Lil Nas X's 'Montero' and the delight of yet another satanic panic

Mikael Wood
Los Angeles Times (TNS)
Lil Nas X performs June 1 at HOT 97 Summer Jam 2019 in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The rapper’s viral tune “Old Town Road” has broken the Billboard record set by Mariah Carey’s “One Sweet Day” for most weeks at No.1.

Let's give Lil Nas X credit for the ample ground he breaks in the splashy music video for his new song "Montero (Call Me By Your Name)."

Released Friday, when it began its instant ascent toward the top of YouTube's Trending chart, the clip by the singer, rapper and meme lord is the first I can recall seeing in which a long-haired gentleman slides down a pole to hell and gives Satan a lap dance before casually snapping the devil's neck and taking control of the underworld.

"Wanna give a shout-out to all pole dancers. that s— is hard asf to do," he tweeted with characteristic generosity after the video dropped. "the back of my legs were literally bleeding on set lmao."

Yet with the entirely foreseeable reaction triggered by "Montero" —  which is the given first name of the 21-year-old  who went ultra-viral in 2019 with "Old Town Road" — Lil Nas X is also tapping into an age-old pop-music tradition: the satanic panic.

Politicians, conservative commentators and even some folks who really should know better have taken to social media in the last couple of days to express their alarm over the "Montero" video and its supposedly destructive imagery.

There was South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem suggesting that Lil Nas X was endangering the "God-given eternal soul(s)" of innocent American children. There was Candace Owens (barely recovered, one presumes, from having been scandalized by "WAP") equating Lil Nas X's artistic project with sexual assault and the use of crystal meth.

And somehow there was Nick Young, former Laker and ex-fiance of Iggy Azalea, promising that his kids would never play "Old Town Road" again.

The hysteria — as cynical as it is paternalistic — only increased when Lil Nas X announced that he'd created a limited-edition run of so-called Satan Shoes, each containing a drop of human blood in the sole. (Nike, whose Air Max 97 was used in the unsanctioned design, quickly issued a statement saying the company had no role in the shoes and did not "endorse" them.)

On Sunday, the rapper posted a video on YouTube titled "Lil Nas X Apologizes for Satan Shoe," which begins with him telling viewers that he's heard all the complaints — then abruptly cuts to the offending lap-dance scene from the "Montero" clip.

Pop fans with long memories will recognize all this, of course, from earlier controversies involving the likes of Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest and Slayer. In 1985, the Parents Music Resource Center compiled a list of songs, famously referred to as "The Filthy Fifteen," that posed a grave threat to susceptible listeners; among them were Mercyful Fate's "Into the Coven" and Venom's "Possessed," both included because of their "occult" content.

Five years later, the members of Judas Priest were sued by the families of two young men in Nevada who shot themselves, the families said, after being encouraged to do so by subliminal messages embedded in the British metal band's music. (A judge ruled that Judas Priest wasn't liable for the deaths.)

Lil Nas X's clever twist on this ignoble tradition is his braiding together America's anxieties about the devil with America's anxieties about gay people.

"Y'all saying a gay n— twerking on a cgi satan is the end of times like slavery and the holocaust didn't happen," tweeted the rapper, who came out when "Old Town Road" was amid its record-setting 19-week stay at No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100.

Indeed, his parrying  critics on Twitter has been nearly as delightful to behold as the "Montero" video itself.

"Ur a whole governor and u on here tweeting about some damn shoes," he wrote to Noem, whose handling of the COVID-19 pandemic has been widely denounced. "do ur job!"

In response to Joyner Lucas, a deeply forgettable rapper with ties to Eminem who condemned Lil Nas X for inflicting "some left field ish" on a school-age audience he'd knowingly cultivated, Lil Nas X pointed out that "Old Town Road" includes lyrics about adultery and the cough-syrup concoction known as lean.

"U decided to let your child listen," he wrote. "Blame yourself."

Yet as in the song "Montero" — a peppy, uptempo number about the weaponization of shame — Lil Nas X has interspersed moments of disarming earnestness among all the jokes, as when he admitted Monday that the backlash was taking an "emotional toll" that he was trying to conceal with humor.

"I spent my entire teenage years hating myself because of the [s—] y'all preached would happen to me because i was gay," he tweeted. "So i hope u are mad, stay mad, feel the same anger you teach us to have towards ourselves."

What's been unclear since "Old Town Road" is whether Lil Nas X will be able to outlive the one-hit-wonder status that song's irreproducible success seemed to foist upon him. ("Holiday," his bouncy single from late 2020, stalled out at No. 37.) By drawing attention to the sad persistence of small thinking, he's showing that chart placements and stream counts — both of which detractors like Noem and Owens have ensured will be huge for "Montero" — are the wrong way to measure the impact of his work.

Yes, this lovable button-pusher makes pop music. But what he does is pop stardom.