It’s no mistake that the music video for “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” begins with the country star perched under a tree with giant, bulbous apples. The scene alludes to the Garden of Eden where Lil Nas X thrums his guitar under the tree of the knowledge of good and evil and conjures the serpent onto his lap. Unlike in the original version, where the main characters are naked, Lil Nas X’s “Montero,” dressed in a gold, bedazzled bodysuit, ignores the apple completely. Instead, he is enraptured by the serpent and croons, “Eve ain’t in your garden.” He’s entangled in the snake’s smooth flesh, and, with a kiss, seals his fate to judgment and hell. After sliding on a stripper pole to the inferno, the artist seduces and strangles Satan before crowning himself the new ruler of the underworld.
Provocative Satanic imagery and references in music aren’t new. Artists such as Black Sabbath, who popularized the devil’s chord, Madonna with her “Like A Prayer” video and Lady Gaga’s “Judas” are meant to shock audiences into anger and intrigue. But these examples didn’t lead audiences to anywhere besides conspiracy theory rabbit holes. They were not reflective of the artist’s identity and the oppression that comes along with it. However, “Montero” reimagines the biblical story with a distinctly Black, queer and femme vision in order to affirm Lil Nas X’s own sexual liberation:
“What a time, an incline, God was shinin’ on me,” he sings in the second verse grinding on Satan’s lap. “Never want the n—as that’s in my league, I wanna f— the ones I envy.” Here, Satan is not a demonic being keeping the artist out of heaven, but as a narrative trope, who, if he’s able to conquer, helps him to embrace the parts of himself considered unholy, as if to proclaim: if we must be evil to be free, then evil we will be. “Montero” the video lays out the possibility that if hell is what happens when queer people begin to live a sexually liberated life, then it has to be a place for them.
The redemptive arc of his damnation and subsequent reclamation of queer sexual autonomy challenged the sensibilities of Christian viewers. This kind of subversion was the stuff moral panics were built on. And he wasn’t done yet. Shortly after the video dropped, he doubled down and trolled his dissenters by promoting a new pair of custom Air Max “Satan” sneakers that contain human blood, leading those on the right, such as South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and Candace Owens, to spew anti-queer tweets under the guise of clamping down on Satanism. The Georgia-born artist took it in stride, calling out their anti-gay bias, tweeting, “I spent my entire teenage years hating myself because of the s— 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.”
Throughout Lil Nas X’s constant dialogue with his fans, he’s talked to his younger self. He wrote a letter to his 14-year-old self on Instagram where he recalls the sullen days he planned to “die in secret,” slowly decomposing in the closet. This was a direct effect of the constant messaging and surveillance by spiritual people who believe that queer people should suffer.
This, in turn, led to Lil Nas X’s internalizing that anti-gay bias. It’s no wonder that the Garden of Eden depicted in “Montero” shows a paradise where the face of the serpent – his own face – follows him wherever he goes. The snake’s monitoring of Lil Nas X’s every move is a manifestation of this evil version of himself that will keep him away from heaven. Today, Christians cherry-pick who deserves to suffer for loving who they love. But that suffering contradicts Christian values at the root. Christ regularly convened with those suffering the most: outcasts, the sick and the caged, bringing them the simple message of loving one another above all. He did not castigate them for their marginalization, and, through his death, empowered them to resist subjugation. It’s an act of selflessness that represents the death of ego – the opposite of “Montero’s” overrepresentation of self – and the depth of love Christians are meant to display to themselves and one another.
The controversy surrounding the video is based on the age-old question: How could someone who was once a part of the church choose hell after being terrified with it for who he is? Lil Nas X is advocating free will through choosing on his own. So often, Christians push the notion that queerness is a choice, leaving many marginalized Christians to be sexually repressed for a spot in God’s paradise. The idea that the all-powerful force is so deeply invested in who, rather than how, we love has led many people either out of traditional church bodies or out of the faith entirely. The reason so many are leaving is because the hate that they experience in the sanctuary contradicts the immense love Christians are charged with showing the world.
And while individual churches might show signs of slowing down, institutions like the Catholic Church and other sects are still staunchly against queer love. Instead, the isolation of the church leaves deep scars of self-hate that require undoing.
It seems that some church leaders are listening. The uproar around the video gave spiritual leaders the opportunity to take a look at how the church has regressed into bigotry, leading many people out of the church altogether. Some, such as Ashon Crawley, associate professor in the religion and African studies departments at the University of Virginia, remembers the church upbringing that made him feel that his queerness meant his life was insufficient. Others, such as queer Rev. Candace Simpson, who is still in ministry, was grateful to Lil Nas X for reminding her and others that our “faith practice” means more than just whether or not we end up in heaven or hell.
But perhaps most importantly, the video is forcing practitioners to interrogate the quality of their dogma. Rev. Jacqui Lewis tweeted that the “true religious scandal” is the demoralizing preaching that queer churchgoers hear every service that makes them feel inadequate. They are proof that the video is having an impact, encouraging Christ followers to turn inward and think about the flaws that need to be driven out of the church so that we may all be delivered.
“Montero” demands more than just tacit acceptance or even an acknowledgment of queer sexuality. Lil Nas X reveals the inherent power within queerness, which is largely considered by many Christians to be outside of what is considered “good.” There can be another good, which is predicated on knowing one’s truth and charging others to step into their own as well. The reverberations across the internet, as fans recognize the suppression of queer narratives, are opening up intersectional criticisms of patriarchy at large.
Lil Nas X’s position as a pop star, whose diamond-status record “Old Town Road” was propelled by millions all over the world, places him, in the minds of many Christians, at odds with the Satan-loving, gay stripper boy in “Montero.” But just as the record-breaking single that made him a pop sensation pissed off traditionalists, yet empowered him to find his place in country music, the new vibe breaks the constraints of binary, inspiring queer kids both within and outside the church walls to choose to be free rather than holy.