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Episode 16: Montero and The Satanic Panic

This episode summarizes a content analysis I did based on responses to the Lil Nas X video “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” released a couple months ago. The proud queer black artist made waves with this video ripe with religious symbolism, allegory. and allusion. Yet, notably, his identity was not roundly rejected.

This episode summarizes a content analysis I did based on responses to the Lil Nas X video “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” released a couple months ago. The proud queer black artist made waves with this video ripe with religious symbolism, allegory. and allusion. Yet, notably, his identity was not roundly rejected.

Devilishly Queer: Montero and The Satanic Panic

On March 26, 2021, musical artist Lil Nas X released a video for his song “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” on YouTube. The music video is ripe with allegory and allusion and includes scenes of the artist sliding down a stripper pole into hell and giving Satan a lap dance. This content analysis seeks to use the public response to this video as a study of identity in public contexts. The artist’s lush and hyperbolic self-portrayal as a black queer male provides a basis for analyzing public reactions to these minority (deviant) identities and their antagonistic positionality leveraged “as a counterstatement to American culture” (Bey 2017).

After “coming out” less than two years prior, the artist, whose given name is Montero, is continuing to find his voice and gain confidence as a queer black artist. In a statement released concurrently with the video and styled as a letter to himself at age 14, the artist explained that he intends the video to allow “other queer people to simply exist” (Amatulli 2021). Lil Nas X is, in effect, rejecting the religious shame laid upon him in his youth, particularly the religious messages that being gay is a sin and that he is going to hell. The message is ultimately that, consequences be damned, he will be the queer man he is—and he will enjoy every moment of it.

This content analysis explores how a proud queer black artist is affirmed or rejected in his identity. Is the symbolism employed by Lil Nas X understood to be a celebration of his true identity free of the customary social reservation (shame), or is it seen as grounds for further condemnation and rejection? How are hegemonic religious or secular arguments used in public discourse around this question? A combination of open and focused coding yields insight into the ongoing forms that public shame and ostracism—along with their counterparts, pride and inclusion—take as related to those with queer black identities.

Data Collection

In order to analyze the response to the “Montero” video, I looked at two sources of content. First, I identified professionally published articles from major publishers that reported directly on the release of the video. Second, I looked at a collection of Twitter posts (Tweets) that responded to the release of the video. This dual-format approach allowed me to see the response as curated by forces of cultural influence as well as the more raw responses of individuals who saw the video.

Media Articles

My goal in selecting articles for review was to identify those from the largest national media outlets. I additionally limited my scope to those articles that were published within four days of the video’s release and in which the impetus of the article—assessed by the headline—was the release of the video itself. This latter limitation is significant because shortly following the release were a few notable events (e.g. the release of “Satan Shoes” inspired by the video and developed in a partnership with design group MSCHF, a subsequent lawsuit by Nike against Lil Nas X and MSCHF, and a tongue-in-cheek “apology” from Lil Nas X about the video), each of which sparked their own wave of media attention.

With the help of online search tools, I identified four such articles. They were published by Billboard, Los Angeles Times, Time, and Variety. I also specifically looked for articles from other major newspapers as well as television (broadcast and cable) news networks. The New York Times mentioned the song in an article summarizing ten recent song releases. CNN ran several stories about the controversies around the song, but not directly about the song itself. I did not include these articles in my research.

Twitter Posts

With an estimated six million Tweets in reply to the artist over the four days from the date the video was released, I was initially unsure how to narrow the dataset to a manageable size. Lil Nas X himself is quite a prolific Twitterer, having published over one hundred Tweets in that time frame. I eventually decided to look at Tweets written in reply to the artist’s initial Twitter announcement of the video release, and that were written after the video was actually released (this Tweet provided a link to a YouTube video premiere which began several hours later). There were 208 such Tweets. Additionally, Lil Nas X Tweeted a second announcement moments after the premiere began; I gathered the first 500 of this Tweet’s replies, out of a total of nearly 3000 during the four-day window. In total, I analyzed just over 700 Tweets.

My decision to stop at this point was based in part on my interpretation of saturation. The first of the artist’s Tweets seemed to reach an audience primarily of dedicated fans. As such, these replies were fairly homogenous in content. The second Tweet, however, met a more meaningful diversity of replies, especially after the first few hours of the video’s release. By the time I reached a total of about 500 Tweets I had found at least several cases of each anticipated theme. By 700 Tweets I was confident that no new themes would emerge.

In analyzing these Tweets, I only coded Tweets containing English text. I did not code Tweets that contained exclusively media content. I did consider media content in Tweets that also contained text, if the meaning was not clear from the text alone.

