Marilyn Manson or Rob Zombie. It was Sarah McLachlan.

Music has a long history of enduring such senseless accusations. Benjamin Franklin invented the glass armonica in 1761 and it’s soothing sounds soon filled music halls across Europe and the Americas. But some people who played or listened to it began suffering illnesses which were blamed on the instrument conjuring up evil spirits. It quickly fell out of favor after a child in Germany died during a performance. These are of course post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacies (after this therefore because of this). But why let a little thing like logic get in the way of some good old fashioned superstitious paranoia?

Niccolò Paganini was an accomplished 19th century Italian violinist whose long fingers allowed him to play three octaves across four strings in a hand span. But such natural explanations for his ability didn’t keep others from speculating his talent had been purchased from the devil for the price of his soul. Such rumors kept Paganini from receiving a Catholic burial.

From Blues to Metal

Famous 1920s blues musician Tommy Johnson was known for playing his guitar behind his head, between his legs and throwing it in the air during performances. After his death, his brother LeDell reported Tommy had sold his soul to the devil to acquire such talent. This story was later altered to include awaiting the devil at a crossroads and bestowed upon another accomplished blues musician of no relation, Robert Johnson. This was the foundation for the character of Tommy Johnson portrayed in the 2000 Coen brothers film O Brother, Where Art Thou?.

Like swing, blues and jazz of previous decades, Elvis and other early rock of the 1950s was considered evil by some because it broke through the color lines of racism and encouraged kids to swing their hips and have a little fun, otherwise known to theists as “sin.” Accusations of evil and outright Satanism persisted through the 60s and early 70s against such bands as The Beatles, Led Zeppelin and even The Eagles. Thanks to the theme’s increased popularity spurred on by decades of baseless accusations, occult imagery and lyrics became a way for bands to rebel against the idiot holy rollers who already believed rock music was a device of the devil.

Bands like Black Sabbath and Venom used occult imagery and lyrics to capitalize on the new market opened up by the self fulfilling prophecy of fundamentalists. By the 1980s these themes were commercialized by Motley Crue, Slayer and a host of other metal bands. Thus began the great witch hunt of the 1980s.

Satanic Panic

Metal music of the 80s used shocking lyrics and images to challenge conventional wisdom on everything from drug laws to theology. Multiple bands were banned, censored and sued in various countries. In the graphic novel Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi describes searching for outlawed Iron Maiden albums in Iran during the 1980s. Judas Priest was unsuccessfully sued in 1989 for allegedly using subliminal messages.

Dee Snider of Twisted Sister was called to testify in 1985 before congressional hearings arranged by the Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC). Florida Senator Paula Hawkins complained during the hearings, “Subtleties, suggestions, and innuendo have given way to overt expressions and descriptions of often violent sexual acts, drug taking, and flirtations with the occult.” These hearings are the source of the now ubiquitous Parental Advisory labels on music albums.

One of the claims of the PMRC was that Satanic messages could be heard when playing certain records backwards. Backmasking was first used by The Beatles to record vocals or instruments backwards within a song for artistic effect. Pareidolia made finding backmasked Satanic messages as easy as finding Jesus on a grilled cheese sandwich. Dan Rather even reported finding backmasked messages in rock music on the CBS Evening News in 1982.

A 1983 bill was introduced in California to prevent backmasking which “can manipulate our behavior without our knowledge or consent and turn us into disciples of the Antichrist.” Weird Al Yankovic is the only artist to ever backmask any mention of Satan in the parody Nature Trail to Hell by backmasking the phrase “Satan eats Cheez Whiz.” For those who believe in demons and other such nonsense, playing a record backwards might sound like a Satanic message. To me it just sounds like a toothless drunk trying to give directions.

The Satanic Panic of the 80s gave some murderers a convenient scapegoat for their crimes. Anytime someone wanted to avert responsibility for their crime, they just blamed it on Satan. The media ate it up. In 1988, Geraldo Rivera hosted the highest rated two hour news special of its time, Devil Worship: Exposing Satan’s Underground. Rivera seized upon the hysteria of the day by exploiting a handful of murderers blaming their crimes on “Satanism” and claimed Satanic links with Iron Maiden, Megadeth and W.A.S.P. Ozzy Osbourne made an appearance to call out the witch hunt for what it was and state explicitly he had no intentions of promoting Satanism.

Infinite Stupidity

My aunt once told me AC/DC stood for “After Christ, Devil Comes” and Kiss stood for “Knights in Satan’s Service.” I grew up hearing how Metallica were Satanists. Such baseless stupidity played at least some small part in my abandonment of faith. I remember thinking very clearly, if my parents and other family—who are all Christians—really believe my music is about worshiping Satan, they are all morons.

Such silliness continues to this day. Lady Gaga and Beyonce are accused of being members of the “Illuminati.” There are entire Islamic webpages devoted to discussing the evils of Rihanna. My nephew has been told the music of Escape the Fate is Satanic. One would have thought after the Satanic Panic of the 80s failed to provide any evidence of the global Satanic conspiracy it alleged, this crap might have withered away, but I guess Einstein was right. “Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former.”

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