The latest great American culture war skirmish, in a 2021 full of them, involved “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” the new video from “Old Town Road” performer Lil Nas X.
The video, directed by Tanu Muiño and Lil Nas X himself, features the performer in a Garden of Eden-like setting, and the video repeatedly features biblical references. This includes one part in which Lil Nas X gives a lap dance to Satan.
It’s a provocative video, to say the least, and it’s one that’s certainly gotten people talking. Lil Nas X came out as gay shortly after the release of “Old Town Road,” and he’s spoken eloquently about how difficult it was for him to come to terms with his sexuality, after being raised in a religious household. The 21-year-old even published a letter to his 14-year-old self.
The song, meanwhile, debuted at #1 on the Billboard charts and spawned a whole other controversial news cycle about the supposed “Satan shoes,” which led to Nike suing the company for making unauthorized Nike knockoffs.
But at the same time, it drew widespread condemnation from the cultural right, including such elected officials as South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem. And Lil Nas X didn’t give an inch, responding fearlessly to powerful senators and governors:
And of course, many of the same people currently blowing their gaskets about “cancel culture” are getting the vapors about a music video.
Madonna Did it First
What’s especially notable about the “Montero” scandal is that this very song and dance — an artist makes a “controversial” music video, usually involving some combination of sexuality and religious imagery, and then conservative politicians lose their damn minds — has repeated itself many, many times before. Probably two or three dozen times, in fact, since the debut of MTV 40 years ago. Madonna herself did this very thing, multiple times!
Have we all forgotten Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” video, 32 years ago?
The “Like a Prayer” video, which debuted in prime time on network TV in March of 1989 as part of a tie-in with Pepsi, touched a series of third rails: Madonna enters a church, sees a Black statue of Jesus, which begins to cry. After Madonna kisses the statue’s feet, he comes to life, kisses her on the cheek, and leaves the church, at which point Madonna touches a knife and gives herself the Stigmata.
Then the video shifts to a woman being assaulted by a gang of men, at which point she’s rescued by a Black man, — played by the same actor who played Jesus — who’s subsequently detained by police. Then, we see Madonna dancing in front of burning crosses. In the end, after she sings in front of a gospel chorus, the Jesus actor kisses Madonna on the lips.
After the video, the American Family Association pushed successfully for Pepsi to drop its deal with Madonna. Even the Vatican pushed for a boycott of Madonna’s subsequent Blond Ambition tour when it reached Italy.
After the video, the American Family Association pushed successfully for Pepsi to drop its deal with Madonna
And similar things have happened over and over. Sometimes it’s an awards show performance, sometimes a video, and when Satan makes an appearance, it’s always an exaggerated provocation; none of these people, needless to say, actually worship the devil.
We did this with the Satanic Panic, and with Tipper Gore and the PMRC, that Miley Cyrus/Robin Thicke awards show performance, and numerous events involving Britney Spears. It’s not a new type of controversy.
But what is new is the introduction of gay male sexuality into this particular paradigm. It’s a refreshing one, and a shrewd one, but a performer who knows what he’s doing and isn’t afraid to go toe-to-toe with some serious bad-faith actors who are American elected officials.