I come to you as a former devotee of popular culture.
In days of old, I worshipped love at the Top 40 altar and committed myself to memorizing lines of songs and dialogue from films in the same way pious Jews of old memorized Scripture. If I now speak cynically of popular culture, it is because I am a disillusioned lover. Cynicism always grows from the ashes of immolated confidence.
With such a purple introduction now out of the way, I should say I believe popular culture has lately taken a sharp turn toward the Satanic.
Having been taught about Satan by Dante, Milton, Tolstoy, and Dostoyevsky, I know that demons are paradoxical beings, simultaneously crafty and bumbling. Dante’s devils are grotesque and juvenile; they fart like trumpets and molest the weak. Dante satirizes the foolishness of devils, as though to mock anyone as a fool who falls for their childish ploys. Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, on the other hand, wrote clever devils who played the long game, laying traps and patiently waiting for their prey.
There is no better representation of the devil for our age, however, than the one conceived by John Milton. Milton’s devil is an eternal optimist, a plucky and self-confident fellow who cheers his friends by showing them how to make the best of a bad situation. As he is written in Paradise Lost, Milton’s Satan has accomplished absolutely nothing worth boasting about, but he boasts nonetheless. And what exactly does one boast about when he has done nothing which is worthy of boasting about? He boasts about being true to himself and living according to his own principles, that’s what.
The man who approaches Paradise Lost expecting to find the same Satan venerated by Scandinavian black metal bands and Anton LaVey will turn the final page of the poem and suffer sore disappointment. Milton’s Satan never kills anyone, neither does he rape, steal, or utter vulgarities. He does not kidnap children, establish cults, teach magic, participate in Halloween, or teach teenagers to play Led Zeppelin records backwards. He is not even terribly interested in conning others into such foul activities. Rather, one could triangulate the personality of Milton’s Satan using just three figures from popular culture: singer Katy Perry, fictional boss Michael Scott, and motivational speaker Tony Robbins.
While Katy Perry has popularized the self-empowerment ballad, I might substitute her part in the satanic identity for one of six dozen other purveyors of the ego anthem. The earliest is probably Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” though the example I lately gave my Paradise Lost students was Whitney Houston’s rendition of “Greatest Love of All,” which goes:
Everybody searching for a hero
People need someone to look up to
I never found anyone who fulfill my needs
A lonely place to be
And so I learned to depend on me…
I decided long ago
Never to walk in anyone’s shadow
If I fail, if I succeed
At least I’ll live as I believe
No matter what they take from me
They can’t take away my dignity…
Satan remarks something quite similar to his peers in Hell. “All is not lost,” he tells the other demons when they awake to their eternal tortures, for despite their loss of glory, they have nonetheless retained their “unconquerable will” and “the courage never to submit or yield.” In the same way that Whitney will not walk in “anyone’s shadow,” neither will Satan submit or yield to anyone. Whitney does not care whether the shadow is cast by a good man or an honorable woman, because all forms of submission are equally detestable, for submission diminishes the glory of the self. Likewise, Satan champions the fact his will cannot be conquered by anyone, regardless of how worthy or honorable anyone else is.
For both Whitney and Satan, meaning and fulfillment are only discoverable within the self, although, strangely enough, the self does not need to have accomplished anything meaningful at all in order to lay claim to such a lofty position. At no point in Paradise Lost or Whitney’s “Greatest Love of All” do Satan or Houston lay out a case for their greatness. Whitney “learned to depend on me,” although she offers no explanation as to why “me” can sustain such dependence. She even admits that depending on herself might lead to failure:
If I fail, if I succeed
At least I’ll live as I believe
The nature of this failure— financial failure, moral failure, liver failure— is unspecified, although the song brazenly suggests all three kinds of failure are acceptable provided the singer can claim, as she dies, that she lived as she believed. Of course, given that the singer— like Satan— never found “someone to look up”, we have only to conclude the beliefs she lived by were entirely self-derived.
I need not belabor the irony of other people singing along to Houston’s song— while refusing to walk in anyone else’s shadow, Houston invites us to walk in hers— or the risible self-aloofness that allows Satan’s submissive, yielding minions to cheer on their leader, who refuses to do anything he asks of others. Whitney imitates no one, which means that if we want to be like Whitney, we should not imitate her. At the same time, if we do not wantto be like Whitney, neither should we imitate her. Either way, Whitney’s anthem is a black hole from which nothing returns.
Were Whitney’s “Greatest Love of All” nothing more than a curio, and if everyone who heard the song smiled condescendingly at the illogical and bizarrely self-defeating nature of its message— well, that would be one thing. However, songs like “Greatest Love of All” have become some of the most common love songs of our era.
