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Editor’s note: While nothing explicit is discussed in the article and related podcast, the subject matter of the Unholy song lyrics and original music video is rated R.
If you watched the 2023 Grammys, then you probably saw Sam Smith and Kim Petras’s blasphemous pop hypnotic hit “Unholy.” This song has been buzzing. It has more than a hundred million views and earned a Grammy for “Best Pop Duo/Group Performance.”
Musically, it feels a bit like R&B meets belly dancing. Its Middle Eastern lilt and thumping rhythm lend a dark allure, as the lyrics spin a sordid tale of excess and adultery. One philandering husband neglects his wife and kids at home, sneaking out to a gender-bending strip club — “Body Shop.” Sung from the perspectives of the club’s prostitutes, the story is laced with luxury name brands, product shots for condoms, and vivid descriptions of sexual deviance.
Visually, the music video and live Grammy performance portray a kind of satanic drag cabaret, with the lead singers Sam Smith and Kim Petras as Satan and a stripper, respectively. In the video, the “Body Shop” translates into a speak-easy strip club in the backroom of an auto-body garage. The dancers crowding and piling on top of each other rub and writhe in ecstasy.
Allusions to kink and orgies abound. The story ends with the husband dying for his sins in a car crash, as the wife sheds her coat and wig to reveal she’s really a male stripper. At the Grammys, the story is streamlined. Kim Petras swoons and sings in a stripper cage. Pyrotechnics and red lighting create a hellish ambiance, as gender-bending demon dancers worship a devil-horned Sam Smith. This song has all the subtly of a jet engine.
Scrolling through social media, one can see a predictable partisan divide. Right wing pundits aired their grievances (rightfully so), as the left sang its praises, making sure to point out that Sam Smith is gay and gender queer, and Kim Petras is a transgender woman (male identifying as a woman).1
What should we make of this megahit? With all the hype surrounding this song, it invites critique from several angles. We’ll consider some of the more obvious ones here. First, we’ll ask whether this is just an elaborate marketing ploy. Second, we’ll address whether it’s just art. Third, we’ll ask whether it’s satanic. In answering those three questions, we’ll cover a fourth angle, LGBTQ ideology. Lastly, we’ll ask what wisdom we can glean from this song. It’s clearly not just a song. It’s a symbol, perhaps even an anthem. And we do well not to downplay or exaggerate it. Instead, we can practice discernment and draw from it ministry insights into our cultural milieu.
Is this just a marketing ploy? Behind the garish lights and red leather, it’s easy to see the machinations of marketing strategists. It has the feel of choreographed controversy, like a well-rehearsed dance number between left-wing libertines and right-wing moralists.
It’s been said that “all publicity, is good publicity.” By that measure, this song does not disappoint. It’s obviously meant to offend. It displays fire shows, hellish lighting, gender-bending kink, and burlesque aesthetics. But more than that, it’s blasphemy. The dance numbers are choreographed sexcapades punctuated by the Catholic sign of the cross (i.e., crossing oneself). This gesture connotes a blasphemous kind of sexual sacrament.
It would be too simplistic to dismiss this song as a gimmick, as mere shock-value. Sure, controversy draws crowds, but this song is more than that. It’s not just offensive. It’s transgressive. It’s an affront to Christianity, traditional marriage, monogamy, binary gender, heteronormativity, chastity, modesty. And it does all that with a wink and a smirk. They know what they’re doing. It’s supposed to upset people like you and me. It’s supposed to drive us to anger-blogging on social media, giving it free publicity at our expense. Meanwhile, we come off looking like puritanical luddites with no taste in music.
Don’t get me wrong, I think that marketing strategy is well underway. I just don’t think this song is reducible entirely to a marketing ploy. We cannot say it’s just orchestrated outrage, because if that’s all they wanted, they could have gotten a bigger response by putting Sam Smith in blackface with Kim Petras in a MAGA hat. Now that would have taken some real courage!
The point isn’t merely to offend. It’s to offend the right people. That is, offend the people on the right. “Unholy” is strategically marketed to offend the right people by celebrating irreverence, sex-positivity, and LGBTQ practice.2
Is it just art? Whatever else this song may be, it’s still art. And that might be its strongest defense. For those who see this song as a defiant strike against oppression and moral busybodies, this song sounds like artful indignation.
