Who could have predicted that all it would take to break the recent conservative stranglehold on camp and transgression would be a simple ride to Hell on a stripper pole in thigh-high boots and powerbottoming Satan? Certainly not me.
But that’s what our Lord and Savior Lil Nas X achieved with the music video for his catchy song “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” as well as his superb trolling surrounding its release including his much-discussed Satan Shoes. And I’m so grateful he did, successfully turning the tables on the self-appointed anti-PC, anti-cancel culture zealots–you know, the ones who spent the past few months screaming into the abyss about Dr. Seuss, The Muppets, and Mr. Potato Head’s genitalia and gender presentation. With one devilish lap dance to eternal damnation, Lil Nas X offended South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem who tried her darndest to kill her whole state with COVID, trash religiosity evangelicals like Franklin Graham and aspiring auctioneer George Locke, Twitter personalities like Candace Owens and that gun-toting shit pants Kaitlin Bennett, hair dye-leaking lawyer Rudy Giuliani, and many other conservatives who usually spend an inordinate amount of oxygen hollering about the First Amendment. Turns out they weren’t all that interested in free speech after all!
This, dearest readers, is the moment I’ve been waiting for–the moment when someone wields camp in such a skillfully subversive way that would expose these conservatives who have cloaked themselves in feeling aggrieved by cancel culture as the hypocrites they truly are. As we’ve explained many times on Filthy Dreams, conservatives have spent the past five or so years coopting camp, creating a monstrous version I call, in debt to filmmaker Bruce La Bruce, “conservative camp.” Not only did conservatives perfect our beloved camp at events like the Republican National Convention, the Right, particularly the alt-right and other viral edgelords, also seems to believe they have a monopoly on transgression, delighting in offending on boards like 4chan, 8chan (now 8kun), and Reddit. However, this Holy Week, camp and transgression have risen again thanks to Lil Nas X who returned them to their rightful owners: the queers, the marginalized, and really, anyone but the politically-motivated population weaponizing these aesthetics.
Beyond merely needling at conservatives and the Religious Right, “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” is quite a meaningful song and video, and it would be unfair to contextualize either as simply a troll. Titled in reference to Lil Nas X’s first name and the gay coming-of-age novel by André Aciman, as well as the Luca Guadagnino film, the song is a love anthem between Lil Nas X and an unnamed lover who still “lives in the dark,” presumably closeted. With the repeated use of “Call me by your name” in the chorus, Lil Nas X inserts his Black queerness into the blinding whiteness of the book and the film, creating a specifically Black gay coming-out narrative that is still so infrequently depicted in pop culture let alone hip hop. This isn’t to say there aren’t some eye-poppingly memorable lyrics, namely, “I want that jet lag from fuckin’ and flyin’/Shoot a child in your mouth while I’m ridin’.” Pure poetry.
The song is the culmination of Lil Nas X’s choice to come out at the top of his success with “Old Town Road.” As he explained on an episode of HBO’s The Shop: “If you’re doing this while you’re at the top, you know it’s for real.” As a response to coming out, Lil Nas X has endured an avalanche of homophobic comments from a range of sources, spouting a variety of tired tropes about corrupting the children or pushing the gay agenda. In response, “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” is proudly gay without respectability politics in mind (thank god), as reflected in his tweeted letter to his 14-year-old self on the song’s release:
“i wrote a song with our name in it. it’s about a guy i met last summer. i know we promised to never come out publicly, i know we promised never to be “that” type of gay person, i know we promised to die with the secret, but this will open doors for many other queer people to simply exist. you see this is very scary for me, people will be angry, they will say i’m pushing an agenda. but the truth is, i am. the agenda to make people stay the fuck out of other people’s lives and stop dictating who they should be. sending you love from the future.”
The music video isn’t solely an exercise in shock value either (though I’m sure John Waters would be a fan), but a triumph against internalized homophobia and self-loathing, particularly as perpetuated by systems of power like religion. Co-directed with Tanu Muino, the video opens in a fantastical Garden of Eden with Lil Nas X’s voiceover: “In life, we hide the parts of ourselves we don’t want the world to see. We lock them away. We tell them, ‘No.’ We banish them. But here, we don’t.” In this animated paradise, we see Lil Nas X in a bedazzled jumpsuit and flowing hair as Adam with no Eve in sight as he is tempted by the serpent who is also Lil Nas X. Spoiler: all the characters are Lil Nas X. Kissing the serpent rather than eating an apple, a not-so-subtle phallic reference, Lil Nas X is booted from paradise only to arrive in a pink wig and chains in front of a tribunal of himself in the Colosseum. Stoned by a jeering crowd, he begins to ascend into Heaven, only to be sent on a stripper pole ride to Hell. Entering the gates of Hell, Lil Nas X seduces Satan and then, snaps Satan’s neck, steals his crown, and gains his power.
By inhabiting all the roles in the video, “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” becomes an allegory of shame as he acts as his own tempter, judge, executioner, and representation of immortal damnation. It’s a reflection and ultimately a rejection of the complex inner battle in which socially-produced and inflicted norms and presumptions of morality become internalized as self-hatred. As the video’s synopsis describes, the conclusion portrays a “dismantling the throne of judgment and punishment that has kept many of us from embracing our true selves out of fear.”
