On Monday, Lil Nas X announced the debut of his "Satan Shoes" collaboration, only 666 pairs of which went on sale (and immediately sold out). Accused of blasphemy, the “Old Town Road” singer responded with a video of himself giving Lucifer a lap dance.
Accused of blasphemy, the “Old Town Road” singer responded with a video of himself giving Lucifer a lap dance.
This “apology” was in response to outrage over the shoes, a collaboration with the streetwear company MSCHF. Altered versions of Nike Air Max 97s, the sneakers gleefully riffed on the satanic, with a pentagram pendant, a monogrammed Bible reference to the devil and a drop of human blood in the sole. Designed to entice fans of Lil Nas X’s newly released music video, “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” the footwear also brilliantly baited conservative Christians. (Nike was less than pleased, filing a federal trademark infringement lawsuit Monday.)
“Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” has been interpreted by its Christian critics as a wholesale attack on Christianity and derided by one pastor in particular as a “bunch of devil-worshipping wicked nonsense.” Lil Nas X’s response has been to gleefully troll the haters, even urging condemning Christians to stay mad. On Twitter, the star noted that as a teenager anti-gay messaging taught him to hate himself. The anger conservatives are feeling now parallels “the same anger you teach us to have towards ourselves.”
But this about a lot more then gleeful provocation. Lil Nas X’s comments about his use of Christian imagery shows that his core aim is not to offend. His latest art is in fact deeply personal, depicting his own struggle with self-acceptance amid a claustrophobic and shaming religious culture. A gay son of the Black church, the real devil on Lil Nas X’s back is one familiar to many LGBTQ folks reared in conservative Christianity: being told that who you are is a sin.
Lil Nas X deals with this devil directly in the “Montero” music video by diving back into the stories that formed him and retelling them as queer narratives. His intended message should resonate with audiences that share his queer identity and his upbringing. Alicia Crosby, a Black queer Christian minister, breaks down on Twitter how “Montero” subversively re-narrates a very Christian narrative, inverting some well-known Biblical scenes: “My man started in the garden with the temptation & entrapment stories of Eve/Lilith, moved to a Greek/European styled chamber of judgment and condemnation, had an execution by someone ACTUALLY throwing a stone at him, had a full on descent to hell, and had my man’s defeating the devil.” This sequence of temptation, judgment, execution and confrontation with the devil also parallels events in the life of Jesus.
Most striking of all is Lil Nas X’s musical descent into hell, depicted in the music video as one long slide down a dance pole. Various Christian traditions teach that Jesus, too, descended into hell on the Saturday after his Friday night crucifixion, where he rescued lost souls from the devil’s grasp. Lil Nas X’s pole dance would not be the first eroticized depiction of this tradition, known as the “harrowing of hell.”
For many Christian conservatives, of course, the only legitimate way to relate queerness and Christian traditions is through mutual antagonism. In their either/or paradigm, embracing queerness necessarily means rejecting Christianity. Many LGBTQ folks have severed ties with their churches — sometimes incredibly painfully — because of this orthodoxy.
But while Lil Nas X’s “Montero” video highlights the challenges of coming to terms with your sexuality in the face of overwhelming judgment, he ultimately triumphs over his condemners. As he told Zach Campbell in a recent YouTube video: “If [hell] is where we belong then let me be the king of that.”
Being the “king of hell” might sound like selling your soul to the devil. And “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” is indeed partly about the temptations of a relationship that might be soul-destroying, with Lil Nas X singing to a closeted lover, “I want to sell what you’re buying. … I don’t care if you’re lying.”
But the artist’s tryst with the devil, not unlike Jesus’ visit to hell before his resurrection, ends with vanquishment rather than bondage. After giving the devil a lap dance, Lil Nas X wrings his neck. Conservative Christians may interpret this moment as blasphemy, but evangelicals do not have the final say on theological interpretation. And the music video’s release just before Christian Holy Week suggests other possible meanings. We can perhaps even celebrate Lil Nas X’s queering of the resurrection story. The rapper’s imaginative adapting and reclaiming of Christian imagery — not to mention his ability to turn critical outrage into a marketing strategy — has surely helped free a number of LGBTQ folks from the devil of condemnation.