The Devil in Music

When we look back on the history of music, there’s a trope that has risen again, and again, and again: brilliant musicians selling their souls to the Devil in exchange for fame and talent. While this idea is today synonymous with metal and shock rock in particular, it has existed long before the invention of the electric guitar. This is Eden, your guide today through this Garden of Earthly Knowledge, and in this instalment of “Horror in Music”, we will be looking at the Devil and his long, symbolic, and profitable partnership with famous musicians.

Historically, the Devil has been associated with the violin. In the late 1700s, the virtuoso violinist Niccolo Paganini was so skilled at his craft, it was speculated that he had sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for his uncanny talent, and even composed a piece called “The Devil’s Laughter Caprice.” However, almost 100 years before Paganini, there was another brilliant violinist whose association with the Devil sprang from first hand accounts: Violinist Giuseppe Tartini had a dream, wherein he, in his own words, sold his soul to Satan, who then taught him “a sonata so wonderful and so beautiful, played with such great art and intelligence, as I had never even conceived in my boldest flights of fantasy,” as the composer later recounted. Upon waking, he tried to recreate the sonata, and his “vain” attempts resulted in his song known as “The Devil’s Trill,” a piece that shifts from moments of sweeping beauty, to jarring, anxious tones.

In the 20th Century, the Devil’s affinity for the violin shifted to the instrument that would be iconic of the new age of music: The guitar. Robert Johnson, evoking the stories of Paganini and Tartini before him, played the guitar with such otherworldly prowess that rumors promptly arose that his ability was gifted to him through a contract with Satan made at the crossroads, a setting frequently used in conjuration rituals. With song titles like “Me and the Devil,” “Crossroad Blues,” and “Hellhound on My Trail,” Johnson didn’t seem to be dissuading these stories. However, the Devil in his lyrics seems, by and large, to be a metaphor for the darkness within himself, that manifested in acts of violence and self destruction.

The legend of Robert Johnson, the man who birthed the Delta Blues genre, would live on, as blues eventually metamorphosed into rock and roll. Hysterical traditionalists, wary of the new popular music’s revelry in sex, partying, and boozing were quick to call it the Devil’s music, and denounce rockers as sinners and Satanists. The truth was much more banal, but it didn’t stop self-aware artists from playing around with the idea. For the Rolling Stones, in their classic song “Sympathy for the Devil,” the being represents evil in the hearts of man, existing across eons and perpetrating atrocities. While they infamously and rebelliously portrayed themselves as being in league with Satan, it’s clear that they see the figure more as an archetype of wrongdoing, and their devilish posturing is more shock rock to ruffle the feathers of the establishment than any actual allegiance to a mythical bogeyman.

This portrayal of the Devil as a rock and roll icon, full of edginess and the ability to strike fear into the status quo, is one that ensorcelled singer/songwriter Tori Amos. While her examination of this archetype crops up throughout her discography, it is most thoroughly examined in her ’96 album Boys for Pele. Its narrative tells of Amos attempting to make a symbolic deal with the Devil to become as fearsome and bombastic as her male counterparts like Trent Reznor or Anthony Kiedis. However, as these deals always have a catch, she realizes that she has lost something in the trade: Her grasp of her identity, and her own inherent power therein, has been sacrificed, and the follow up album, the dark and moody From the Choirgirl Hotel, can be read as her journey into the underworld to reclaim her soul.

In the modern day, rock band Queens of the Stone Age seem to be keeping the spirit of classic rock alive, with its exaltation in Earthly Delights at the forefront of many of their lyrics. The video for their 2017 single, “The Way You Used to Do,” portrays singer/lead guitarist Josh Homme as the Devil himself, signing someone to a contract in a ritual framed by an extravagant rock performance, with witchy metalhead ballerinas, massive pentacles, fire and smoke, and possible human sacrifice. It is a very tongue-in-cheek homage to the hundreds of years old cliché of musical stardom and deals with the Devil.

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