The music industry, along with the wider entertainment world, has long been considered a difficult, brutal field. Hunter S. Thompson once famously said “The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench; a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There’s also a negative side.” Yet beyond the usual tales of greed, corruption, and nastiness, some allege a deeper, darker, more secretive aspect. For years, allusions in popular culture - both visual and auditory - have run rampant, adding credibility to the existence of various secret societies. Foremost among these is the Illuminati, whose name alone has become a cultural fascination that has gripped the zeitgeist, and whom many believe is an organisation not only maliciously intentioned, but widespread and omnipotent.
There is no debate that the Illuminati did exist. Historically, the title referred to the Bavarian Illuminati, a secret society founded in 1776, the same year America wrote the Declaration of Independence. The group’s goals were to oppose superstition, obscurantism, religious influence over public life, and abuses of state power. “The order of the day,” they wrote at the time, “is to put an end to the machinations of the purveyors of injustice, to control them without dominating them.” Alongside similar groups such as the Freemasons, the Illuminati were swiftly outlawed by the rulers they had sworn to work against, as well as by the Roman Catholic Church. However, in the following century, it was often rumoured that the group had continued to operate underground, and were - among other things - responsible for the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror.
But the name of Illuminati had swiftly passed into legend. A not-so-secret society had become a whisper borne over cold winds, whose presence was never detected, yet felt by some. Their intangible influence found a perfect home in the world of conspiracy theories and conjecture. Often alleged to be a guiding hand that controls world affairs, largely through planting agents in governments and corporations, many believe that the Illuminati have successfully gained modern political power and influence, so as to establish a so-called New World Order.
This principle, commonly associated with the Illuminati, is one of one-world government. Symbolically identified by the icon of an all-seeing eye (as on the Great Seal of the United States), the New World Order involves systematic destruction of established government and the introduction of a globally-conquering totalitarian regime. During the Red Scare of 1947 to 1957, agitators from the American secular and Christian right increasingly embraced and spread unfounded fears of Illuminati, Freemasons, and Jews being the driving forces behind an “international communist conspiracy.” These days, many consider groups operating within the American upper class - collegiate fraternities such as the Skull and Bones Society, gentlemen’s clubs like the Bohemian Club, and think tanks such as the Council on Foreign Relations or the Trilateral Commission - to be front organizations for the Illuminati.
Which brings us to the past decade, where the existence of the Illuminati has consistently been the most talked-about, speculated-upon, debated, and accepted conspiracy theory we have. Many believe that propaganda intended to further the group’s malevolent intentions is placed in much of the Hollywood films we see and popular music we consume. This alleged propaganda usually takes the form of various recurring symbols which have all been linked to both the real and speculative iterations of the Illuminati. These symbols include the all-seeing eye, pyramids, owls, flames, pentagrams, obelisks, Baphomet, and the number 666.
Symbols such as the heavy metal devil horns, the iconic Rocafella Records diamond, and Black Sabbath’s inverted cross are often viewed as satanic Illuminati propaganda. Lady Gaga’s Bad Romance music video is perhaps the most blatant recent example; everything from Baphomet heads to triangle hand symbols, covered eyes, pitchforks, and fire can be seen shot by shot, sometimes subliminally. Bad Romance was released at the height of the modern Illuminati panic, and such unabashed symbology cannot be supposed to be unintentionally inserted. Whether their presence is through Illuminati machination or good old controversy-sparking marketing is another matter.
As with any conspiracy theory, there are hardcore believers among us who take paranoia to new heights. Look at the name chosen for the first child of that Illuminati power couple Jay Z and Beyoncé, Blue Ivy. Notice anything particularly strange about that name? Well, some conspiracy theorists would have you believe that the little girls’ name is actually an acronym for “Born Living Under Evil, Illuminati’s Very Youngest.” And yes, unfortunately that’s a serious theory.
