Lil Nas X is an expert at generating controversy. His latest music video, “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” features him twirling down to Hell on a stripper pole and giving Satan a lapdance before snapping his neck and stealing his crown. For an extra bump of publicity, he also launched 666 retrofitted Nike sneakers, which supposedly each have a drop of human blood in the red ink of each pair. It’s an expertly calculated piece of art that has generated not only accusations of Satanism and corrupting America’s youth from conservative Christians — but also a huge amount of press for the queer, Black artist. The song hit 100 million streams on YouTube in time for the star’s 22nd birthday, only two weeks after being released, and is currently topping charts around the world.
But there’s more to it than controversy; the video is meticulously thought through and full of arcane references you need multiple degrees to decode. On his journey to damnation, the star — who rose to fame thanks to his genre-defying “Old Town Road” — goes through scenes from the Garden of Eden to Lucifer’s fall from Heaven, and throws in a wealth of references along the way. The music video’s director, Tau Muino, who has also designed videos for Cardi B and Katy Perry, said she was inspired by “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” a triptych painting by Dutch Renaissance painter Hieronymus Bosch. The title is even a shoutout to the very Jewish, very queer book and movie “Call Me By Your Name.”
But what exactly did Lil Nas X do to piss off a sector of religious America — and if the biblical imagery is the issue, why aren’t the Jews just as mad about it?
The video opens in a vibrantly magenta Garden of Eden, where a nude, Lil Nas X ends up making out with an extremely phallic snake, also featuring Lil Nas X’s face. While the biblical reference is obvious, it’s unclear whether the human figure is Adam or Eve; gender is irrelevant. With Lil Nas X’s face on both snake and human, the theme is complex, queer self-knowledge.
To drive the point home, a phrase in Greek appears as they intertwine, translating to, “After the division the two parts of man, each desiring his other half.” The quote is from a creation myth in Plato’s Symposium, in which humans are made paired and only later separated by Zeus. But we don’t need to turn to the Greeks for this symbolism; even keeping to Eden and Genesis, we can find a similar line.
It all comes down to grammar (I know; bear with me). In Genesis 1:27, God creates a (singular) person in God’s own image. But in the second half of the sentence, the text reiterates: “Male and female he created them.” It seems to imply that in the same person, in the same body, multiple entities were made. Even Rashi, perhaps the most famed Jewish commentator, agrees, explaining, “He created first with two faces and later divided.” The first human in Genesis was both male and female. Can you interpret this passage to mean something else? Probably. But is this story of creation pretty genderqueer? Definitely yes.
In the next scene, Lil Nas X, dressed in a pink fur and wig reminiscent of something Marie Antoinette might wear, is thrown into an arena that is part Coliseum, part Dante’s circles of Hell, where he is stoned with butt plugs by a teeming crowd, all of whom wear the singer’s face and appear to be made of rock. Presumably dead, he is rising toward Heaven, an angel awaiting him, when a pole suddenly appears beside him and he reverses course, twirling down to Hell sporting thigh high-leather boots and long red braids. In Hell, he becomes Satan’s bottom, doing a lengthy bump and grind routine against Lucifer, who also sports Lil Nas X’s face. In the final shots, Lil Nas X snaps Satan’s neck and steals the crown for himself, his eyes glowing white as he smirks into the camera.
Conservative Christians including South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem and Tennessee pastor Greg Locke along with legions on Twitter, have accused the artist of promoting Satanism to their children.
i literally sing about lean & adultery in old town road. u decided to let your child listen. blame yourself. https://t.co/gYmTi49BqB— nope 🏹 (@LilNasX) March 29, 2021
But the singer does not seem to mind being painted as the enemy of Christian America; he’s been clapping back on Twitter. Lil Nas X also posted a statement saying the song is a letter to his 14-year-old self (Montero is his given name), reframing his experience growing up in a church that told him his queerness was sinful. In the video, Lil Nas X turns the church’s threat of eternal damnation into a celebration of identity, eternal life in freedom, where he can be his full, flamboyant self.
This is perhaps the answer to why Jews haven’t had a similar reaction to the video despite its chart-topping ubiquity. Sure, you could say that Judaism doesn’t believe in Hell or Satan, but that’s not entirely true. Satan is in the Books of Job and Zechariah, and features throughout Talmud and Midrash. Gehinnom and Sheol are both bleak Jewish visions of the afterlife that, in some texts, include fiery torture. I think the real answer is that we can identify with Lil Nas X as he pushes back against Christian imagery of Hell. Not because all of us know the experience of being Black or queer in a religion that rejects us — though that has certainly been the experience of some Jews of color and queer Jews — but because we have been similarly demonized by Christianity, and doomed to Hell throughout history.
This is not the same as Lil Nas X’s experience as a Black gay man in the church, but, like any good art, the video speaks to a wider audience, and empowers anyone who has been condemned as a monster. The fiery imagery is familiar to Jews for the way it has been leveraged against us; my violin teacher once desperately tried to convert me to Christianity, mid-lesson, to save me from my eternal destiny in Hell. Turning that threat upside down feels empowering.
Besides, if anyone knows about unconventional exegesis, it’s the Jews. Some of our midrash is way more out there than anything in “Montero.”