Historically speaking, music has often been a fulcrum for toppling authority and transgressing boundaries. Who can think of the Civil Rights Movement without the resonant refrain of “We Shall Overcome”? Or think of women’s equality without hearing Aretha Franklin demand “R.E.S.P.E.C.T.” (1967)? Communist Russia and East Berlin undoubtedly took a hit from the punk rock movement in the 1970’s and ’80’s. I like to think that the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 to the tune of “We’re Not Gonna Take it!” (Twisted Sister, 1984). We could likewise note the cultural sway in Elvis’s hips, Liberace’s hats, Mick Jagger’s lips, and Ozzy’s bats. Music, if nothing else, is powerful. It has a long history of deliberately breaking cultural norms, for good or ill.
In that vein Sam Smith and Kim Petras are nothing new. They are challenging moral norms about marriage, family, and gender identity, and they’re framing it as an anti-religious dig at Christian conservatives. The question remains, however, is all that justified in the name of art?
That “art defense” might go something like this:
Premise 1: Art can be a justified way to break cultural mores.
Premise 2: This song is art.
Conclusion: Therefore, this song is justified in breaking cultural mores.
I won’t dispute premises one and two. I don’t need too. The argument is invalid. It has an undistributed middle term. Simply put, neither premise is talking about all art. “Art” is the undistributed term here. We can explain this fallacy with a question distributing the middle term: Is everything done in the name of art justified?
Clearly no. Art doesn’t justify murder, or rape, or animal sacrifice. Evil is still evil, even in artistic form. The same is true of misdemeanors and “poor taste.” Imagine if Smith and Petras used this song to come out as “trans-Black,” or to celebrate Christopher Columbus, or came out as pro-life? It’s hard to imagine their progressive supporters still saying, “It’s just art!”
In reality, this song was never just art. It’s also marketing, fashion, entertainment, and culture. It’s a commentary on family, identity, sexual ethics, and religion. And it’s a socio-political statement endorsing the LGBTQ movement. Sam Smith leaves no question about that. Speaking of his3 experience in this song, he says he felt “courageous to step into the queer joy of it all,” and “[i]t feels like emotional, sexual, and spiritual liberation.”4 The rest of the album (Gloria, 2023) reinforces that message. Yes, that messaging is framed in a piece of music. So, it can be artfully indirect. But the message still comes across loud and clear.
Is it Satanic? If you’re thinking this is what Satanism looks like, however, you’re only half right. “Unholy” clearly uses hellish satanic imagery, but compared to modern-day Satanism, it’s a cartoon. The main streams of Satanism today deny the existence of any literal devil.5 They’re atheistic. They deny any supernatural realm, along with all gods, angels, demons, and devils. Satanists today are more likely to be edgy, humanistic, liberal activists, with a serious authority complex.6 So it’s no surprise when the Satanists said of the Grammy performance, it was “alright,” “nothing particularly special,” and “red clothing, fire and devil horns…[are] all kind of passé now.”7
But “Unholy” doesn’t need formal ties to Satanism to reflect the essence of Satanism, namely, radical autonomy.8 Variously identified with “self-determinism,” “pleasure-seeking,” the “left-hand path,” or even the “Witch’s Rede” (Do what thou wilt), this radical autonomy is the beating heart of Satanism. As one source explains, “Satanists emphasize being your true self, personal achievement and living life to the fullest….with one of the key [tenets] being individuals are their own Gods.”9 In that way, Smith and Petra’s “Unholy” is satanic. It’s just not unique, since Satanism absorbs almost the entire pop music industry.
What wisdom can we glean from “Unholy”? “There is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9),10 and “Unholy” is no exception. We do well to expect incendiary ploys, sexual depravity, and even blasphemy from the entertainment industry. St. Peter foresees in the first century that “many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed….[T]hose who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority….have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin. They entice unsteady souls. They have hearts trained in greed” (2 Peter 2:2,10,14).
Since we know it’s coming, we can “brace for impact.” We can be prepared. That may be as simple as turning the channel, skipping a track, or just unplugging. Most everyone could benefit from more classical music and less screen time. Avoidance isn’t everything. But it is an important step toward a deliberate discerning approach to media. We can’t afford to be passive recipients, swallowing whatever is fed to us.
Sometimes we need a media fast. Maybe get rid of your TV. Or unsubscribe from a music or streaming service. Or maybe avoid genres of music or shows that, for the most part, aren’t glorifying God. The rest of the time, when we’re not fasting, we should still be dieting. The bewildering mass of trash and distraction doesn’t deserve near as much attention as we give it.11 Our money, time, and attention are all votes of support. So, we do well to support only those causes that we believe in.