The foremost ambassador of self-love anthems is Katy Perry, whose “Roar” has racked up nearly half a billion plays on Spotify, though the plot of most of Perry’s songs is the same: you thought I was nothing, but I’m actually quite something, and pretty soon, you’re going to realize that I’m something. A great many rap songs feature high-vaulted boasts, as well, though the boasts of rappers are typically backed up with genuine evidence. The rapper does not claim to be great and expect listeners to take his word for it. Songs from artists like Drake, Future, or Migos often read like closing arguments in a court case wherein the MC is defending himself against the charge that he does not live in dumbfounding luxury. On the other hand, Katy Perry (and others of her ilk) are not usually willing to offer any proof whatsoever of their greatness. Perry claims in the first verse of “Roar” that she used to be “quiet,” “polite,” and “scared to rock the boat,” then suddenly, in the chorus and following verses, she claims to be “a fighter,” “a champion,” and “my own hero.” I speak of “the narrative” of Perry’s songs, though the song doesn’t have a narrative per se. Rather, claims of greatness simply materialize from nowhere. However, in a society which has rejected the concept of nature, losers can spontaneously turn into winners in roughly the same way that women can suddenly turn into men. The claim to greatness, like the claim to suddenly becoming a man, need not be based on any material reality whatsoever. None of this is even really meant to be a critique, I should add. I am simply summarizing the unprecedented turn which metaphysics has taken in the last decade.
In Paradise Lost, Satan’s early claims to greatness are also largely substantiated. He claims to have an “unconquerable will,” but only because he cannot claim to have an “unconquerable army,” given that his army was lately expelled from heaven. Elsewhere, Satan will boast of having the second strongest army in the cosmos (though there are only two), and lest his followers complain that the lake of fire is not so pleasant as the streets of gold, plans are made to spruce the place up. Naturally, Satan leaves such menial work to others, and invents a reason to get out of Hell as quickly as he can, allowing absolutely no one else to come with him on his important journey to earth. Satan’s obsession with self-advancement and self-fulfillment has absolutely robbed him of self-awareness, and in this way, he strikes me as being quite a bit like Michael Scott from The Office. He is surrounded by a sea of Dwight-like demons, social climbers and flatterers who futilely believe obeisance to the boss will secure them a better place in the flames.
While our society tends to look at the selfie anthem as the cure for bullying, allow me to suggest that songs like “Roar” and “Greatest Love of All” are actually the fountain from which bullying springs. Empowering the victims of bullying (with weapons or lawyers) is a temporary cure for bullying, but not a long-term solution. The bully is nothing if not empowered. The bully exerts his or her will over the weak with no care for justice or mercy. So, too, the selfie anthem is entirely centered on exerting the will, conquering naysayers (no matter what they say nay to) and glorifying the self, regardless of what the self wants. While it is pleasant to think of the bullied teenage girl turning on “Roar” while driving to school in the morning, singing along, and promising herself that she won’t be pushed around today, what do we imagine bullies listen to on the way to school? Does the bully not wink at herself in the rearview mirror as she belts out, “You’re going to hear me roar”? What is there in “Roar” which the bully could possibly object to? There’s no “Blessed are the meek” in there. In fact, the lack of moral vision in the selfie anthem ought to make the bully feel at home in the chorus. The selfie anthem offers no reason for the bullied girl to not simply transform herself into a bully as a means of fighting other bullies. Empowering people is actually quite easy. Teaching the proper limits of power requires a vision of the transcendent, though, and our society loathes the transcendent. We want to end bullying, but we are unwilling to look at where bullies come from.
I suppose some generous listener might supply his or her own vision of justice to Perry’s self-empowerment slogans, but neither Perry, Houston, nor any of those who trade in selfie anthems are much concerned with virtue. Neither is the self-love anthem compatible with St. John the Baptist’s summary dismissal of the self, “I must decrease and He [Christ] must increase.” The selfie anthem is simply a naked power grab.
Little space remains to discuss Satan as a proto-Tony Robbins, though I exhort readers to peruse Book IX of Paradise Lost and observe Old Scratch as the relentlessly positive cheerleader-preacher who transforms wants into needs and curiosities into commands. In the coaxing speech which culminates in Eve eating the fruit, Satan demeans God as an arbitrary tyrant who pushes around lesser, weaker creatures. “The only way God will respect you is if you stick up for yourself,” Satan implies, then teases Eve by suggesting that God gave them the rule to not eat in the hope they would break it and finally advocate for themselves. Satan styles himself as a liberator, a freedom fighter. God doesn’t want you tied to his apron strings for eternity. God wants to hear you “roar.”
If the claim that popular culture has lately turned from good old-fashioned paganism toward satanism strikes you as alarmist, I suppose I could not blame you, although I’m not flailing my hands in the air and crying about the sky falling. “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist,” says Verbal Kint in The Usual Suspects, though I think this might only be his second greatest trick. The real greatest trick was convincing the world he was some bizarre, manifestly malign monster who had no tricks, no disguises, and could be spotted coming a mile away. This trick simultaneously affirms our deep-seated conviction that evil is real, but also plays into our laziness; while evil is real, we don’t actually need to worry about it. We have not heeded W.H. Auden’s caution that evil will come “in a form/ That we do not expect.”
My claim is not that listening to “Roar” (and so forth) will lead to animal sacrifices and witchcraft, just that it might do to listeners what Satan did to Eve— namely, “Roar” might con listeners into exchanging happiness for self-advancement. “Roar” might rob listeners of the ability to distinguish between contentment and pleasure, authority and power. And just as was the case for Eve, such a fate is not the end of the world, but it is the end of joy.