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Lazy, crass and a cheap marketing ploy – why blasphemy in pop has gone too far

A scene from Lil Nas X's J Christ music video
A scene from Lil Nas X's J Christ music video

When Lil Nas X released the music video for Montero (Call Me By Your Name) back in March 2021, the controversy sent instant shockwaves through mainstream pop culture. It featured him being stoned to death with butt plugs as a punishment for being gay; sent to hell and forced to give the devil an intimate lap dance; and wearing customised Satanic Nike sneakers with human blood inside their air bubble.

Outraged Christian groups claimed the proudly gay singer and rapper was stirring up blasphemy to achieve viral success (the song topped both the US and UK pop charts, while the video has nearly 561 million views on YouTube). Yet most of the music press praised Lil Nas X for using a pop video to highlight how the LGBT community is demonised by right-wing religious groups.

However, fast forward three years and last week’s release of Lil Nas X’s comeback single, J Christ, has been met with a collective shrug. The song’s music video is once again peppered with controversial religious imagery (from a faux crucifixion to a very wet Lil Nas X twerking amid a Noah’s ark dance sequence), all clearly designed to give evangelical Christians from Alabama a fresh bout of PTSD.

But the Messiah complex hasn’t been enough to create Montero part 2, with J Christ only hitting no 53 on Spotify’s US chart and projected to only just break into the top 80 of the Billboard 100: a pretty disastrous return for an artist used to shooting straight to number one ever since he emerged on that horse trotting down the Old Town Road.

While the music video for Montero could be argued for as a political act, the J Christ treatment feels like a transparent attempt to stir up controversy. And with all its product placement (including lingering shots of shoes and jewelry) and goofy celebrity cameos, it’s more brash style over any kind of substance.

The way Nas repeats the question, “Is he about go give ’em something viral?” over and over again on the song’s syrupy hook, suggest the mindset of a content marketer glued to a Google Analytics page of divisive internet buzzwords rather than a pioneering pop artist trying to break new ground or offer a genuine critique of the Church.

Empty provocation has superseded any kind of musical originality, with the song’s beat sounding like a cheap remake of Kendrick Lamar’s HUMBLE. And the negative reaction (including Pitchfork describing the new single as “failing to deliver on its provocative promise”) hints at the public getting tired of pop stars using blasphemy to get trending among TikTok conspiracy debaters, or turning religious outrage into a currency that can be exchanged for pop culture ubiquity – two things that have been an absolute constant across the 2020s pop landscape so far. So, how did we get here? And why has pop music become such a ripe platform for lazy blasphemy?

Already this decade (with many of the following artists clearly inspired by Lil Nas X’s Montero marketing success), we’ve had Doja Cat transform herself into a demon that terrorises suburban moms, Sam Smith dress up as a gyrating Devil while performing at the Grammys, Atlanta trap anarchist Playboi Carti release a merchandise line filled with upside down crosses, and Demi Lovato promote her album with banned posters that showed her in bondage while lying on a crucifix-shaped bed. Watch all the respective music videos and 666s are just about everywhere you turn.

Sam Smith performing at the Grammys
Sam Smith performing at the Grammys - Getty

Yet there’s a nagging feeling that among these artists, when you take away the viral marketing tactics, the music itself is empty: bishop goading outstripping any kind of social message. After all, Lil Nas X saying “B---h I’m back like J Christ” on J Christ is hardly comparable to Patti Smith’s bold “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine” proclamation back on 1975’s Gloria.

It wasn’t always like this, and rock and roll was once the perfect platform for artists to intelligently ponder the limitations of organised religion. When John Lennon infamously claimed The Beatles were more important to young people than Jesus in a 1966 interview with the Evening Standard, he shone an effective light on how Christianity’s blunt rejection of rock and roll as “the devil’s music” was only pushing the youth deeper into the arms of guitar rebels.

The most political Beatle exposed a changing of the tide: a landscape where rock musicians were the new deities. Later on, with his 1971 solo song Imagine, Lennon bravely envisioned a world where people no longer started bloody wars in the name of religion. Imagining a universe where religion didn’t exist at all was a radical act, especially given America’s ongoing invasion of Vietnam and the way Republican politicians constantly framed that war as part of God’s will.

A scene from Madonna's Like A Prayer
A scene from Madonna's Like A Prayer - Taylor Herring/PA

In 1989, Madonna showed a black Jesus, a burning crucifix, and a queer utopia filled with shirtless male dancers in her music video for Like A Prayer – earning criticism from the Pope himself. Some argued her lyrics about getting on your knees were collating prayer time with the act of fellatio.

Yet at a time where racism was unavoidable in America and the AIDS epidemic was resulting in the spread of misinformation and hatred towards gay people, this single’s rollout was a timely act of solidarity. Songs like The Pet Shop Boys’ It’s A Sin and its criticism of how Catholicism handles homosexuality, and later on, Lady Gaga’s 2011 banger Judas, which showed how religion is so often hinged on abusive male power, both touched on similar ground.

Hip Hop has also been a genre filled with powerful statements around religion. When the late rap legend Tupac Shakur used the artwork of his 1996 Makaveli album to depict himself as a black Jesus Christ riddled with bullet wounds, he was presciently showing how African American celebrities were torn apart by the media and their pain treated more like entertainment than something deserved of empathy. This message was furthered on his eerie song Blasphemy, where Tupac bluntly rapped about black Americans being in “hell already, our dumb asses not knowing: everybody kissing ass to go to Heaven isn’t going”.

In a pre-internet age, these iconic rock stars each felt like they were offering a thoughtful social critique. Yet in a world where fiery Twitter debate dominates the agenda and controversy is a shortcut to viral success, their modern counterparts see Satanic imagery simply as a costume and a prop.

Amid a cost of living crisis in the 2020s, faith is one of the only things the working classes have left that doesn’t involve getting into serious debt. The constant attacks on God by detached millionaire pop stars, therefore, feel unnecessarily harsh. In the UK, Christianity is also in a state of decline, which makes it feel like low hanging fruit and a cheap target. In America that’s a completely different story, with the Christian mindset still dominating the political agenda and laws around abortion, which makes Lil Nas X’s lack of message feel even more lazy.

Lil Nas X will almost certainly enrage a bunch of Christian commentators with his latest stunt, but he’s already inspiring just as many yawns. In the bible, the prophecy of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53 is only completed after Jesus willingly accepts humiliation without retaliation. And this really is the best response to Lil Nas X’s lazy J Christ, with apathy and low streaming numbers the perfect way to tell our pop stars that their religious commentary has never felt more puerile. Imagine a world without trite anti-religious mainstream pop stunts, it’s easy if you try.

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