February 13th, 2012
02:31 PM ET
By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor
(CNN) - Even with a superstar memorialized and a Beach Boys reunion, it was a confusing high church sendup, complete with exorcisms, that stole the show at Sunday night's Grammy Awards.
When Nicki Minaj walked the red carpet in a red shawl that harkened back to Little Red Riding Hood, along with a man dressed as the pope in a white cassock and pointed white miter hat, it was a foreshadowing of what was to come on the stage at the Staples Center for the 54th Grammys.
Minaj is a hip-hop artist who was nominated, in part or in full, for four Grammys, including best new artist and best rap album of the year.
She walked away from the evening empty-handed but stirred a hornets' nest with a live performance of her new song "Roman Reloaded."
It began with Minaj sitting with a priest in a confessional. If the song is an allusion to the Catholic Church, the priest's costume collar was an odd choice, because his vestments were distinctively Anglican.
Neva Rae Fox, a spokeswoman for the Episcopal Church, said the choice of collar probably "was more of a wardrobe inaccuracy," as she suspects the intent was to portray a Catholic confessional.
"It's an Anglican collar, and the priest is wearing a white stole. In a confession, you'd wear a purple stole," the scarf-like clothing priests wear, said Danielle Tumminio, an Episcopal priest in Massachusetts. "That seemed a bit odd."
The performance continued with a video spoof of the classic horror film "The Exorcist," stained-glass windows, dancing monks, an altar boy in a seductive position on a kneeler with a female dancer and a choir singing "O Come All Ye Faithful." It ended with Minaj levitating, stiff as a board, off the stage.
"People just didn't get it," said Nischelle Turner, a CNN entertainment correspondent who was on the red carpet at the Grammys. "Nobody really got it at all. More so, people were just saying, 'I get artistic expression but this was just odd.' "
In a statement, Bill Donohue of the Catholic League said the performance was probably approved by the Recording Academy, which is responsible for the Grammys.
"Whether Minaj is possessed is surely an open question, but what is not in doubt is the irresponsibility of The Recording Academy. Never would they allow an artist to insult Judaism or Islam," he wrote.
"The video reminded me a lot of Madonna's 'Like a Prayer,' being provocative with religious imagery," Tumminio said. What surprised her, though, was, " 'Like a Prayer' has religious lyrics, whereas this [Minaj] song really doesn't."
Tumminio echoed some of Donohue's concerns that Christianity, and in particular the Catholic Church, was being maligned. "Roman Catholicism, more than other Christian denominations, has really got a heightened awareness of sexual abuse perpetuated by clergy. It's damaged the reputation of the church and the idea the church is an institution that gives hope to people."
But it was the exorcism scenes that raised the most eyebrows.
"It's a performance," author Matt Baglio said. "Any artist is going to touch on the most sensational and well-known kind of iconic images associated with exorcism. She captured them pretty well, climbing up on the wall and levitation; just being aggressive, and her voice was changing."
Baglio is the author of The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist, which followed Father Gary Thomas, an American Catholic priest who trained to be a exorcist in Rome. (We profiled Thomas here last year.)
Baglio says that as he wrote the book, he observed 30 exorcisms.
"I didn't see anything like that. The real world exorcism is nothing like that. It's much more boring," he said. "The exorcisms I saw were much less spectacular. That made it much more creepy for me."
Minaj did not respond to CNN's request for comment on the performance.
But she has spoken before about having many alter egos, including the character of Roman Zolanski, whom she has described as a crazed gay male. Spin.com explained it this way: "Roman allows Minaj to tap into the fire-breathing, giddily nihilistic spirit that drew so many rap heads to her mixtapes ..."
Having the character out in public on music's biggest stage and drawing the ire of religious critics probably won't hurt sales. "Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded," Minaj's sophomore album, is expected to be released in April.
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.