But what about Sam Smith and Kim Petras? Those mega stars are probably not in your immediate sphere of influence. They aren’t likely your “neighbors” in that sense. We can still pray for them. If we love like Christ, we can find encouraging truths to say about them. We shouldn’t mock or insult them. They’re created in God’s image just like you and me (Gen 1:26–28). Even when we criticize their behavior, beliefs, or their music, we should still speak from a position of love and compassion.
Meanwhile, we have an abiding responsibility to live and love like Christ in our home and our communities and to guard our hearts (Prov. 4:23; Eph. 5; 1 Tim. 5; Titus 2). Guarding our hearts includes handling music and other media with the discernment of a dietician. To use St. Paul’s language, “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Phil 4:8).
John D. Ferrer (PhD, Philosophy of Religion, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary) taught for six years with Texas Wesleyan University and Pantego Christianity Academy. He currently is a teaching fellow with the Equal Rights Institute.
- Curtis M. Wong, “Sam Smith and Kim Petras Take Grammys to Hell with Fiery Performance of ‘Unholy,’ HuffPost Entertainment, February 5, 2023, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/sam-smith-kim-petras-grammys-2023-unholy-performance_n_63e06afae4b01a4363956e2a; “Satanic Smith: Watch Pop Singer Go Full Satan During Grammy Performance,” Sean Hannity, February 6, 2023, https://hannity.com/media-room/satanic-smith-watch-pop-singer-go-full-satan-during-grammy-performance/; Derrick Clifton, “Sam Smith’s They/Them Pronoun Backlash Highlights an Ongoing Cultural Disconnect,” Think, September 19, 2019, https://www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/sam-smith-s-they-them-pronoun-backlash-highlights-ongoing-cultural-ncna1056136.
- “Sex positivity” is defined as a permissive and nonjudgmental attitude toward all consensual sexual expression and sexual behaviors, regarding all of it as healthy. For more on this, see Hillary Ferrer and Amy Davison, Mama Bear Apologetics: Guide to Sexuality (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2021), 131–48.
- Sam Smith identifies with “they/them” pronouns. Sophie Lewis, “Sam Smith Announces Their Pronouns,” CBS News, September 13. 2019, accessed February 10, 2023 at https://www.cbsnews.com/news/sam-smith-pronouns-sam-smith-announces-their-pronouns-are-they-them-2019-09-13/. With no disrespect intended, I refer to Smith in conventional “he/him” pronouns for the sake of clarity. Being an individual biological male, Smith is not a biologically neutral plurality as suggested by “they/them” pronouns.
- Lea Veloso, “Unholy’ by Sam Smith and Kim Petras Lyrics Are ‘Liberating’ — Here’s How They Explore ‘Queer Joy,’” Stylecaster, February 5, 2023, accessed February 8, 2023 at https://stylecaster.com/unholy-sam-smith-kim-petras-lyrics/.
- See “Church of Satan vs. Satanic Temple,” The Satanic Temple (c.2014), accessed February 10, 2023 at https://thesatanictemple.com/pages/church-of-satan-vs-satanic-temple.
- I explain this characterization in greater length in “Satanic Lessons on Religious Freedom: A Review of Hail Satan?” Christian Research Journal, October 28, 2019 at https://www.equip.org/articles/satanic-lessons-on-religious-freedom/.
- “Sam Smith and Kim Petras’ ‘Unholy’ Grammy Act Underwhelms Satanists,” TMZ, February 8, 2023, accessed February 10, 2023 at https://www.tmz.com/2023/02/08/sam-smith-kim-petras-unholy-grammy-performance-church-satan-underwhelmed/.
- “There Are Seven Fundamental Tenets,” The Satanic Temple (2014), tenets 3-4, accessed February 10, 2023 at https://thesatanictemple.com/pages/about-us.
- “Sam Smith and Kim Petras’ ‘Unholy’ Grammy Act Underwhelms Satanists,” TMZ.
- All Scripture quotations are from the ESV.
- I discuss a lot of examples in John D. Ferrer, “Sabrina the Teenage Anti-Christ,” Christian Research Journal, July 11, 2019 at: https://www.equip.org/articles/sabrina-the-teenage-anti-christ/.