February 8, 2023 - 10:46am

Once able to reliably deliver viewing audiences in excess of 20 million, the Grammy Awards — which staged its 65th iteration on Sunday — now draws half of that. However, thanks to ever-rising political polarisation, the ceremony can be counted on to generate inane political controversy that will occupy at least one news cycle and perhaps more. 

Such was the case when Sam Smith — now far less svelte than the nonbinary performer was scant years earlier — took to the stage wearing a hideously ugly top hat with horns to perform alongside trans pop musician Kim Petras, who was inside a cage. Together, Smith, Petras, and an array of dancers in red outfits and black wigs listlessly went through the motions of their duet ‘Unholy’. It was a joyless and rote performance, ostensibly intended to hark back to an era when pop stars could actually provoke controversy, such as when Australian singer Helen Reddy shocked Grammy viewers in 1973 by referring to God as a “she” or Annie Lennox showed up wearing a suit and mutton chops for her performance of “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” in 1984.

In response, Right-wing figures rushed to Twitter to denounce this set in a similarly rote, uninspired manner. “Demons are teaching your kids to worship Satan,” tweeted conservative influencer Liz Wheeler. “This…is…evil,” added Texas senator Ted Cruz by way of quote-tweet. Of course, this was nothing new — a year earlier, in a similarly tedious performance, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion simulated a girl-on-girl sex scene while performing ‘WAP’, which in turn prompted Candace Owens and Tucker Carlson to devote five minutes to exploring how it exemplified the sort of “corrosion” evident at the “end of empire” (Hasbro’s decision to drop the ‘Mr.’ honorific from their signature ‘Potato Head’ toy also figured into this portentous discussion, as did Quaker Oats’s decision to move on from offensive corporate syrup mascot ‘Aunt Jemima’). 

There is an ouroboric quality to this kind of discourse. Petras remarked after the show that she had intended to shock religious Christians, given that they’re not accepting of her lifestyle, and that mission was clearly accomplished. A year earlier, Cardi B had tweeted excitedly “WE MADE FOX NEWS GUYS!!! Wap wap wap” when Carlson and Owens’s conversation about her aired. In each instance, the Grammys — now a wholly segmented audience that draws mainly Left-leaning viewers rather than a unifying cultural event of modest annual significance — gave both sides what they wanted: the Left-wing performers could claim that their uninspired, cookie-cutter material had shocked the squares and Moral-Majority types, while outraged Right-wing spokespeople could assert that paedophilic Satanism was indeed deeply embedded among the liberal elites of “Hollyweird”. 

In a slightly different form, this lame material drove a great deal of music-related cultural discourse in the 1980s. Right-wing figures fanned the flames of a full-on “Satanic panic” while fulminating about Satanic references and imagery in music, while Left and libertarian musicians drew additional attention to their records by incorporating more of the same. After passing through a period when most Right-wing and even Liberal cultural criticism of pop music dealt with excessive sex or violence, it is fascinating to watch the Satanic angle recur, as when manosphere influencer Mike Cernovich takes to Twitter to assert that heavy metal music “opens demonic portals via a spirit of fear” and has “stopped listening to hip hop and most secular music”. 

These days, cultural common ground in the United States is so uncommon that one finds it primarily in those areas where people have gathered to shout their disdain for each other.

Oliver Bateman is a historian and journalist based in Pittsburgh. He blogs, vlogs, and podcasts at his Substack, Oliver Bateman Does the Work