Lil Nas X Shows How to Deliver a Message and Capture an Audience

2019 MTV Video Music Awards – Arrivals – Prudential Center, Newark, New Jersey, U.S.
Lil Nas X has come a long way since “Old Town Road.”
Reuters/Caitlin Ochs

When conservative pundits attack a music video for being too sexual, that’s just business as usual. (Ben Shapiro feigning an inability to read out the actual chorus of Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP” and declaiming “wet ass p-word” instead was comedy gold.)

When a politician — a governor, no less — takes time out of her busy day to tweet her outrage at a brand of sneakers created by a gay Black rapper for supposedly promoting Satanism, the culture wars are proving to be a great way to distract Americans from COVID, rampant gun violence, voter suppression, and abusive practices from corporations like Amazon. Lil Nas X’s latest video, “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” made an impact far beyond his fans, as it was designed to.

Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” is one of the biggest songs in the history of pop music. Holding the record for Billboard magazine’s longest-running #1 song, it has also sold 14 million copies, according to the Recording Industry Association of America. Lil Nas X came out as gay at the height of its run, first with a tentative tweet referring to one of his lyrics and the rainbow in the artwork for his ep “7” and then with a more definite statement. While “Old Town Road” remained a delight even after many listens, the genre-agnostic mindset behind its mix of country music and hip-hop felt more like a lack of focus on “7.” Listening to it, I didn’t get any sense that Lil Nas X’s music was particularly personal, as he seemed to be trying on styles and personae. Only on “Old Town Road” did any of them stick. The fact that he was making music from the closet helps explain this.

But the commercial success he’s achieved helped fuel his latest visual, “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” which looks like it used a special effects budget that could finance an independent feature film. His flirtations with a performative pseudo-Satanism have a long history in pop culture, going back to rock bands like Blue Oyster Cult, the Rolling Stones, and Black Sabbath. It does not seem like a big deal in 2021, when made an ad in which Satan used their services to meet his dream date and spiritual partner. Simultaneously, Lil Nas X and the sneaker company MSCHF are releasing a limited 666-edition of “Satan shoes” containing a drop of human blood. He’s out to promote himself by creating controversy, and judging from social media response or the YouTube comments under “Montero” (and reaction videos), it’s worked. This song is sure to debut at #1 next week.

But this isn’t an edgelord’s empty shock value; there is actually a great deal of artistry and a serious point to the video. He’s using Satan to exorcise religious trauma. The video starts off in the Garden of Eden, where a dreadlocked Lil Nas X plays guitar before meeting a sexy alien with ties to the snake who tempted Eve. He then proceeds to make out with him (the rapper plays every character in the video). This section suggests that the foundational myth of Adam and Eve reinforces the idea that heterosexuality and a rigid gender binary are humanity’s default standard, so much so that a gay man has to step outside the human race entirely to escape from it. Throughout the video, Lil Nas X portrays non-human characters, who are almost always (Satan) or frequently (aliens) seen negatively. It’s easy to understand why a gay Black man might feel that he’s seen as the Other and barely accepted as human, therefore identifying with such “monsters.”

The song itself feels like an afterthought. Driven by flamenco-influenced acoustic guitar over trap beats, it fits into a familiar vein of melodic hip-hop. But while everyone overlooked the references to drugs and adultery in “Old Town Road,” “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” describes a fling with a closeted man in much more explicit terms. The final third of the video takes its grappling with religious trauma in an even more provocative direction. (It may have been influenced by Yves Tumor’s visual “Gospel for a New Century,” in which the Black, non-binary singer plays the devil as a lustful rock star.) After standing trial, apparently for being gay, an angel tries to kill him with a spear. Lil Nas X turns it into a stripper pole and descends into hell. (This image directly lifts from FKA Twigs’ video “Cellophane.”) He gives Satan a lap dance, but then breaks the devil’s neck and takes his horns, claiming the mantle of hell’s ruler for himself.

Lil Nas X’s videos have always been extravagant. “Old Town Road” riffed on the song’s rejection by the white country music establishment. “Panini” took advantage of a much higher budget to play out sci-fi fantasy. But “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” uses the power of fantasy, drawing on anime and video games, to flip the tables on the cruelty of the real world. Lil Nas X has said that when he was 14, he desperately prayed to God to turn him heterosexual. Like the reclamation of the word “queer,” the video flips ideas that were supposed to be negative into something positive, indeed joyful. If bigoted Christians believe heaven is a country club that allows them to gatekeep queers, religious minorities, leftists and other “sinners” (a concept dramatized in the scene where Lil Nas X is cast out of the Garden of Eden and put in chains), hell does seem much more like a sexy, inclusive nightclub than eternal torment. It’s such a self-own that Kristi Noem, a governor described by Rolling Stone as “the COVID queen of South Dakota,” spends her time getting mad at pop culture pseudo-Satanism rather than safeguarding the health of her state. What’s truly devilish?

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