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MacIntyre: Sam Smith reveals the death of transgression

Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

Over the weekend, a very mediocre British musician by the name of Sam Smith attempted to generate controversy by dancing in satanic garb while performing at the Grammy Awards. Smith, who has declared himself non-binary, sang a song named “Unholy” along with trans performer Kim Petras while dancers in satanic horns, leather lingerie, and whips surrounded the duo on stage.

If you were unaware that the Grammys were broadcast, or that they even exist, you’re in good company. No one cares about these self-congratulatory media spectacles any more, and Smith’s performance was obviously designed as a desperate bid for relevance. In the past, transgression has been an easy way to generate outrage and gain attention for America’s degenerate cultural elites, but the only remarkable thing about Smith’s antics was how lazy, safe, and banal they really were.

The left is a coalition of those who stand to gain from deconstructing Western civilization, and Christianity is one of their favorite targets. Progressives generate political power by deconstructing the nation’s heritage, its families, and its values, but they seem most gleeful when they get the opportunity to attack its dominant religion.

Rather than build something of substance by venerating the good, beautiful, and true, the vast majority of leftists' art and culture for many decades has been built entirely on subversion. At first these television shows, movies, and songs had interesting things to say. There were, of course, many instances of hypocrisy and contradictions that early works of this type could examine. But when a cultural movement’s only trick is the deconstruction of the culture that came before it, that movement is living on borrowed time.

Smith’s performance would like to recreate the shocked indignation of old, the kind of scandal that caused outraged parents to rail against the sexually charged performances of Madonna or inspired Tipper Gore to lead a campaign of censorship targeting bands like Motley Crue and Twisted Sister. But those days are far in the rearview mirror. Hollywood, the music industry, academia, and every other major cultural force in America have done nothing but challenge, deconstruct, and transgress these boundaries while building nothing of their own, and frankly, it has become a bloodless and depressing affair.

Madonna herself may have been the poster child for how sad and empty the revolution has become. The aging pop star, who made a name for herself with highly sexualized videos that mocked religion, made a presentation at the awards show honoring those who had picked up her torch of rebellion. The real question is: Rebellion against what? Every cause Madonna championed has now been accepted by corporate America; every attitude about sexuality or religion has been adopted by the public school system. Madonna's face is almost unrecognizable. A weird collection of plastic surgery procedures, undergone in an attempt to stay young and relevant, have left the artist looking like a caricature. A musician who once relied on youth, beauty, and subversion now desperately tries to stay relevant and edgy by pushing a revolution that became mainstream and boring many decades ago: a perfect reflection of the pop culture complex in its entirety.

Far from challenging power or the established cultural norms, Smith’s cartoon satanism and LGBTQ politics embrace the mainstream narrative pushed by every major institution in the United States. The singer has the same politics and cultural beliefs espoused by Citibank, Google, Goldman Sachs, and Walmart. There was never any danger of real consequences or cancellation. It was the safest performance imaginable.

If Smith were really interested in causing controversy, he could have mocked Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, or any other religion, but he chose Christianity because he understood that it is the one target for which he will receive zero pushback. It would have been equally tasteless, but at least it would have showed willingness to challenge the popular narrative.

If Smith were really interested in challenging established power, he could have questioned the trans movement, abortion, or the corporate leviathan that seems so obsessed with destroying the American family, but he is a coward masquerading as a rebel, so he simply parrots the positions of the powerful. After the pop star’s performance, an advertisement aired proudly proclaiming that the celebration of satanic imagery had been brought to the viewer by Pfizer, the same pharmaceutical giant responsible for the dubious COVID-19 vaccine. Good to know that the Lord still has a sense of humor.

Progressivism is a cultural vampire feeding on the bones of a once-great Christian culture, but as it cleans the last bit of marrow from those bones, it becomes desperate. How do you keep a coalition together that was organized around the deconstruction of traditional American culture once you have consumed that culture entirely? The hedonism and social atomization the left offers do little to create a new and dynamic cultural force. There is no substance on which progressives can create a foundation. If your cultural movement is built entirely on deconstruction, once you exhaust the energy generated by outrage, the only thing left to do is make the deconstruction of the ritual a ritual unto itself.

Progressives have created sacraments for themselves like transition, abortion, and coming out, but these rituals lose all of their animating energy when the forces they were aimed at no longer hold cultural sway. The left can parade around "The Handmaid’s Tale" or any other delusional boogieman of Christianity it would like, but it is becoming increasingly difficult for anyone to pretend these straw men pose any real threat to progressive hegemony. While the left is committed to all kinds of horrible atrocities, it may be that the response progressives fear most to their tired and stale brand of corporate rebellion is a bored yawn.

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