On March 26, musician Lil Nas X released the single “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” along with its accompanying music video. In a message posted on Twitter that same day, Nas writes to his 14-year-old self, acknowledging that he once promised to never come out as gay but that “this will open doors for many other queer people to simply exist.”
Knowing this, combined with the fact that the song title and chorus is a reference to the 2017 LGBTQ+ romance film “Call Me By Your Name,” it becomes clear the song and its accompanying video are about Nas’s experiences as a young gay man.
The video relies heavily on Biblical Christian imagery, with references to the fall of the Garden of Eden and the trial of Jesus Christ before Pontious Pilate. The video also draws off of more modern Christian-influenced imagery, including a depiction of Satan in Hell, which has its roots in John Milton’s “Paradise Lost.”
While the music video features beautiful imagery, CGI effects, makeup and costuming, it was not these visuals that caught public attention. Instead, Lil Nax X received criticism for the last minute of the video which includes him pole dancing into Hell where he seduces Satan before killing him.
Lil Nas X received flack from social media users for the video and a corresponding customized sneaker Lil Nas X advertised titled the “Satan Shoe.” Some of the outspoken critics included conservative pundits Candace Owens, Kaitlin Bennett and Nick Adams as well as the governor of South Dakota, Kristi Noem.
While this level of outrage may lead one to believe that Lil Nas X had broken an unspoken rule that imagery featuring Satan is not allowed in art, the reality is much different. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.
As Dr. Sam Hirst of Romanticizing the Gothic pointed out in a Twitter thread, this image of Satan, as originated in “Paradise Lost,” was quickly taken during the Romantic Era to be a symbol of resistance against an unjust power.
“It was a powerful image in the era which saw political repression in Britain as a response to the French revolution,” said Hirst via Twitter. “The image of Milton’s Satan was loaded with meaning. Resistance against oppressive political regimes. Resistance against the ‘confessional state’ (there were laws which limited the movements, jobs and education of other religious affiliations than Anglican).”
Just as Romantic icons like William Blake and Lord Byron among others, Lil Nas X utilizes Satan and the concept of a fallen hero to symbolize issues relevant to him in the present moment. For Nas, this is his acceptance of his identity as a gay man.
Like many queer youths, Lil Nas X has faced religious contempt for his sexual identity, often in the form of the warning that he will go to Hell for it. Because of this, Lil Nas X and many young people like him have a hard time accepting their identity. Nas himself did not come out as gay until June 2019, six months after his breakout single “Old Town Road” was released.
“Montero” is Lil Nas X’s way of resisting a narrative that had suppressed his identity. His use of lyrical and visual imagery supports that.
“I spent my entire teenage years hating myself because of the s—- y’all preached would happen to me because i was gay,” said Lil Nas X on Twitter. “So i hope u are mad, stay mad, feel the same anger you teach us to have towards ourselves.”
As many have pointed out, Lil Nas X is not the first musician to receive criticism for his use of theological imagery in his work.
Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” video featured burning crosses and was condemned by then-Pope John Paul II; Lady Gaga was criticized by the Catholic League for representing herself as Mary Magdalene in the music video for her song “Judas”; even the Beatles were lambasted after John Lennon claimed the group was “more popular than Jesus now.”
Just as Satanic panics regarding musicians have come and gone in the past, negative attention regarding Lil Nas X’s music video will as well. What will remain, however, will be a depiction of resistance against oppression that seeks to destroy identity.