To Illuminati die-hards, Hollywood’s role is to disseminate messages of “extreme materialism, spiritual vacuosity and a self-centered, individualistic existence,” according to anti-Illuminati site Vigilant Citizen. It is here that we come full circle to Hunter S. Thompson’s immortal words. After all, the sentiment expressed is not all that dissimilar. To many observers, Hollywood is filled with immoral debauchery, brainwashing, and vain provocation. However, for some, these negative aspects begin to take the form of a darker force than simple human misbehaviour.
Lady Gaga is one of the foremost “Illuminati puppets” supposedly linked to the cult. Alongside her stand Britney Spears, Madonna, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Eminem, will.i.am, Lil Wayne, Kanye West, and Jay Z, who have all flashed Illuminati-related symbols in live performances and music videos. Some, like Jay Z, have incorporated visual elements like the triangle into their brand; others have simply played upon well-founded stereotypes so as to appear edgier, more wild, more complex. Often they aren’t even subtle about it: Rihanna, for instance, flashed the text “Princess of the Illuminati” above her in the video for her song S&M.
For over-the-top examples of the phenomenon, take a look at the video for Ke$ha’s abominable single Die Young, released as the singer attempted to claw her way back from one-hit-wonder oblivion, or Azealia Banks' nauseating Young Rapunxel clip. The imagery purveyed by these artists is a practical feast for conspiracy buffs. It’s almost as though they are simply piling in every offensive, provocative symbol they possibly can; almost as though all this controversy is by design. Perhaps it is: controversy gets people talking, debating, and - by extension - consuming. Artists whose current business model is built solely around provocation, such as Miley Cyrus, don’t mind that they alienate the majority of the population with their questionable antics. Not when the cultural conversation revolves around them at every lewd, rude moment; they’ll sell their units all the better for it. The conservative audiences put off by their behaviour wouldn’t have gone to their shows anyway.
“In my mind, it’s ’bout rhyme, I’m just tryna speak freely/ My shawty feel Illuminati’s real and they might kill me/ For voicing my opinion, scared to die but this ain’t living,” raps Big K.R.I.T. on I Heard it All. And for many, that paranoia is real. At its inception, the United Nations was referred to as a form of New World Order; later, Mikhail Gorbachev and George H. W. Bush used the term in speeches made during the post-Cold War era, defining the spirit of great power and cooperation that they hoped might come to fruition. Nowadays, politicians are too careful to use terms so tainted. Yet in our entertainment industry, allusion runs rampant; how is the average consumer to determine whether there is real malice in the dark façade erected by many leading artists? The threat can seem viable when presented convincingly. Take one look at the Twitter results for Illuminati; this is one theory that has caught on, in the age of YouTube "documentaries" and close cultural comment.
When it comes to music, the debate is alive. Both in and out of lyrics themselves, the issue rages on between the artists who believe and those who do not. From Lauryn Hill to DMX, there have been many artists who, in interviews, have “exposed” the Illuminati conspiracies that derailed their careers. Others refute the label: Kendrick Lamar notably rebutted “Who said a black man in the Illuminati?/ Last time I checked, that was the biggest racist party,” while Kanye West summed up his thoughts in a freestyle: "All this Illuminati talk, like my first hit single wasn’t Jesus Walks."
There is no proof to substantiate a claim one way or the other. The imagery employed by mainstream artists may appear there by many motives, and in the absence of something more concrete, only conjecture remains. Perhaps the phrase Illuminati has become a byword for suspicion of hidden malice; perhaps those in search of answers to the causation of popular cultures’ moral decline find their answer in centuries-old Bavarian political groups. Ultimately, people will believe what they want to believe. Musicians, movie studios, and art directors will continue to play upon established stereotypes to corner certain markets, and the cycle will continue.
There can be no doubt that many celebrities enjoy the attention, much as they deny any affiliation. Take a look through the music videos for Billboard 100 hits at any given time and you’ll see the world’s biggest artists purveying symbolically sinister images. So it is, that while the factual existence of an all-powerful demonic cult that controls everything we hear may be unsure, one fact remains. Musicians have for years played with purposefully provocative symbolism in an effort to align themselves with the shady stigma groups like the Illuminati carry. Perhaps our cultural obsession with the possibility of such evil overlords, real or not, is far more worrying than whatever the truth of their existence may be.
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