Sam Smith and Kim Petras’s pop collab “Unholy” was a smash hit on TikTok before they even officially released it in September 2022. It hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the fall, and the pair won best pop duo/group performance for the song at the Grammys on Feb. 5. But the thing that’s made headlines more than their major achievement — as Petras noted in her acceptance speech, she’s the first trans woman to win it, and Smith is the first nonbinary person — is the backlash to their Grammys performance of the song, which played with the imagery of hell, and even saw Smith wear a devil hat.
Conservative commentators are, of course, furious. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene called it “demonic” on Twitter and Sen. Ted Cruz wrote, “This . . . is . . . evil.” Right-wing commentator Liz Wheeler tweeted a video and wrote, “Don’t fight the culture wars, they say. Meanwhile demons are teaching your kids to worship Satan. I could throw up.” Conservative media personality Ben Shapiro called it “a full-on Satanic performance” in a tweet that also misgendered Petras and Smith.
Of course, these commentators aren’t really worried about Satan; they’re worried about LGBTQ+ people having any place and acceptance in American public life. In a lot of ways, it’s just the newest version of the “Satanic Panic” that swept America in the ’80s. It had Americans worried that the occult and satanic cults were real and coming for them. Sarah Marshall, co-host of the podcast “You’re Wrong About,” told Vox’s “The Gray Area” podcast in 2021 that the panic started with conspiracies that satanists were infiltrating daycare centers to abuse children. It also warped into fears that children were getting satanic messages through music. The Satanic Panic is actually part of why we have parental warnings on albums; originally, the main purpose was to warn parents that material was about “the occult.”
None of these fears are based in fact. What modern conservatives are actually mad about is that Smith and Petras had the audacity not only to release and celebrate a hit song, but that they played with the very ideas of hell and damnation that the LGBTQ+ community has been threatened with for far too long. LGBTQ+ people are going to hell? Well we’ll have fun while we’re there. Even the title of the song, “Unholy,” is a joke about this. It’s the same idea Lil Nas X mocked in his 2021 “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” video, where he lap danced with the devil. Smith, Petras, and Lil Nas X are all poking fun at conservative morals and exposing LGBTQ+ hate — and conservatives are trying to weaponize that to call them literal demons.
Wheeler is right — conservatives are fighting a culture war, and they’re winning. They are attacking trans kids around the country: everything from their ability to play sports to their ability to receive medical treatment is currently being challenged nationwide. In Florida, Gov. Ron DeSantis has passed laws so strict that teachers are removing all their books from classroom libraries lest they be charged with a felony. The state’s new law demands that all material must be age-appropriate, free from pornography, and “suited to student needs.” Of course, DeSantis thinks kids don’t need to learn about LGBTQ+ people, sexuality, women’s rights, white supremacy, Black history, and more. The list of banned books keeps growing as Republicans become more afraid their kids will learn something they don’t like.
And that’s why Republicans are so scared of Petras and Smith’s performance. They can come up with a myriad of ways to try to keep their children from finding out about LGBTQ+ people, and they’ll lose every time. There will always be loud and proud LGBTQ+ artists and creators and thinkers that their kids will connect with. LGBTQ+ people have always existed and will keep existing, no matter what conservative politicians try to do to make us go away. We will always find a way to survive and thrive.
LGBTQ+ rights, reproductive rights, women’s rights, and civil rights are all under attack nationwide, and the struggles to protect them are connected. Greene also wrote in her tweet criticizing the performance, “And the Satanic Church now has an abortion clinic in NM that requires its patients to perform a satanic ritual before services.” After DeSantis’s criticism, the College Board stripped their AP African American Studies Curriculum, bringing it in line with his ideals. Republicans are intent on squashing anything that threatens their status quo, in which white, cisgender, heterosexual men maintain power. It’s a terrifying moment in our country, and we won’t be able to stop it unless we speak up.
Petras and Smith aren’t Satanists. They’re two very talented queer people who should continue to make art on their own terms, and not have to deal with bad faith, over-the-top conservative attacks. But the ridiculous rhetoric won’t stop them, or any of us in the LGBTQ community. For a moment on Sunday night, Petras and Smith took up the space they deserved on that Grammys stage, and that means more than any misinformation campaign.