Over the past decade, bombastic, theatric, operatic metal Swedes have become unlikely mainstream rock stars. They won the Grammy for Best Metal Performance in 2016 and have scored three nominations since then, most recently for "Call Me Little Sunshine" off their 2022 studio LP, Impera. That ambitious 12-song cycle — despite being a seemingly willfully uncommercial concept album about "demigod worship" and "the unescapable fails and falls of empires" after the Black Plague, and boasting Aleister Crowley-inspired cover art — managed to yield the band's first Hot 100 single, “Mary on a Cross,” and debut at No. 2 on the Billboard 200. Impera also won two big fan-voted honors, Favorite Rock Album at the American Music Awards and Best Rock Album of the Year at the iHeart Radio Music Awards. And among Ghost's biggest fans is Def Leppard's Joe Elliott, who in a torch-passing moment contributed guest vocals to a new version of the Impera anthem "Spillways" earlier this year.
But not everyone’s a fan. “We obviously are a polarizing band,” Ghost’s fearless leader Tobias Forge — alternately known as the diabolical priest character Papa Emeritus or Papa’s panda-eyed successors, Cardinal Copia and now the Impera-era Papa Emeritus IV — tells Yahoo Entertainment.
Although Ghost’s over-the-top, presumably tongue-in-greasepainted-cheek satanic imagery has always drawn detractors, as their fame has grown, so have protests targeting the band — including a bizarre one that took place in Midland, Texas, and made international headlines, during Ghost’s “A Pale Tour Named Death” U.S. arena trek.
In November 2018, Larry Long, the pastor of the Fellowship Community Church, said Midland needed to be protected from the supposedly devil-worshiping group, warning a local CBS affiliate, “This kind of band will bring spiritual influences into this area. We’re concerned about it, because we believe the devil is real, just as we believe God is real. … I think if [young fans are] singing along to those lyrics, who knows what in the world they’re opening their hearts and lives up to?”
Ghost’s Midland show went on as planned — and of course, the church's stunt only raised Ghost's profile in the United States. “At the end of the day, what [the Fellowship Community Church] caused was more tickets sold. So, thank you very much,” Forge chuckles.
Still, although Forge says such outrage is “to an extent, amusing,” he adds, “To a greater extent, I think it’s sad. … I find it saddening thinking that there are people who don’t know f***ing bad from good and shit from Shinola. I find it saddening that people would choose to stand out in the cold [protesting Ghost], thinking that they’re making a difference. I think it’s sad that people are wasting their time thinking that we’re bad for people, when actually what we’re really trying to do is make people happy and make people feel good about themselves when they come to our show and have a good time.”
Although certain PMRC-baiting shock-rockers that paved the way for Ghost — Ozzy Osbourne, AC/DC, Judas Priest — have been accused of encouraging suicidal or homicidal tendencies among impressionable fans, Forge believes that “dark music, everything from gothic to death metal and black metal and hardcore” can, on the contrary, be a source of celebration and even salvation.
“There are definitely rock fans over the years that have done negative things toward each other and or towards themselves, but I don’t think that’s because of the music. That’s because they were in a bad place in their lives,” the good Papa stresses. “Actually, it might have even been the music that made them live so long, that kept them going. Hard rock, in general, does not promote that you should harm anyone. I definitely think there are other music styles that promote a way worse lifestyle, that you could look upon as being more negative. [Pop] music styles that promote a way of living that their fans will never have — when music is all about ‘making it’ and wearing ‘bling-bling’ and ‘all them bitches,’ and the idea that without that stuff you’re nothing — that is a bad influence for your fans. At least with most gothic or hard rock music, it’s about feeling good about yourself.”
Forge instead sees Ghost as following in tradition of “the big shock-rock bands of 1984” that his much older, punk-rocker brother introduced him to when he was growing up in a liberal, pop-culture-savvy home in Linköping, Sweden. “The artists I immediately grasped onto were when I was 3 years old,” Forge recalls. “[Mötley Crüe’s] Shout at the Devil, [Twisted Sister’s] Stay Hungry, KISS, stuff like that. My brother was so nice and just passed those records on to me, like, ‘Here, you’ll like this more.’ I played them all the time. Then it just blossomed from there.”
Now Ghost is being heralded as the imagination-sparking band serving the same purpose for today’s rock-starved youth. “I do believe that there is a glimmer of hope in what we do with regards to the fact that there are a lot of kids coming to our shows. We are the first band that they see live. That is a really good thing, thinking long-term,” Forge muses. “I don’t mind being that glimmer of hope. I do believe that the more exposure we get, the more time that we spend in people’s ears, I hope that the interest in analog rock will be kept alive or awoken or might find a way into kids of today. I guess we could be a little bit [for today’s young fans] what KISS was in the ’70s.”
That being said, Forge is reluctant to accept the pro-Ghost media’s proclamations that Ghost are the reigning saviors of rock ‘n’ roll. “I’d love for the mainstream music climate to steer back towards rock, and I’m sure it will at some point. But does that mean there will be image-driven shock-rock bands, as far as a movement? I don’t know,” he says. “I do believe that the rock bands that will be big in the future are the ones that are being formed by kids, the 18-year-olds, today, right now. They are the ones that will rock the future, because that’s how it always is. The bands that will be big in five or 10 years, when there might be a big domination of rock again, will be bands that we most likely don’t know as of right now.”
But those bands, as Forge hints, may very well be Ghost disciples, because today’s kids, despite the handwringing of concerned conservatives like Long, are loving Ghost’s epic live shows on their current "Re-Imperatour" — in which a Pope-robed Papa IV, flanked by Victorian-jacketed, steampunk-helmeted, and occasionally keytar-wielding Nameless Ghouls, performs dystopian anthems like "Imperium," "Rats," "From the Pinnacle to the Pit," "Year Zero," "Mummy Dust," and "Dance Macabre” in a rock ‘n’ roll church bedecked with inverted crosses.
As the tour climaxes next week with two shows at Los Angeles's Forum, the nearby Grammy Museum will even launch the Ghost Devotional Pop-Up for the band's especially faithful flock — complete with confession booth where fans are encouraged to "bare their souls about why they think Ghost are the best rock band in the world!" Ghost's imagery and themes may be alarming to some, but it seems the rock kids understand.
“The biggest misconception [about Ghost] is that the lyrical content is being provocative because it’s about God. And it’s not. It’s not about God at all,” insists Forge. “It’s about man, mankind. I use language and analogy to make it seem that it is about other things, but the songs are usually, they are about very real things. Sometimes I think it’s almost laughable to the point of annoying that protesters are just picking up on the literal meaning.
“There are many misconceptions about who I am or how I think, and of course it’s annoying. But that is just part of being in a band nowadays. If I didn’t want any of this, I shouldn’t be in a band. But I want to do this. I want to rock.”
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