Alongside this, “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” is also a camp victory. Now, Lil Nas X is certainly no stranger to camp. I mean, line-dancing in a bingo hall wearing a bedazzled suit with Billy Ray Cyrus is about as camp as it gets, placing Lil Nas X alongside Orville Peck making evident the camp that has always existed in country music.
From the ridiculous reflections of himself in the Garden of Eden to the clash of the implicit homoeroticism in both Christian and Grecian aesthetics, including a reference to Plato’s Symposium, and even the shimmering high artifice of the video’s animation, the imagery and costuming in “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” could have replaced the entirety of the Met’s bungled Camp: Notes on Fashion exhibition. I mean, I can’t think of anything more camp than the gaggle of aristocratic Lil Nas X’s dressed in light blue Marie Antoinette wigs, patchwork denim suits with dramatic collars, blue eye shadow, long bejeweled nails, and enormous jewelry. And we can’t forget this matching patchwork denim fan:
Though the shock wigs gesture toward camp’s origins at Versailles as “a sort of camp Eden, a self-enclosed world devoted to divertissements, to dressing-up, showing off, and scandal” as expressed by Mark Booth, this particular look, from the denim to the brightly colored wig and the ornate nails, is a specifically Black camp aesthetic. And it was done with such perfection that the music video even features sculptural tributes to these queens of camp.
I don’t feel as if I need to explain how grinding on Satan is camp, a gesture I can see Charles Ludlam very much appreciating. Or transgressive for that matter, particularly for a gay Black hip hop musician (an identity which in itself still remains very much on the margins). Even if you refuse to see the deeper meaning of the video, Lil Nas X clearly depicts, in the most theatrical and wonderfully outrageous way, the condemnation and damnation of queers pushed by so many religions and politicians. All Lil Nas X did really was put visuals to those repressive narratives, mirroring a form of camp that Scott Long describes in “The Loneliness of Camp” as imitating “the oppressive mechanism only to expose it by forcing it to its extremes.”
However, just because he illustrated banishment to Hell over same-sex desire, those that seem to benefit from that homophobic narrative have got their panties in a twist! They’re triggered! I mean, settle down, Mary, it’s not as if Lil Nas X was the first popular artist to play with Satanic imagery, mock society’s perception of queerness (Hello! George Michael’s “Outside”!), or even represent gay Satan (Remember South Park?)! But what Lil Nas X is doing that warms the cockles of my hardened heart is taking this conservative outrage and even pushing it farther with further trolling. Don’t mess with an artist that grew up and found success on the Internet. The kids are going to be alright!
Take, for instance, his Satan Shoes. A collaboration with the New York-based art collective MSCHF, the Satan Shoes are repurposed Nike Air Max 97s that have been transformed into the Dark Lord’s favorite sneakers worn in the music video. They sport an inverted cross, a pentagram, a Bible verse from Luke 10:8 (“And he said to them, ‘I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven’”), and a drop of human blood in its air bubble sole. Naturally, these sneakies come in a limited edition of 666 pairs and are priced at $1018 to match the Gospel of Luke. Now, this did not make some people happy, including Nike who sued MSCHF even though the collective also used Air Max 97s for a prior drop of Jesus Shoes that featured holy water from the Jordan River in their air bubble soles.
But who is even unhappier? The anti-cancel culture brigade! Let’s give you just a little taste of the righteous outrage:
Lil Nas X, for his part, is responding the only way possible: mockery. Though he’s made an avalanche of funny remarks, comebacks, and quips, all of which you should definitely read as a master class in retorts, Lil Nas brought a certain arresting clarity to the abject howls of the offended by tweeting:
What happened indeed.
To understand why Lil Nas X’s deliciously blasphemous transgression is so, well, transgressive we have to take a look back at the cultural and political shift in boundary-crossing that occurred throughout the Trump era. Frankly, transgression, in the past few years, has seen better days; it’s rebellious luster tarnished as it became an ancient fossil, a holdover from the avant-garde of the Twentieth Century. As Laura Kipnis recently asserted in her spectacular essay “Transgression: An Elegy” in Liberties Journal, “transgression has started smelling a little rancid, like a bloated roué in last decade’s tight leather pants.” A writer with a stubborn attachment to transgression (like me), Kipnis’ essay wrestles with what transgression means during an era in which, as she explains: “it’s the transgressed-upon who are the protagonists of the moment: the offended, people who are very upset by things, their interventions a drumbeat on social media, their tremulous voices ascendant (Online cultural commissar is now a promising career path.) and the mainstream cultural institutions are, on the whole, deferring, offering solace and apologias, posting warning signs and caveats to what might cause aesthetic injury.”
