Are You There, God? It’s Me, Montero

Are You There, God? It’s Me, Montero

By Tobias HessJan 12, 2024

Lil Nas X has made a deal with the devil. No, not the biblical satan, but an even more shifty one. Let’s just call her controversy. Ever since Lil Nas X broke the evangelical internet with “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)”, he has courted the rush of scandal with ever-calculated precision. The video for “Montero”, which features the rapper/pop star descending into hell via one eternal stripper pole, was a definite feat of spectacle, if not of novelty. The song and video were not reinventing the wheel, but neither did they need to. Lil Nas X achieved exactly what he wanted, even provoking South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem to Tweet in outrage over his shoe line, which contained drops of purported human blood. “Our kids are being told that this kind of product is, not only okay, it's ‘exclusive.’ But do you know what's more exclusive? Their God-given eternal soul,” she shared, to which he responded in perfect, petty fashion.

This is what he does best. Lil Nas X began his career as the owner of a Nicki Minaj stan account before he shot into megastardom via his virally-crafted hit, “Old Town Road.” He knows the internet and its strange and rapid discourse better than almost anyone, which is why his stunts have almost always zipped with the infectious pep of someone who truly gets it. This is all to say that Lil Nas X has a lot to live up to if he is to dance with the devil of controversy again. Because stunts, it turns out, pay off in diminishing returns. And if he’s truly a stunt queen, so be it, but he should be prepared for the audience to expect him to perpetually up the ante. It’s a risk, it turns out, to shoot for the heavens again and again.

Speaking of shooting for the heavens the video for his new single, “J Christ”, begins with Montero approaching the pearly gates with a gaggle of celebrity look-alikes. As he runway-walks through heaven, the song begins to move with defiant swagger and we find ourselves taken down the damnation stripper pole again. We are here to rehash and put a bow on his last era, to finalize his reckonings with Satan before his new chapter begins, as made clear by the video’s ending. We see Montero’s biblical ark float languidly over a world overtaken by flood. “Day zero,” it reads: “a new beginning.”

The song has all the hallmarks of Lil Nas X’s songwriting, which bristles with ease and defiance. “Bitch I’m back like J. Christ” he says as Jesus himself, hung to the cross. But as I saw him Christ-like and crucified, I couldn’t help but wonder: what is Montero suggesting he’s crucified for in this video right now? The lyrics are sparse on specifics, but one line in the chorus stood out. “Is he bout to give ‘em something viral?” I can’t help but wonder if the biblical snake is eating its own tail here? Lil Nas X, a viral artist whose chief interest is virality itself.

Because Lil Nas X so expertly provoked and then responded to controversy in the past, he is noticeably on guard for backlash again, seeking it out to engage with and mock. In this last cycle there were those Christains who found his actions disreputable, chiefly his downing of a body’s worth of communion wafers and wine. But there was a new group too, a cohort of expressly disappointed, largely gay fans who found the whole Christ retread thing a bit tiring.

His X account right now is a vast collage of his and his fans’ responses to both lines of criticism, from evangelicals and pop accounts alike. It was hard for me to ascertain though the extent to which this backlash was real or merely amplified by Lil Nas X, who historically likes to gleefully engage. And if it’s primarily the latter, I have to wonder whether this deal with the devil of controversy is sustainable? Can the work still work if it's met with applause?

Photography: Tanima Mehrotra