Lil Nas X has pulled off a great feat: he has managed to enrage Christian conservatives by being all the things that they project onto him and other young gay and queer people, and then sitting back as they get spitting mad seeing their visions of hate materialized.
If you haven’t seen his music video for “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name),” please do! If you have, you know that the video is, among many things, sexual, creative, beautiful, metaphorical, and packed with various religious references, bringing gay subtext to life.
My first inclination, after watching the video, was to try and google all the various religious and classical references Lil Nas X used in his video beyond his kiss with the snake in the Garden of Eden and his stripper pole-assisted “fall” from Heaven toward Hell, much like Lucifer’s “fall from grace.”
And there are many, as broken down by Vox and BuzzFeed: An excerpt of Plato’s Symposium written on the Tree of Life, the phrase “They condemn what they do not understand” written in Latin on the floor of Hell, the rocks stoning him in a coliseum (the Colosseum?) shaped like butt plugs, the stripper pole he rides down to Hell initially appearing as a spear thrown at him like the arrows shot at “gay icon” St. Sebastian.
But beyond the craftsmanship of Lil Nas X’s video lies his true artistry — his ability to make so many righteous people mad just by turning their own words against them. Upon the release of the video, the rapper shared a message on social media to his younger self — the song is eponymous, after all: “you see this is very scary for me, people will be angry, they will say i’m pushing an agenda. but the truth is, i am. the agenda to make people stay the fuck out of other people’s lives and stop dictating who they should be.”
He later tweeted, “i spent my entire teenage years hating myself because of the shit y’all preached would happen to me because i was gay. so i hope u are mad, stay mad, feel the same anger you teach us to have towards ourselves.” In acting out the Garden of Eden, his persecution (by a crowd of people who are also Lil Nas X), and his descent toward Heaven, then Hell, Lil Nas X is subverting all of the justifications that Christians have used to be homophobic and reject queer people, while also exploring the ways that these harmful ideas may have manifested in himself.
Of course, the backlash has been homophobic, and racist, evoking similar moral panic responses akin to Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP” from last year. Conservatives are even more furious that Lil Nas X dropped his video a week before Easter, though as a confirmed Catholic not even I made that connection. Truly, Christians are reaching for any and everything they can to build out their offense to this music video.
It’s been five days since the video dropped, and people are still so freaking mad. They’re going on national TV about it. They’re speaking to their church congregations about Lil Nas X and the Satanic messages behind “MONTERO.” They’re losing their minds (conveniently, it feels, in the weeks after back-to-back acts of gun violence) and are elevating Lil Nas X’s evocative music video to great new heights.
And Lil Nas X has somehow managed to not only get these people mad, but has so craftily weaponized their hatred that they seemed to have missed that they’re playing the part that he knew they would play. It almost feels like something akin to getting corn-cobbed — these people are mad, and rather than trying to cover up the fact that they’ve been made to feel angry by a Black, gay visionary whose expressed purpose was to enrage them, they’ve completely blown past the realization. It’s genius.
And the music video was just the beginning — Lil Nas X tweeted that he had nine months to plan this music video rollout, and he’s already elevated the release with a limited-edition drop of “Satan Shoes,” 666 pairs of Nike Airs customized by MSCHF, each containing a drop of human blood, that have managed to get Nike to respond with a lawsuit. This in itself is rich, given Nike’s history with letting an executive get away with grifting shoes for her teen son, as well as the company’s various alleged human rights violations, surely performed while making pairs of shoes that plenty of Christ-fearing people wear without batting an eyelash.
But zooming out, the shoes are part of a strategy through which Lil Nas X continues to underscore the hypocrisy of the very people who have used the concept of Hell and the fear-mongering of the Christian faith to cultivate terror and self-hatred into young gay and queer people. As he put it in one of his tweets, “y’all love saying we going to hell but get upset when i actually go there lmao.”
It’s a liberating and clever game, one that I’m sure may be personally painful for him to play out — I imagine it is difficult withstanding copious bigoted, targeted scrutiny, even while being someone who has worked to undo the internalized homophobia that these people enforce. Of course, this is not something that Lil Nas X has brought upon himself, even given his intentions with the video rollout. The racist, homophobic backlash belongs to the people who’ve long cultivated these reactions, alone.
All this is not to say that “MONTERO” or its music video were made for the express purpose of enraging the right, either. Regardless of any of the ideas that other people have projected upon Lil Nas X and his work, myself included, the video for “MONTERO” stands on its own. The song is a hit, and video is a work of art in itself, Spongebob references included. But to have created a piece of work that acts as a commentary on right-wing, Christianity-fueled homophobia, while also getting right-wing Christians pissed as hell? That is art.