Analysis

Coding

I coded Tweets and articles with the same codebook, developed through a high-level reading of the activity around the “Montero” video. Note that these codes were identified prior to my data collection, although I undoubtedly viewed some of the same content. While development of this codebook had some commonalities with open coding, it is more accurate to describe it as part of my search for a valuable topic upon which to focus my study. When I realized that this video and its subsequent discussion highlight social negotiation of identity, and the video itself is ripe with narrative elements as sexual scripts (Wahl 2020), only then did I approach the content with an eye toward intentional analysis. Within this process, my codebook arose from this content, but just as significantly from the theories and questions common to my larger projects of research.

Religious rationale for affirmation or objection.

Because the video contains many religious symbols, it is no surprise that responses also included religious topics or symbolism. But beyond the obvious discussion of content, religion is also a common basis from which to comment on queer acts or expressions. I coded any mention of “hell,” “satan,” “God,” “church,” and so on. I also attempted to subdivide responses with this theme based on whether they affirmed or objected to the video.

Secular rationale for affirmation or objection.

Religious reasons are not the only reasons for affirming or objecting to the video. This theme catches any other reason given as justification for approving or disapproving of the video.

Children.

Another major issue that was discussed is the video’s relationship to or impact on children. Lil Nas X previously had developed a reputation of being popular with youth. Evidently an earlier of his songs, “Old Town Road,” was a hit with kids. Many were concerned, then, when the artist created a new video with more explicitly (homo)sexual graphics—irrespective of the similarly “mature” content in the lyrics of “Old Town Road.”

Connection to identity community.

This song is the artist’s first to have a theme resonant with his queer identity, and it does not disappoint. The video amplifies the themes of shame and pride articulated in the lyrics. This code identifies content that connects the video to a sexual identity community.

Connection to conspiracy theory.

One theme that arose organically from the subject matter was references to conspiracy theories. Some who object to the video do so on the grounds of a widespread “agenda,” “Hollywood” promoting immorality, or other such nefarious explanations. This code captures any reference to conspiratorial narratives.

Sexual or fetish references.

A number of responses sexualize the artist or the content of the video. Any references to sexual arousal or sexual attraction are captured by this code.

When it came to applying these codes to the content under investigation, I found that they fit well. No major themes arose that were not summarized in these codes. However, I encountered some difficulty consistently identifying whether some responses were affirmative or objectionative. This issue is addressed in more detail with the findings.

Positionality and Ethics

As a researcher studying narratives around sexuality, a heated discussion of a queer artist’s sexually-themed music video definitely caught my attention. As with any research, it is important that I let the narrative tell its own story and not inject my own story or my own opinions into it. This artist has a story to tell, as do those who have participated in the discussion that has become the focus of this project. It is my duty as researcher to tell these stories as accurately as possible, without sensationalism or embellishment.

As a queer person, I feel personally connected to this discussion in a way that, as a researcher, I am cognizant could be a potential source of bias. The story behind the art in this particular video resonates with me in a deeply personal way, as I imagine it does for many other queer people expressing themselves in the comments section. When I hear the artist address his 14 year old self with compassion, knowingness, and confidence, I imagine my own 14 year old self needing that kind of reassurance but yet unable to receive it. And I think of other 14 year olds who may turn to Lil Nas X, or me, or any other queer adult, wanting and needing to see that things can be better—and left wanting. And I desperately hope that Lil Nas X might be able to do something for them—and for all of us—that has not been done before. But this story is not the story under analysis in this project.

As a Twitter user who “follows” @LilNasX, I am inclined to disclose this fact. While I am not a die-hard fan, I find his work to be entertaining and relevant. I appreciate his snark, occasional moments of candor, and genuine love for his art; and I root for him in his efforts to upset the applecart of sexual normativity.

Findings

Affirmations

The vast majority of responses to the video were positive. Considering the nature of social media’s echo chamber and algorithmic tailoring to show people what they want to see, this is unsurprising. The reasons people give for praising the video are varied. Many liked the sound of the music itself, or the visuals: “It’s so dam beautiful I can’t stop watching.” Some appreciated that he is “causing controversy.” Others liked the subject matter depicted: “This is the gayest thing to ever Gay and I am so fucking thrilled.” Still others were impressed by the groundbreaking progressiveness of the video.

Objections

“What a shitty video,” one commented. Obviously not everyone loved it. Some comments, I realized, were not as clearly positive or negative. For example, when one Twitterer wrote, “the gayest song ever bro,” I was unsure whether this was intended as positive or negative.

