New York Magazine
Moral Panic Is Back With a Vengeance
Lil Nas X’s “Montero” is the latest song to raise the hackles of conservative commentators—and everyone has a little something to gain from the controversy.
Lil Nas X and the antipop outrage machine
Pop stars are not babysitters. Pop music is not wholesome entertainment. If you play mainstream music expecting to have your values affirmed, you will inevitably be disappointed. Pop stars (at least the good ones) push against the boundaries of what’s possible and acceptable, sometimes in the noble interest of challenging prevailing social mores, sometimes just for the devilish thrill of crossing lines, and sometimes because they can’t help it. These people aren’t paragons of justice. Their job is to reflect on their lives and sing about what they have learned. Sometimes those reflections align with our own experiences and we connect with the music on a visceral level; you could argue that the best stars working in any era have a sense for what’s culturally prescient that keeps them in the conversation.
It takes more than visibility and cultural savvy to be a role model, though. We hand that title away too freely. We expect too much. We believe the world should accommodate our thinking. We fight fiercely against perceived threats to the mainstream values and traditions we were raised with. This is the story of the Beatles in 1966, when John Lennon voiced frustration with religion and declared his band “more popular than Jesus,” sparking bans, bonfires, and protests that seemed to quell the British quartet’s interest in performing live. It’s the story of Loretta Lynn in 1975, when she released “The Pill,” a song about a wife who is driven by her husband’s cheating to start taking birth control; country radio stations banned the single, seeking to curtail the success of what would ultimately become one of the singer’s biggest hits. It’s the story of Senate hearings about explicit lyrics in 1985, of Pepsi pulling an ad starring Madonna in 1989 after the singer’s “Like a Prayer” video was met with horror for mixing sensual scenes and Catholic iconography, of 1990 obscenity trials over 2 Live Crew’s As Nasty As They Wanna Be and complaints from George H.W. Bush about Ice-T’s “Cop Killer” in 1992, of the backlash against the sexual liberation of Britney Spears’s “Oops! … I Did It Again” in 1999, of Janet Jackson being shunned after a wardrobe malfunction in 2004, of blowback over Lady Gaga’s Baz Luhrmann–esque “Judas” video in 2011. It’s the story again this spring as conservatives lash out at risqué performances by Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion, and Lil Nas X. Times change, but the message is consistent: You have a responsibility to make art that is appropriate for young eyes.
The fuss about Megan and Cardi’s “wap” was a greatest-hits album of scaremongering about rap music and pearl-clutching about female sexuality so canned and dated you couldn’t help but laugh at the people trying to sell it. Ben Shapiro’s reading of the song’s lyrics was instant meme gold, much like Charlton Heston’s recitation of the lyrics to “Cop Killer” in 1992. These reactions suppose the artist is always using words literally. They misunderstand rap, a form rich with
embellishment that asks listeners to suspend their disbelief for the more extravagant and ridiculous lines. No one who has heard
thinks Cardi B really likes uvula play; the point is to upend power dynamics and counter the male gaze. The least interesting approach to processing deliberately transgressive art is to rate it on how well it dispenses or upholds traditional values and to judge it for its success or failure to meet purposes it clearly doesn’t aspire to. It is a narcissistic framework that seats the listeners at the center of the universe and values outside stimuli by how comfortable they make us, rather than judging them on their own merits and traditions.
Backlash against Lil Nas X’s new video for “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)”— and against the blood-tinged Nike “Satan shoes” sold to commemorate the spiritual warfare in the song’s video—runs on some of the same precepts. It’s a different debacle, though, because Lil Nas seems to have anticipated negative responses to the extent that he spent days trading insults with the worst denizens of the internet, making everyone look powerfully square. “Montero” doesn’t deserve this kind of attention; left to its own devices, it’s a pleasant, summery song about not letting anyone put you down. In its viral moment, Lil Nas slides down a stripper pole to hell, where he snaps the Devil’s neck after a lap dance, symbolizing his own journey to break free from the shame bestowed upon many LGBTQ youth in Christian communities (where, in many cases, your prospects for coming out to your family are either slow, pained, hard-won acceptance; a vow of celibacy; or scienceaverse unspeakable horrors like conversion therapy). The note Lil Nas posted on Twitter to his 14-year-old self on the night of the song’s release was tender and affecting, and the video hits some of the same points of psychedelic Black futurism and spirituality as the videos for songs like OutKast’s “Prototype,” TLC’s “Unpretty,” and FKA Twigs’s “cellophane.” But “Montero” is heavyhanded in ways the others knew to resist. Lil Nas is not a tentative provocateur, and he is trying something no one else has. We’ve had expert trolls in pop, and we’ve had out-andproud stars. Lil Nas checks several boxes as a gay pop star who’s prideful and present, perpetually online, and daring you to come for him. “Montero” feels like a watershed moment that could happen only after years of delicately pushing envelopes.
We haven’t gotten to talk about this enough—or to delve into the song’s naïve preachiness on the subject of partying— because “Montero” was immediately adopted as an object of popular conservative Christian scorn. The video—which united a veritable Suicide Squad of terrors from various corners of the internet—proves how often ostensibly left-leaning people’s social conservatism puts them at the same table as figures on the right-wing outrage circuit. Kristi Noem, governor of South Dakota, took time away from drafting executive orders banning trans teens from girls’ sports to trash the video. Disgraced UFC star Jon Jones, rapper Joyner Lucas (who knows something about using music videos to provoke viewers—his breakout video for “I’m Not Racist” featured a maga bro and a Black teen hugging despite their differences), and others weighed in. Each response spotlighted a different strain of tiresome moralist posturing: What about our children? Gays want to make us just like them! Devil worshippers are taking over the country! What’s peculiar about this reaction—and suggests that some of these people have seen only screenshots of “Montero”—is that the kid kills the Devil in the end. Calling that satanic is like mistaking Black Sabbath’s cautionary tales about occult dabbling for simple pro-Devil rhetoric.
But culture war is big business, and the reason the flies are swarming now is because they have something to gain. Bush went on the record about “Cop Killer” as an unpopular incumbent president on the campaign trail; this year’s crop of grievance grifters is using pop-culture gripes as a contingency plan for rebounding from political losses in 2020. After spending a year promising a Biden presidency would usher in a leftist takeover of the U.S.—and where is it?—these people are now having to jump at shadows to prove it’s actually happening. Lil Nas’s pivot from playing elementary schools to twerking on Satan is better Fox News fodder than the debates on children’s toys, books, and cartoons they’ve bet 2021 on.
That he released the song and the shoe so close to Holy Week, as Lady Gaga did with “Judas,” suggests that outrage was the artist’s desired response as well. Lil Nas is using this attention to slingshot to the top of the charts. He spent enough time in the meme mines of Twitter before “Old Town Road” to know that if you’re strong enough, and your mouth is slick enough, all your haters can do is watch and seethe. ■