With over 300 million views in a matter of months, American rapper Lil Nas X’s “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” music video can safely be considered a milestone in pop culture. Between the catchy song, vital LGBT+ representation, masterful cinematography, and overall creative direction, there are enough ingredients for a viral music video already. But, unfortunately, the music video also attracted another category of viewers, certainly not there as fans: the conservative hate-watcher.
Lil Nas X is not the first artist in pop culture to receive political backlash for the messages in his music. In all of pop music history, pop artists have been fighting an invisible fight against anti-pop conservatism for the sake of free creative expression. In the ’60s, it was the Beatles when John Lennon described his band as “more popular than Jesus,” or the Rolling Stones after releasing “Sympathy for the Devil.”
In 1989, Madonna, the “Queen of Pop,” was at the frontlines of this war after releasing her music video for “Like A Prayer” with juxtaposed images of Catholicism and sensuality. The backlash from religious and right-wing groups was so immense that Pepsi pulled an ad starring Madonna that year.
Now in 2021, the same church is butting heads with Lil Nas X. His music video for “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” is chockfull of biblical references. The video opens up with Lil Nas X’s rendition of the Garden of Eden and closes with him in Hell performing a sensual dance on top of Satan. History repeats itself, and the familiar siren of outrage from right-wing and religious groups sounded. One pastor, Greg Locke, went viral on Twitter for a video of him pacing on stage addressing Lil Nas X’s new song, referring to it as demonic and wicked.
This backlash highlights a tension as old as time: the critique of religion in art. It is often the right’s view that artists should not be merited complete freedom in their artistic expression. However, censoring art would simultaneously censor essential truths. The biblical references in the “MONTERO” music video were vital in telling the story of Lil Nas X’s upbringing: dealing with homophobia in the religious community. This religious trauma is familiar to millions in the LGBT+ community and sparks a meaningful conversation in mainstream media.
Lil Nas X is armed with mischief and humor against the backlash he received. Following the music video’s release, he announced the launch of his line of shoes, the controversial “Satan Shoes.” On a more serious note, the artist tweeted, “I spent my entire teenage years hating myself because of the shit y’all preached would happen to me because I was gay. So I hope you are mad, stay mad, feel the same anger you teach us to have towards ourselves.”
Lil Nas X is not the only contemporary pop artist waging war against conservatism. Many female pop artists, especially those with music about sexuality and sexual liberation, have been the targets of conservative criticism. For example, following the release of the viral WAP music video, Cardi B received a lot of backlash for its sensuality, especially from parents. In a tweet, Cardi B responded to one angry mom, saying, “Ya needs to stop with this already! I’m not Jojo Siwa! I don’t make music for kids; I make music for adults. Parents are responsible for what their children listen to or see. I’m a very sexual person but not around my child just like every other parent should be.”