The image of a portly Sam Smith traipsing about on heels and gyrating on stage at last week’s Grammy Awards isn’t one that I’ll soon forget. In truth, I fear that I may never forget it so long as I live. A week removed from the performance and it remains an image by which, no matter how assiduously I’ve tried to cleanse it from my memory, my waking hours continue to be haunted and my innocent dreams persist, night after restless night, to be plagued.
The fact that the gender-bending British pop star did so dressed, head to toe, in the garb of “sexy” Satan has only heightened the difficulty of the task. I’m nearing the point of requiring professional help! (Yet I know not to whom I should turn: an exorcist? A psychologist? The comments section on YouTube?) At the very least, it has me doubling my usual dose of melatonin and turning to a dram (or two) of whiskey. No sooner do I close my eyes at night than I’m visited, yet again, by the frightening image of this chubby man-boy decked out in blood-red latex in the guise of a demon.
Who could hope to fall asleep after having witnessed so ghoulish a display?
The days, sadly, are no easier. In every dim-lit alley upon which I happen to cast my gaze, I see his doughy image lurking. Leering back at me, from the shadowy depths of the side-streets in which evil dwells, is the reheated hit maker (who has, since his emergence onto the music scene as a flamboyantly gay man in 2013, formally declared himself in 2023 to be “non-binary”). Clad in pointed devil horns and a top hat, wielding a bedazzled scepter, Smith rolls his hips and shakes his thighs in such a way as not to be imitated in polite society.
Needless to say, I’ve been scarred.
To perform his latest hit song, Unholy (a title of which Smith makes every effort to be the living embodiment), he went “full devil” at the Grammys. The color of his outfit matched the background to President Biden’s Independence Day Speech in Philadelphia. He wore high-heeled boots, an unflatteringly tight latex “onesie”, a hat with devil horns, and, to complete the look, a choker necklace. The flock of dancers by whom he was surrounded was similarly clad. The transgender woman (the biological man, Kim Petras) with whom he performed the song was dressed in a slightly (and I do mean only slightly) more feminine devil costume. For some undisclosed reason, he was also housed in a cage.
The song’s lyrics, for what it’s worth, aren’t explicitly Luciferian: they describe the infidelity of a married man who seeks, without the knowledge of his wife, a nighttime tryst.
“Mummy don’t know daddy’s getting hot
At the body shop, doing something unholy”
As a listener, I was unimpressed; the song is redundant and quite boring. The vocals are fine, but inadequate to compensate for all that the song lacks. As a viewer, though, it felt as though I were being actively inducted into a phallus-worshiping Satanic death cult. I felt as if I were being dragged down to the ninth and final circle of Hell–to which Judas himself rushed from the jaws of Satan to open the gates. I scanned the reactions on Twitter to learn if these feelings were uniquely held. They were not. Unknown to be a platform on which prudish thoughts trend, Twitter was, on the whole, revolted by the demonic getup.
In response to Smith’s ghastly performance, I noticed many people asking the same question: Why the devil?
Why the devil, indeed.
It’s all reducible, I think, to a misreading of Milton.
Quite a leap!–you might cry out, as I jump from Sam Smith to John Milton–from the pit of profanity to the summit of the divine. Just bear with me a little while longer, patient reader, and I think you’ll see what I mean.
John Milton is, excepting Shakespeare, the greatest writer whom the English language has ever known. The poetry of his youth is sublime, the polemics of his adulthood are formidable, and his crowning achievement, his twelve-book epic, Paradise Lost, eclipses both Dante’s Inferno and Virgil’s Aeneid in its scope, beauty, and grandeur. It’s surpassed only by Homer’s twin masterpieces, The Iliad and The Odyssey (to which it comes in at a very close second).
The plot of Paradise Lost is simple enough: it’s a poetic retelling of the first few chapters of Genesis. The story begins in media res, as Satan, just recently expelled from the kingdom of Heaven, plans his vengeance on God’s noblest creation on Earth. He proceeds to recount his grievances with the Almighty, his rebellious uprising, his conflict with Jesus, his inglorious fall, and his confinement to Hell–the grim underworld over which he’s now sovereign. From the depths of Hell he plans to climb back up into Eden where, in the guise of a serpent, he’ll tempt Eve (and, through Eve, Adam) with an offering of illicit fruit.
