Last week was one of the biggest pop culture comebacks for Satan since the ‘Satanic Panic’ of the 1980s. Lil Nas X raised the ire of cultural conservatives—and the Nike corporation—by releasing the video to his latest song “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)” and a limited edition (666 pairs) sneaker design with pentagrams and (supposedly) human blood in the sole, customized from Nike Air Max 97s.
The song is a banger, with some of the Southwest flair of “Old Town Road.” The chorus is based on the pasodoble (think the strummy guitar we associate with bullfighter music) mixed with hip-hop trap beats. The lyrics are a graphic but honest account of the singer being hung up on a guy who lives a fast and dangerous lifestyle that Lil Nas X isn’t sure he wants to join, but has a hard time resisting.
“Cocaine and drinking wit’ your friends
You live in the dark, boy, I cannot pretend
I’m not fazed, only here to sin…”
The video is…something else. It takes Lil Nas X’s character on a journey from a kind of lush Avatar-world, into a Roman coliseum where he is a pink-clad slave being ordered around by blue drag queens, then down a stripper pole into hell. There, he does a lap dance on the devil, kills the devil by breaking his neck, then takes his horns and puts them on his own head.
The video and song queer all kinds of categories. One of them is a pop culture figure that I like to call the ‘rebellious daughter.’ These are female pop stars like Madonna or Lady Gaga who combine sexuality and religion to shock some real or imagined father figure, and therefore patriarchal society itself. Lil Nas X is doing the same rebellious daughter act. His dad is a gospel singer, and he has said in interviews that he grew up in a conservative religious household. (Although, to his credit, his dad has expressed pride in his son’s new video.) The kinds of stripper moves Lil Nas X performs in the video are usually considered “female” dance moves. Not to mention he’s wearing stiletto heel boots. Even the whiplash reinvention from line-dancing cowboy in “Old Town Road” to twerking minion of the Devil is more like a female pop star’s continuing shifts of persona. There’s a lot of queer business going on here.
As part of the queer business, Lil Nas X posted a touching note to his 14 year-old self about why he had to come out and be public about his sexuality. I speak to my 14 year-old self all the time, and my 8 year-old self, and my 17 year-old self. For LGBTQ people, even after we come out, we still have to deal with the hurt of the inner queer kid that didn’t receive acceptance when we were younger. Of course, when Lil Nas X speaks to his inner 14 year-old, he’s going back to 2013. When I speak to my inner 14 year-old, I have to go back to the first Bush administration.
The Religious Right has of course chimed in with multiple comments condemning Lil Nas X, his shoes, his grinding on Satan video, and just about everything else. One of his top right-wing trolls was the governor (and I use that term loosely) of South Dakota, Kristi Noem, who said, “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.” Actually ‘Governor’ Noem and Lil Nas X have something in common. They both know how to make things go viral.
I’ve seen online posts from the social-justice left complaining about conservative Christians “centering themselves” in reaction to the video, instead of allowing the voice of a queer person of color to speak. I understand what they mean–conservative Christians “center themselves” and their feelings on cultural issues all the time. But the reaction is predictable, as the video seems engineered to trigger right-wing Christians, making them unwitting participants in Lil Nas X’s self-promotional machine.
Lil Nas X knows exactly what he’s doing. Everyone from his right-wing trolls to his social-justice supporters (and people who might just be fans of his music) are playing a role in an intricate multi-platform rollout of the song and video. On the day of the release Lil Nas X was on Instagram live, appearing to cry, as though cracking from the pressure of the media storm he had released. “I’ve been trying to act like everything’s okay,” he weeps. “But the truth is…the truth is…(building to a joyful yell) I want everybody to stream ‘Call Me By Your Name!’ Yaaaayyy!” He has also released a free online video game called “Twerk Hero,” where you can shake the butt of his character in the video to the beats of the song. Lil Nas X may be a good musician, but his real instrument is the media, and he plays it like a virtuoso.
So what do we think of Satan these days? My sense about evangelical Christianity, particularly the more charismatic brands, is that they see Satan everywhere. Anything that goes against their personal, religious, or political agendas is the work of Satan. They frequently flirt with Manichean heresy, where Satan is almost an equal power with God. As in 1 Peter 5:8, they believe Christians must “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walks about, seeking whom he may devour.”
As with ‘Governor’ Noem’s quote, the fear of Satan usually applies to individualized temptations that may lead one astray from personal salvation in Jesus Christ. So the ‘sins’ one might fall victim to in participating in the Lil Nas X media event would be buying shoes with Satanic symbolism, watching the video and being enticed to lust, or seeing homosexuality as acceptable to society or in one’s personal behavior. As Christian YouTuber Brittany Valadez says about the video, “When you buy things like that or support music like that—whether it be the song, shoes, whatever—you’re opening up an opportunity for Satan to get in.”
What the Evangelical-Manichean view of Satan steadfastly ignores is the systemic evil that is responsible for most of the suffering in the world. This point of view would be unlikely to ask about the material origin of the ‘Satan shoes’ and whether or not they were produced in sweatshops. It would ask nothing about the rejection Lil Nas X has experienced as a gay person, or why he “prayed, prayed, prayed” that being gay was ‘just a phase’ when he was a teenager. It has nothing to say about the racism and poverty experienced by a young black man from north Georgia.
The forms of evil I would see as being overwhelming enough to suggest a Satanic origin are the inequality of resources in the world, the pervasiveness of war and injustice that lead to masses of refugees literally dying to find a better life, the maddening persistence of white structural racism, and the destruction of the planet for the sake of corporate greed. The thing is, human beings seem more than capable of achieving evil on this scale without demonic inspiration.
As Christians, we are supposed to believe in the “already but not yet” of the Kingdom (Kin-dom) of God. Our Easter hope is that evil has already been defeated, but that we are living in the aftermath, the mop-up period, if you will, of a Christ-transformed world. If this is the case, maybe twerking on Satan is the right response. Whatever he or his mythology represents, it should have no power over us anymore. We shouldn’t let Satanic superstition distract us from the real work of bringing justice and peace to the world.