Visually and sonically, “Montero” is an erotic elegy to the self, set in an an unapologetically queer world inhabited by Lil Nas X and various glammed up versions of himself. Photo Credit: Screengrab via YouTube
How Lil Nas X Subverts Pop & Satanic Panic in "Montero"
The world doesn’t know what to make of Lil Nas X and the Satan imagery found in his “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” video.
With the release of “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)”, its sexually charged video, and a pair of limited edition Satan-themed sneakers, Lil Nas X has set the internet ablaze in less than a week. These actions have ignited the ire of a republican governor, associated him with a lawsuit brought on by Nike, and ensured he’s one of the most talked about pop stars in the world right now. The world doesn’t know what to make of his latest irreverent effort or his troll-heavy clapbacks at detractors, but within the video — which was directed by Tanu Muino and Lil Nas X himself — and later on social media, the young rapper has all but spelled out a satirical critique of the world he’s turned on its head.
Visually and sonically, “Montero” is an erotic elegy to the self, set in an an unapologetically queer world inhabited by Lil Nas X and various glammed up versions of himself. The devil is in the details, or at least in this case, on the receiving end of a sensual lap dance from the "Old Town Road"-rapper. In the story of the fall, Lil Nas X has cast himself as both the temptress and the tempted, the condemned, and an ultimately all powerful seductress, all while giving butch queen realness. Through the video's comedic tones that capture his savvy as an internet troll, he has converted the centuries long association between Satan and the carnal pleasures of the flesh into a lattice over which to cast his own self-love and acceptance.
The key difference between this work and others by artists that flirt with satanic imagery is the unfettered proclamations of self-love and the visual markers of auto-eroticism. The associations between Satan and musicians are at least canonical — before the fall, satan was biblically associated with instruments. Over the last 30 years, a wide range of pop stars from Madonna to Tyler the Creator to even Kanye West have invoked religious and satanic iconography to a public moral outcry. For Madonna, 1989’s “Like a Prayer” was condemned by the Vatican after it’s video featured burning crosses and the singer having a sensual encounter with a Black saint.
This is a little different from how satanic imagery has been used in rap as a world building tool within the horrorscapes of groups like Three 6 Mafia or Odd Future. In the video for “Yonkers”, a young Tyler, the Creator sports an inverted cross, totally black and demonic seeming eyes, all while exhibiting behaviors one might perform while possessed — eating roaches, vomiting, inflicting self-harm. For as much shock value as these images and sentiments ignited in their respective times, they ring hollow when you consider each artist’s moral rebuttals around their work. While Tyler leaned into the darkness of this satanic imagery to bolster the dyspeptic yarn he spun on the track, he made sure to distance himself from homoeroticism ("I’m not gay/I just wanna boogie to some Marvin").
Lil Nas X seems to be in conversation with the assumed sin inherent in gayness, and can be heard reckoning with it in lines like “You live in the dark, boy, I cannot pretend. I'm not fazed, only here to sin.” With Lil Nas X’s now minted ability to turn even the most true declaration of self into a provocative pop anthem, it makes sense that the visuals would be equal parts earnest and outlandish. For however wild it reads that an androgynous serpent seduces a guitar-playing Eve with belly button licks, or that the video's protagonist chooses to spin down a miles long stripper pole to hell — instead of getting raptured to heaven — there is no question Lil Nas X loves every iteration of himself. While the visual of him split dropping down to actual hell is over the top by most standards, he uses the absurdity to double down on his commitment to be who he really is. What better salute to the bigoted zealots than to turn their own fear mongering about gays going to hell into a statement about queer resilience?
In a tweet posted after the release, he released a heartfelt letter to his 14 year old self. “I know we promised to never come out publicly, i know we promised to never be “that” type of gay person, i know we promised to die with the secret but this will open doors for many other queer people to simply eXist.” It’s worth noting that the name that Lil Nas X gave the song — and subsequently the fantastically queer world that the video takes place — is his legal first name. In this way, he is making Montero and, arguably, his true self synonymous with queer embodiment.
In the essay “The Erotic as Power”, Audre Lorde writes, “[The erotic] has been made into the confused, the trivial, the psychotic, the plasticized sensation. For this reason, we have often turned away from the exploration and consideration of the erotic as a source of power and information, confusing it with its opposite, the pornographic.” It is this “pornographic” “plasticized sensation” Lorde speaks of that is a perfect distillation of white christian America’s fear of satanism, and subsequently a 20-something black gay pop star twerking with the devil. Lorde’s summation of the perception of the erotic is exactly why Lil Nas X is reveling in the manufactured outrage. In a world that suppresses the power of the erotic, a Black queer pop star wielding said power with gusto and panache will always be a threat. Attitudes of fear toward eroticism coupled with christian fundamentalist paranoia might have reached their boiling point in the ‘80s — a moral outcry later referred to as satanic panic — but it’s this remaining underlying stigma of embodied Black queerness that still stokes anger in people today.
By making good on the grim promises of satanic panic with meme fodder and trolling, it’s in this way that Lil Nas X actually subverts surface level moral hysteria. Lil Nas X isn’t teasing flashes of pentagrams — he’s quite literally lap-dancing with the devil in thigh high pleasers. Nas X is not at his whim either: it is Satan himself at Nas X’s mercy, and Satan who is ultimately off-ed and usurped by him by the video’s end. By crowning himself after this, the global pop superstar is daring us to experience him on his own terms and meet him in his full power — but not without a few jokes first.
Ash Reed is a writer, occult enthusiast, and anime fan from Texas