Some thought the video was simply too extreme, tasteless, or controversial: “not ready for this nope nope nope.” Of those who gave reasons for their objections, a number were upset that the artist “literally copied FKA Twigs music video of Cellophane”—though twigs herself thought the video was “amazing … i fully support your expression.” Some thought he was being sensational for sensationalism’s sake: “Does this guy do anything that’s not some type of gimmick?”

Religious

Of the most salient objections, religion played a central role. One Tweeter summarized it: “This world is hell in a hand basket and it shows. I can’t believe how many ppl are aplauding this sick sh¡t. The devil is busy asf.” Another suggested of his sacrilegious messaging, “it’s not about him being gay but about the influence this could have on future generations.” Essentially they don’t mind that the artist is gay, as long as he doesn’t have any influence.

While I initially conceptualized religion as an argument for objection, a number of affirmative responses cited religious language as well. Some were responding to the religious content of the video, and others were defending the artist against religious objectors. A number pointed out that the video was intentionally antagonistic to religious-based fear and hatred. “You say I’m evil? You say I’m sin?” explains one. “Fine, I’d much rather be what you consider evil than be miserable in your puritan company.” Another fan suggested that “they are the brainwashed ones.” The artist himself claimed that religious fervor was misplaced: “Y’all saying a gay [n—] twerking on a cgi satan is the end of times like slavery and the holocaust didn’t happen.”

Conspiracy Theories

A small but loud handful of objectors referred to “the agenda” or “the industry” as having ulterior motives in promoting this video. One referenced the Illuminati. “The agenda is being forced onto black men very heavy now #buckbreaking coming soon,” wrote one Twitterer, suggesting a homophobic conspiracy that views queerness as a threat to black men. Another similarly positioned black and gay identities against each other: “As We are pushing #Reparations … THIS is what the WS are pushing to us.” This divisive line of argumentation is particularly interesting for research at the intersection of black and queer identities. As if it is fine to be one or the other but not both.

Children

Combining homophobia, religion, and occasionally conspiracy theory, a large objection had to do with the threat to children. Responses claimed that the video was “disgusting crap that kids have to see” and that the artist “was endangering the ‘God-given eternal soul[s]’ of innocent American children.” One tongue-in-cheek fan asked, “Can you make one for kids?” Another defended the artist: “HIS EP IS LITERALLY MARKED EXPLICIT FOR A REASON LMAOO.”

LGBTQ Community Connection

Many fans appreciated what Lil Nas X was doing for the LGBTQ community, saying that the video will “open doors for many [] to simply exist.” “Thanks for representing the community!!” But not all references to community were positive. One suggested that pleasing “the lgbtq” was “a disgrace” while another theorized that “this demonic nonsense” would lead “a lot of your people to hell.”

Sexual/Fetish

 “You went down that pole like a true slut. I love it.” It is no surprise that a significant theme was sexual, since the video’s content was largely sexually symbolic, and many of the artist’s fans find him sexually attractive. A few straight male Tweeters even said they wanted to try homosexual behavior after watching Lil Nas X.

Conclusion

There is something remarkable about a queer black man expressing such confidence and surety in himself and his identity. There is something remarkable about a queer black man simply existing in the gaze of the public eye. To some, this engenders hope, excitement, and even exuberance. For others, it is a foreboding omen that an old, understood and comfortable public is ceasing or has already ceased to exist. This image is an existential promise or an existential threat. But the fact that the image exists and is not widely condemned demonstrates that society is finally beginning to seriously accept those of us who reject the norm.

Cocaine and drinking wit’ your friends

You live in the dark, boy, I cannot pretend

I’m not fazed, only here to sin

If Eve ain’t in your garden, you know that you can call me…

Lil Nas X, “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)”

References

Amatulli, Jenna. 2021. “Lil Nas X Shares Emotional Letter To 14-Year-Old Self About Coming Out Publicly.” HuffPost. Retrieved April 15, 2021 (https://www.huffpost.com/entry/lil-nas-x-new-song-montero-being-queer_n_605de3e1c5b67593e057f171).

Bey, Marquis. 2017. “The Trans*-Ness of Blackness, the Blackness of Trans*-Ness.” Transgender Studies Quarterly 4(2):275–95.

Wahl, David W. 2020. “Speaking through the Silence: Narratives, Interaction, and the Construction of Sexual Selves.” Doctor of Philosophy, Iowa State University.

By Kenneth

Kenneth is a graduate student at Wayne State University studying sociology. He is also the host/producer of The Unspeakable Vice Podcast and author of "Lessons Learned: Life-Altering Experiences of Incarceration."

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