It’s a testament to Milton’s brilliance as a writer that a large number of influential thinkers in the nineteenth-century came to regard not God, but Satan as the work’s true hero. This, of course, wasn’t the author’s intent, in whose orthodox opinion Satan was nothing better than an execrable fiend. Milton was, by the evidence found in his writing, as devout and god-fearing a Puritan as one could hope to be. He was, in some ways, more pious than the Pope. He was a fiercely religious Christian whose veneration of the Bible was total, and whose belief in a just God was, no matter the challenges he faced throughout his turbulent life, unwavering.
And yet, it is hard, when reading Paradise Lost, not to be completely enamored of what might be the best drawn character in the history of literature: Milton’s Satan. No matter your fortitude, no matter your faith, it’s a character by whom you can’t but be enticed.
One such influential thinker living in the nineteenth-century was Percy Bysshe Shelley. Shelley was, like Milton, a precocious student equipped with a pen as sharp as his mind. Unlike Milton, however, he was an unabashed atheist who courted controversy at every turn. While at Oxford, he wrote a twelve-page essay, The Necessity of Atheism, over which a massive scandal promptly erupted. Its title alone was enough to secure his expulsion from that hallowed institution. A subversive work highly critical of the church, The Necessity of Atheism was, for a fledgling poet not quite twenty years of age, remarkably mature.
It was also intolerably transgressive and, for that reason, sufficient grounds to exile the fearless apostate.
Later in life, Shelley wrote his most famous work of prose, A Defense of Poetry, in which the brash atheism of his youth is conspicuously preserved. In the Defense, Shelley explains why Satan is to be viewed as the real hero of Paradise Lost.
According to Shelley:
“Nothing can exceed the energy and magnificence of the character of Satan as expressed in Paradise Lost. It is a mistake to suppose that he could ever have been intended for the popular personification of evil”.
And then, the conclusive lines:
“Milton’s Devil as a moral being is as far superior to his God as one who perseveres in some purpose which he has conceived to be excellent in spite of adversity and torture, is to one who in the cold security of undoubted triumph inflicts the most horrible revenge upon his enemy”.
“Milton has so far violated the popular creed as to have alleged no superiority of moral virtue to his God over his Devil. And this bold neglect of a direct moral purpose is the most decisive proof of the supremacy of Milton’s genius”.
In these startling passages (against which, to be sure, Milton would’ve vigorously objected and fought back) Shelley gave voice to a sentiment that was growing among his fellow Romantics. For them, by way of technological progress and the advancement of science, God had been stripped of His title as “Creator of the universe”. Much feebler, now, was His claim to “Benefactor of mankind”–a status of which they no longer felt Him deserving. Slowly, God was removed from the historical, theological drama. Bit by bit, he was led off the stage. Once taken behind the curtain, He was cast into the dustbin with so many other unreal Olympian tyrants, those petty Pagan idols in whom no educated person believed.
In his place arose Satan–the brave, magnificent, energetic, unbowed, morally superior being to whose heroic likeness we could all now aspire. To a new generation, he’d become the character upon whom no higher law would be binding, save that which he chose to impose on himself. He looked to nothing beyond himself for truth. Indeed, he made his own truth. (Sound familiar? He “spoke his own truth” and talked incessantly of his “lived experience”). He was his own commandment and asserted his own will to power. He was the center and circumference of the world.
Is this not the very image that Sam Smith is, on his descent into devilry, portraying? An image, I fear, that I’ll not soon clear my head of.
I hope that I’ve made myself clear: the seeds of Devil-worship (in an artistic and literary sense) were planted in the nineteenth-century by the great English poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley. Their fruit, at whom vast swathes of Americans are now looking askance, is yet another Englishman living in the twenty-first: Sam Smith.