“Thriller,” the video, with its dancing zombies and starring Jackson as a yellow-eyed werecat, was the spectacle. Jackson, a devout Jehovah’s Witness at the time, offered a disclaimer. “Due to my strong personal convictions,’’ he said, “I wish to stress that this film in no way endorses a belief in the occult.”
That may also have been the last time a pop music performer publicly considered the religious sensitivities of his or her audience.
That same year, Madonna writhed her way onto the “blasphemous” list after she performed a provocative version of “Like a Virgin,” in a white wedding gown and a belt emblazoned with the words “Boy Toy.” MTV credits that performance at its annual Video Music Awards as being one of its most iconic. Madonna’s style — tarty and cheeky and fun girliness — was often punctuated with a crucifix.
Never before had a woman been so blatantly sexy and sexual while wearing the central icon of Christian faith. And the girls ate it up. I remember Sister Ernestine lamenting about her “making the cross a decoration” in my religion class. She warned that we should never consider the symbol of our faith as just a “cute thing to wear.”
Despite being shy of 10 years old, I realized that my friends and I loved Madonna because she was such a maverick. Boys might give me cooties, but I knew Madonna was onto something when it came to talking about them.
It took another five years for the Material Girl to get herself banned by the Pope from performing in Italy, but we knew she could do it.
And one might have thought that after sharing a stage just days earlier with the creator of “provoco-Catholic-dance-pop,” rapper Nicki Minaj might have taken a note or two.
This year’s Grammy viewers got to watch her walk the red carpet with a man dressed as the Pope. Even Lady Gaga had to admit that Minaj in her scarlet Riding Hood outfit next to the pontiff look-alike cut quite the figure together. Anticipation and expectations grew.
Then the performance. The imagery came furiously and left a wake of confusion and ear pollution in its path.
As best I could make out, Minaj was portraying a fan of “West Side Story” in need of mental help. She screeched and gyrated in a confessional, forcing the priest to beg her to stop. Back at home, her worried mother beckoned the priest to the girl’s room. The priest then asked her name. Minaj climbed the wall and from the ceiling barked, “Roman!”
Later on in whatever that was, she was manacled above dancing monks, priests and altar boys. Some nude-suited female dancers appeared as well, and sex acts were simulated while plumes of steam and flashes of fire distracted from the strobe lights pulsing from the stage.
A choir warbled “Come All Ye Faithful,” and Minaj levitated while presumably being exorcised. Then we learned who won for Best Country Music Album from LL Cool J. And like Minaj, who remained suspended midair, the viewers were left hanging.
What did she say during her rap, which was too fast to be intelligible? What did all that Catholic stuff mean?
As a fan of the First Amendment, I don’t want artists holding back for fear of causing offense, but I do ask Ms. Minaj to do us all a favor: Next time, have something to say.
Leave the Catholic themes to those who understand how to use them to send a message. Or at a minimum, ask Madonna’s advice next time you want to try to reinvent the wheel she created.