Call Him by His Name: Rapper Lil Nas X Marks the Spot Where Viral Becomes Substantial

By Hannah Quinque

CC BY 2.0, DiFron­zo, https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:Lil_Nas_X#/media/File:Lil_Nas_X_(cropped).jpg

In the dig­i­tal infor­ma­tion age, sen­sa­tion­al­ist head­lines are all around us, all around the clock.

To stand out from the gen­er­al noise even for a split sec­ond, a gen­uine­ly momen­tous sen­sa­tion has to shake the col­lec­tive foun­da­tion on- and offline. Enter Mon­tero Lamar Hill, aka Lil Nas X. The 22-year-old Geor­gian rap­per knows how to jump-start the pop cul­tur­al wave pool like few oth­ers as demon­strat­ed by the vir­tu­al­ly inescapable splash­es he made with his new sin­gle, released this March.

The lyrics alone would have ensured the ensu­ing emo­tion­al­ly and ide­o­log­i­cal­ly charged reac­tions, but it’s the music video that saw “Mon­tero (Call Me By Your Name)” go way beyond your every­day viral con­tent. Just a cou­ple of days after being released, the offi­cial YouTube video alone had amassed over 10 mil­lion views. About a month lat­er, that same video had more than 170 mil­lion hits. If you are still won­der­ing what the hype is about (in which case I’m hon­est­ly impressed by your lack of social media con­sump­tion), the video shows, with some heavy CGI, Lil Nas X being seduced by (or indeed seduc­ing) The Dev­il in the Gar­den of Eden, before pole-danc­ing, spar­ing­ly clad, down into hell where the rap­per pro­ceeds to give Satan an hon­est-to-god (pun intend­ed) lap dance before final­ly snap­ping the Devil’s neck to become King of Hell himself.

It’s prob­a­bly obvi­ous why and in which cir­cles the video was con­sid­ered con­tro­ver­sial, mild­ly put: overt, almost explic­it homo­eroti­cism in rap music amid fun­da­men­tal­ly Chris­t­ian imagery. That’s a lot of but­tons Lil Nas X push­es par­tic­u­lar­ly among, but by no means lim­it­ed to, con­ser­v­a­tive ele­ments. In terms of rap music, he defies regres­sive ideas about reli­gion, soci­ety, or notions of how gay peo­ple should act (as held by both cis-het­ero and oth­er gay peo­ple). Not to men­tion, the artist is Black, which war­rants much clos­er scruti­ny aimed at his depic­tion of Lucifer than, say, a pret­ty suc­cess­ful TV series with that very title.

And here we are at the crux of the mat­ter: The song’s deep cul­tur­al impact isn’t pri­mar­i­ly based on whether you or I find the music nov­el, the lyrics res­o­nant, or the video artis­ti­cal­ly pleas­ing. By the very reac­tions Lil Nas X elic­its with “Mon­tero (Call Me By Your Name),” he has already proven he cre­at­ed a coura­geous and dar­ing piece of art. Of course, it met with myr­i­ad reac­tions: some hate­ful or skep­ti­cal, while oth­ers were enthu­si­as­tic or every­thing in between. They show that Lil Nas X rat­tled at the bars of soci­etal taboos. But that’s exact­ly how you cre­ate influ­en­tial art.

Per­haps it is too soon to use the term ‘his­toric,’ but it doesn’t feel too far off. And per­son­al­ly, I believe that three min­utes and nine sec­onds of his col­or­ful vision deserves recog­ni­tion in a world the present pan­dem­ic has shown to be shock­ing­ly bleak.

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