Rainbow Rant: Lil Nas X, Angel of Self-Love

The pop star’s ‘Montero’ is what happens when a queer artist is no longer afraid

Joy Ellison
Lil Nas X's "Montero"

It came like the blow of the last trumpet. It shook us like the fall of the walls of Jericho. It sizzled like the burning bush. Or the gates of hell. Take your pick. Lil Nas X will accept either answer. 

I don’t remember who told me about it. News of Lil Nas X’s new song “Montero” made its way to me through some sort of queer psychic network. The gossip was hot: Lil Nas X gave Satan a lap dance, or so the story went. 

I knew I had to see it — and when I did, it did not disappoint. 

The music video for Lil Nas X’s song “Montero” is an iridescent odyssey that starts in the Garden of Eden, where Nas makes out with a snake. From there, we follow the pop star to a coliseum where a pack of Lil Nas Xs pass judgement on him. Meanwhile, the rapper and pop star sings about the kind of self-annihilating crush that queer people know well.

“Call me by your name,” his low voice croons. “Tell me you love me in private.”

He gives voice to the pain of love on the sly, sustained by shame. It’s an anguished moment, but that’s not the end of Nas’ story.

Lil Nas X is whisked up to the pearly gates, only to pole dance his way into the throne room in hell, where he takes on the mantle of the devil himself. You know, no big thing. (Predictably, the video left conservatives in an uproar, to which Nas offered the perfect reply: Stay mad.) 

But what does “Montero” mean? Is it camp? Where do we place it in the history of queer culture? That’s what one friend of mine messaged me to ask. I have an academic answer: “Montero” is an example of what José Muñoz called disidentification. 

Disidentification is a performance mode in which queer artists of color take elements of the dominate culture and remix and recycle them to express the complexity of queer life. Lil Nas X is doing that with Biblical imagery, at least that’s what I’m supposed to tell you as a feminist scholar. 

Personally, I think the power of Lil Nas X’s song can be explained much more simply. “Montero” is what happens when a queer artist is no longer afraid. It’s a monument to the healing power of self-love.

There’s only one question left to ask about “Montero”: What does Lil Nas X mean when he sings “Call me by your name” over and over? Is it an invocation of the movie of the same name? I’d call that movie a pretty but boring film in which two white queer men take a long time to kiss. Lil Nas X isn’t telling, but I have a theory: I think he is. 

In my view, however, Lil Nas X is rejecting the hesitant, played out love story that “Call Me By Your Name” represents. In “Montero,” queerness isn’t two white men stealing kisses in secret. Queerness belongs to a Black stripper who runs hell. 

And I’m here for it.