All big new musical announcements these days start with the notes app, but for Lil Nas X, the message he typed last week was more poignant than most. Writing to his 14-year-old self, he introduced ‘Montero (Call Me By Your Name)’, a song that would simultaneously “open doors” and make people “angry”. He wasn’t wrong, but even Montero himself couldn’t have predicted the sheer scale of the Twitter storm that was heading his way.
Lil Nas X has made no apologies for his playful, trolling side, and there has often been true genius in his perfectly-timed bait & switch, forcing people to face their own contradictions. All spurs, cowboy hat and youthful beaming smile, he arrived in the white country space with ‘Old Town Road’ in 2019, winning middle America over as the ‘acceptable’ face of blackness before casually announcing that he was gay. ‘Panini’ and ‘Holiday’ continued subtle ideas of subversion, but with ‘Montero’ he doubled-down on enraging the religious American right, literally lap-dancing on the devil and selling blood-infused, pentagram-adorned Nikes. A catchy Trojan horse by intention, its soul-searching and sexual desire weaves around a beguiling Latin-rap beat, the sort that sticks in your head for weeks after a single listen. The enormous irony of it being a cause for pearl-clutching distress within the same conservative communities who dole out ‘snowflakes’ and ‘woke’ as insults has been, quite frankly, something to see.
If you are a religious person and find ‘Montero’s Easter-week release distasteful, you are perfectly within your rights to feel that way. Disliking a song doesn’t necessarily make you a homophobe. But what is telling, however, is how swiftly “won’t you think of the children?!” rhetoric gets weaponised in the mainstream when expressions of sexuality don’t adhere to the standards of white heteronormativity. You rarely hear the same questions of appropriateness directed at booty shaking and expressions of rampant desire when it’s a female on a male’s lap; mentions of the devil are tolerated as long as they’re presented by an “authentic” male rock band or a pop star using the metaphor to show penance (see Demi Lovato’s latest single, literally titled ‘Dancing With The Devil’.) The odd lyrical reference might pass without too much scrutiny, but when it’s in a black, queer or empowered-femme embracing sexuality or occult imagery in a video, it’s suddenly “shoving it in our face” and setting a bad example. In the last week alone, Lil Nas X has had pastors, politicians and even fellow rappers tweeting bible verse and scripture in his direction, calling for his cancellation or trying to “pray his gay away”.
Certainly, Lil Nas X is not the first artist to piss people off with a music video. Even in the last decade, Billie Eilish has faced criticisms for her visuals, as have Lady Gaga and Miley Cyrus. But even then, the outcry to the ‘All The Good Girls Go To Hell’ or ‘Judas’ videos were nowhere near the level of public anguish that there has been for ‘Montero’, or even very recently, Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s ‘WAP’, subverting the male gaze with its PG-13 profanity.
Reasonably and rationally, Cardi B explained on Twitter that art is not responsible for raising your family and that she didn’t play it around her own daughter, but with the girl-on-girl theatrics of their Grammys performance (post-watershed, I might add), claims that they were setting a bad example to young girls only grew. In a post-Trump age, socio-political divisions in America are greater than ever, and many are zooming in on all-American family values as a moral anchor, often limiting the space that there is for artists and entertainers to explore more mature themes.
Various critics have stated that their problem with Lil Nas X and ‘Montero’ is not one of homophobia or religious blasphemy, but the idea that they were tricked by it. They cite ‘Old Town Road’ as a kids’ song, and feel that his young fans and their parents have been unfairly duped. They clearly weren’t listening that hard to ‘Old Town Road’s lyrical mentions of swigging lean, infidelity or celebrating “bull riding or boobies”. Maybe that was just more permissible given that it adhered to cis expectations of “him and her”, or maybe it was just more easily ignored. Lil Nas X in long, femme braids and heeled boots, sliding down a pole into hell? Not so much. But even for those who are on Montero’s side, any praise that there might have been of the song’s merit and creativity has been secondary to the satanic-panic that lives around it, memed and mocked before we can really consider what it might mean to young queer youth.
In all of his sassy clapbacks and gleeful trolling, it’s easy to forget that Lil Nas X initially created this song from a vulnerable place. Aged just 21, Montero has used his namesake to rightfully ask questions of a faith that preaches love and acceptance for all but only seems to actually hand it out to a choice few. The conservative thought-leaders who decry its lack of consideration for children’s wellbeing are often the same ones who pass bills to keep queer youth in stifling closets, or for whom child protection actually amounts to kicking their kids out of the house when they don’t like how they’ve turned out. If hell is truly your fate, why not dance your way down? In telling his truth on his own terms, the only sin Lil Nas X has committed is not giving credit to FKA Twigs sooner, whose video for her song ‘Cellophane’ has very clearly influenced that of ‘Montero’ – a small indiscretion for which he has already repented, and which she has graciously received.
Lil Nas X likely has far too many creative ideas to let this particular concept linger longer than one song, but ‘Montero’ is proof enough that entrenched homophobia and moral panic are still more widespread than we would like to think. Diversity, inclusion and normalisation are only buzz phrases until people are actually willing to reflect on their own misgivings, and popstars will perpetually be blamed for corruption and profane content until parents – shock – realise that holding a stranger responsible for the way you raise your kids is a surefire way to abdicate your own duty of care. If your young child is roaming through risqué YouTube videos unattended, that isn’t Lil Nas X’s responsibility any more than it is Cardi B’s or Billie Eilish’s. But if they have seen ‘Montero’, maybe this is an opportunity for a conversation of openness and tolerance rather than a door-slamming indictment of shame. Who knows, it might even help.
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