Just as Derrick Jaxn fatigue settled in, the masses desperately needed a distraction for the last few days of March. Enter Lil Nas X who swooped through like a Peregrine falcon and gave us two things for the Zoom virtual watercooler.
First, he dropped a video and song, “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” on March 26. (The rapper/singer’s birth name is Montero Hill.) It’s his first major release since the once-ubiquitous genre-bending monster hit “Old Town Road” and the accompanying EP 7, which birthed two far-less successful singles. The video is unabashed in both its queerness and religious imagery and has more than 43 million views on YouTube thus far as of press time.
But that wasn’t enough for the young man: Nas X teamed up with Brooklyn-based streetwear company MSCHF – of the hacked-up Damien Hirst art piece fame – to create “Satan Shoes,” a custom black Nike Air Max 97 adorned with a pentagram, the Nike “Swoosh” logo etched backwards and its strongest selling point: one drop of human blood in each sole.
Not only did Nike very quickly clear up that it is absolutely not responsible for the shoe, the apparel giant hit MSCHF with a lawsuit for trademark infringement, among other things. Who would’ve thought the world’s largest athletic apparel brand wouldn’t want to be associated with Satanism?
I’m not sure there’s anything particularly special about “Montero” as a song itself – it certainly doesn’t have the replay value of “WAP,” its predecessor-in-controversy. If the video were simply a paean to queer expression, it probably wouldn’t be such a pearl-clutcher in 2021; it’s the inclusion of demonic and satanic imagery (way beyond anything Madonna ever thought about doing when she did “Like A Prayer” in 1989, where he biggest crime was including a Black Jesus) that would give Chance the Rapper a coronary that courts critics like catnip. Even in a country that seems to be moving away from organized religion, folks are still uneasy about toying around with what they perceive to be the punitive part of the afterlife.
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Indeed, the Bible-bangers are out in full-objection: South Dakota’s Republican Gov. Kristi Noem is getting press for her objection to the shoes, which I feel bad contributing to because who gives a sh-t about Kristi Noem?
Nick Young, purveyor of all things ethical, also came for Nas X. Swaggy P said he was “hacked in the name of Jesus,” which is the most unintentionally comical thing I’ve ever heard from an NBA player…certainly a bottomless well of competition. Noem’s tweet is a facsimile of countless conservative politicians bitching and moaning about how pop music and the accompanying imagery are leading to the downfall of society. Again, Madonna 30 years ago, anyone…?
To his credit, Nas X is having a blast with the trolls. He’s been dealing with them since he revealed to the world that he’s gay following the success of “Old Town Road,” and he’s handling all the fist-shaking with the energy of a Gen Z’er who basically grew up in the age of internet outrage and will never feel the need to go into hiding like a white, conservative, sexagenarian politician who just got outed for doing the exact mess he rage-tweets against. Nas X even created an “apology video” for all the angry souls out there.
It’s easy to see why folks pole-vault straight to outrage over the video. (Gay Black men? The devil? Stripper poles? Satanic lap dances?? Heavens to Betsy!) But it takes only minimal scrutiny to see the hypocrisy and flawed logic at work; one of the prevailing criticisms is that “Old Town Road” is kid-friendly and thus provides a corruptible beeline to “Montero.” But anyone who actually listened to the lyrics of “Road” knows that argument is flawed at its root, as Nas X himself pointed out.
Even if “Old Town Road” was actually a family-friendly tune, the suggestion that an artist once known for child-friendly material should never venture into adult fare is risible, considering Miley Cyrus, Brittany Spears, Zendaya and other artists I can list here have found profound success doing just that. It’s also hilariously ironic that evangelical Christians are mad that the video depicts what many of them believe to be the fate of unrepentant gay folks: They’re headed to Hell in a handbasket to mingle with the devil. How can they be pissed when this is what they believe?
If MSCHF can weather Nike’s lawsuit, the marketing for the custom shoes is actually a masterstroke. Only 666 numbered pairs? Sold for $1,018 a pair after a biblical verse? Freakin’ brilliant. That’s why they sold out in less than a minute and will probably have an absurd after-market. The human blood bit is much ado about nothing at all, and it wouldn’t surprise me a bit if someone cracked open a sole to conduct a DNA test and discover that it’s actually raspberry syrup or red nail polish.
How you feel about the video and the shoe all comes down to where you fall on the spectrum of concern over religion, “demons” and whatnot. But we’ve been doing this dance for generations with art that challenges and subverts; to the best of my knowledge, no one’s music video ever created an army of Satan-worshiping murderers. After all, it’s not the devil worshippers shooting up schools, massage parlors or storming the U.S. Capitol, is it?
That which is undeniable, though: at only 21, Lil Nas X has this marketing thing down pat, and your anger only fuels him and makes him stronger. Keep up with the fussing and hand-wringing…he’s got time.
Dustin J. Seibert is a native Detroiter living in Chicago. He loves his own mama slightly more than he loves music and exercises every day only so his French fry intake doesn’t catch up to him. Find him at wafflecolored.com.
(Photo by Jerritt Clark/Getty Images for Columbia Records )