The past few years have witnessed a whiplash-like switch in who makes up the population of the pearl-clutchers and the–by default–transgressors like Freaky Friday, but with moralizing. Kipnis observes: “Sure, there have always been offended people, but those people used to be conservatives. Who cared if they were offended, that was the point. What has changed is the social composition of the offended groups. At some point offendability moved its offices to the hip side of town. The offended people say they’re progressives! Which requires some rethinking for those of us shaped by the politics of the previous ethos.” Much of this came from where everything wretched does: the Internet. As progressives spent time acting as the self-appointed virtue police, Republicans and other right-wingers began to thrive by “gleefully offending everyone.” And often looking like they’re having much more fun doing it!
This seemed to violate every assumption about the partisan politics of transgression, which was, as Angela Nagle explores in her book Kill All Normies, a “virtue within Western social liberalism since the sixties.” Nagle’s book traces how the alt-right and other various agents of chaos (including Russian troll farms) ushered in Trump’s presidency with a surge of trolling, memes, and triggering, more connected to the ideas of Sade and Bataille than the obscenity scare tactics of Jesse Helms or Jerry Falwell. She asserts: “I would argue that the style being channelled by the Pepe meme–posting trolls and online transgressives belongs to a tradition that can be traced from the eighteenth-century writings of the Marquis de Sade, surviving through to the nineteenth-century Parisian avant-garde, the Surrealists, the rebel rejection of feminized conformity of post-war America, and then to what film critics called 1990s “male rampage films” like American Psycho and Fight Club.”
In Kill All Normies, Nagle uses Mercer-fav Milo Yiannopoulos as an illustration of the ascension of this type of right-wing troll. Even in his own book, Dangerous, Yiannopoulos, though now ex-gay and planning to open his own conversion therapy center, echoes some of the anti-assimilationist arguments about transgression that have circled around queer academia for decades. For instance, he says, “…being gay has meant transgression and the violation of taboos. It’s been an act of rebellion, an automatic entry pass into society’s underworld.”
This was not the same Republican Party. Or at least they didn’t seem to be. As Nagle argues, “its ability to assume the aesthetics of counterculture, transgression, and nonconformity tells us many things about the nature of its appeal and about the liberal establishment it defines itself against.” And it did. In “Transgression: An Elegy,” Laura Kipnis reveals the hypocrisy of the transgressed-upon–the progressive scolds–that wield “not insignificant amounts of social power while decrying their own powerlessness.” However, these supposedly transgression-loving conservatives also have monopolized on their own victim narratives as the cancelled, the censored, the muzzled, and therefore often, the marginalized. Yet, clearly these new roles were more fragile than we thought as all it took was one pole-dance to the gates of Hell to, at least momentarily, revert transgression back to its same old, frankly more comfortable partisan dynamics.
The tidal wave of outrage gushing from the feverishly tweeting fingers of the Right harkens back to an earlier era of conservative offended outcries, namely the Culture Wars of the late 1980s and 1990s with artists like Robert Mapplethorpe, Andres Serrano, David Wojnarowicz, and the NEA 4 becoming targets. In fact, the issue taken with Lil Nas X’s video is strikingly reminiscent of another music video that horrified right-wingers and the religious in equal measure: Madonna’s 1989 video for “Like a Prayer.” Madge’s video even sent the Vatican into a tizzy with burning crosses, stigmata, and making out with a Black saint.
However, the difference is that the Family Values Party wasn’t pretending to be at the cutting-edge of the button-pushing free speech debate in the 1980s and 1990s. As Kipnis writes, “Things were much less confusing when the purists were right-wingers, when the ‘moral majoritarians’ railed against cultural permissiveness while concealing their private transgressions behind facades of public rectitude…Note that as of 1999, it was still possible to be ironic about offending people, because offended people were generally regarded as morons.” Even more recently in 2010, John Boehner and Eric Cantor’s ire at David Wojnarowicz’s unfinished film A Fire in My Belly resulted in the National Portrait Gallery pulling the work from the exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.
By triggering the newly staunch anti-PC Right, Lil Nas X ripped off their masks and exposed that the conservatives aren’t, in fact, changed at all from that era. Now, I should mention Lil Nas X hasn’t been the only target of the anti-cancel culture crew. Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion twerked their way into controversy with their song “WAP” that notably bunched-up Ben Shapiro’s tiny shorts. Yet what makes Lil Nas X so important, at least in my mind (not that I also don’t love Cardi and Megan), is that he uses delightfully exaggerated shock tactics specifically as means to rebel against a homophobic and racist society as a gay Black man. And this is a shift at least in recent mainstream queer aesthetics that have been fixated on the visibility and respectability of, as Kipnis articulates, the transgressed-upon.
But not only does Lil Nas X’s resurrect transgression as a rejection of those who would keep queers in the closet or the flaming abyss, he also uses camp as a defiant survival strategy–”a private language for some who intuit that the public language has gone wrong,” as Scott Long articulates. This is certainly a throwback to the specifically queer use of the aesthetic, before it became interconnected with Donald Trump and co’s overblown, oversexed, over-patriotic, and over-gilded absurdity. As David Bergman writes in “Strategic Camp: The Art of Gay Rhetoric,” “It strikes me that camp is the voice of survival and continuity in a community that needs to be reminded that it possesses both. It has come to serve those purposes before AIDS, and it will probably do so again.” And Lil Nas X shows that it has.