If you have been on the internet at all in the past week, you have more than likely heard of Lil Nas X’s rather controversial video for “Montero (Call Me By Your Name).” The career trajectory of an artist like Lil Nas X has been unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. To break into the music industry with a song like “Old Town Road,” disrupting a genre that is notoriously exclusionary to people of color and queer people of color especially, is already legendary. However, to maintain an upward trajectory within his career, and showcase both his artistry and confidence as a gay man is exceptionally powerful. “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” both as a song and a music video, can be summed up in one word: genius.
As the video begins, Lil Nas X emerges from the heavens saying, “In life, we hide the parts of ourselves we don’t want the world to see, we lock them away, we tell them no, we banish them, but here, we don’t. Welcome to Montero.”
Lil Nas X, whose real name is Montero Lamar Hill, wrote the track as a letter to his 14-year-old self. In a tweet posted shortly after the video’s release, he wrote, “i wrote a song with our name in it. it’s about a guy i met last summer.” This letter speaks to his struggle with coming out. Lil Nas X uses this video as a rebuke to everyone who held him back from being true to himself. The video and the song did all of this and more in a mere two minutes.
The beginning of the video pans to Lil Nas X playing the guitar under the Tree of Knowledge as a snake slithers up the tree. This is an obvious reference to a religious allegory that reclaims a history filled with so much pain.
“The story of the garden is a tradition that is historically misogynist, it aligns women with evil; it aligns sexuality with women and with evil,” Columbia University classics professor Joseph Howley told Time. “Lil Nas is turning that on its head with the way that his character and the serpent interact.”
The exaggerated nature of the background, with its ruins, vibrant crystals and colors of purple and pink meant to represent paradise, speak to the camp nature of this video. Many people have taken this video literally, disregarding that the intent is to parody all of the oppressive institutions that have hurt queer people for decades. If you really think that Lil Nas X was being completely serious when he started straddling an alien, I think you missed the point. The dramatization of it all is speaking to traditional queer, camp narratives and is used as a way to drive home the idea of queer reclamation within religious structures.
Everything about the video is meticulous and seems to have a double meaning, particularly the inscriptions in both paradise and hell. In paradise, a tree is inscribed with a line from Plato’s “Symposium” that translates to “After the division the two parts of man, each desiring his other half.”
“The passage speaks to a capacity to imagine an equal level of naturality to all of what we think of as sexual orientations, it’s an early example of homosexuality and bisexuality represented as being familiar or acceptable in ways they are not always in our society today,” Howley said.
The subversion of classical tropes and allusions to gay history are seen throughout the rest of the video, especially in the scene where Lil Nas X is dressed in a campy Marie Antoinette costume. He shows himself being shackled, symbolizing the persecution that gay people have dealt with for centuries. Through playing the roles of both the oppressor and the oppressed in this scene, it also expresses the inner turmoil he had with himself in regards to his identity.
Afterward, you see the infamous part that everyone has been debating about on social media: Lil Nas X’s descent into hell. As he descends into the inferno on a stripper pole, you see another inscription: “Damnant Quod Non Intelligunt.” In the context of the song’s emphasis on the persecution of LGBTQ+ people, the translation is quite profound: “they condemn what they do not understand.” This descent into hell and subsequent riding and killing of Satan is yet another allegory that can be interpreted.
Lil Nas X descending to hell speaks to all of the insults that have been hurled his way in since coming out. It’s an act of defiance against the centuries of discrimination that have existed within religious institutions. Even now, the Catholic Church denies the rights of countless couples to get married, refusing to bless gay marriages.
I am well aware that neither religion nor LGBTQ+ people are a monolith. However, it is important to acknowledge that religion is the reason that millions of queer people around the world can’t be themselves and don’t receive the love from their communities that we all deserve. So many queer people have died at the hands of religion.
Lil Nas X makes an impactful statement: Our existences as queer people cannot, and will not be something that is called into question. We deserve equality, and “Montero,” is the ultimate declaration. When he kills Satan, he takes the crown for himself. By showing that oppressive belief systems have no ground to stand on, Lil Nas X rises above religion and shows us that the power is ours to take.
Email Valentina Arrieta at [email protected]