“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. Welcome to Montero.”
Upon first hearing the opening line from Lil Nas X’s music video for new viral single “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” you might think the sentiment on the generic side. And it many ways it is. The message to embrace your flaws and summon a state of nirvana within to the point where you really can “just be yourself” has certainly been played out both in popular music and every other happy-clappy Disney movie you care to name. That on-the-nose messaging, coupled with the general acceptance of queer themes in music over the last half decade or so, fuels the skeptical argument that Montero is not the incredible statement early critics have deemed it. Here’s why they are oh so wrong.
On a purely sonic level, “Montero” has been universally well received. The short track is very much in the vein of Lil Nas X’s previous hits: a melodic combo of rapping and singing, with an outrageously catchy hook and undertones of parody. On the side of critique, let’s set aside comments from right wing pundits and their archaic complaints about tainting the minds of children, as well as Lil Nas X’s notorious branded satan shoes. We aren’t here to debate the track’s existence, though for what it is worth, Lil Nas X is right in that it isn’t his job to cater his content to children, that’s on the parents.
The chief cynical attitude regarding “Montero” is, according to those questioning, not about the homosexual content within the track and video itself, but the fact that it has made such waves over the weekend while queer content before it has hit it just as big and become almost completely normalized in Top 40 music culture. Artists like Troye Sivan and Janelle Monáe have certainly not held back when it comes to expressing queerness, to much success, so just what about “Montero” is all that groundbreaking?
You might look at “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” and say it’s nothing new, and you’d be partially right. Queer themes are by no means untrodden ground in music, blunt or coded, and in fact have become selling points for certain artists. Even artists within hip hop have recently touched upon queer sensibilities through their music. What sets “M(CMBYN)” apart is the exaggerated combination of both its content and more importantly, the context which surrounds it. Think for a second about queerness in hip hop specifically. Even queer or queer-adjacent theming in the genre from artists like Frank Ocean, Tyler the Creator and Blood Orange have been shrouded in subtlety and coded messaging. Frank Ocean particularly, while out and proud, is not particularly known for overt queerness in him music.
Meanwhile, the “Montero” video sports absolutely no subtlety. Outrageously camp costuming and makeup, a same-sex kiss, and Lil Nas X descending a CGI pole down to the depths of hell to give Satan himself a lap dance, and all of it under the backdrop of a song simply about gay sexual lust. No subtext, no coded language, and any metaphors or allegories (like Lil Nas X being stoned to death and descending to Hell) are secondary to the visuals and unabashed gayness.
Even more so, this isn’t even the Hollywood brand semi-closeted, hyper-masculine gayness that dominates the few mainstream coming of age stories we do have of queer characters (think Moonlight, Brokeback Mountain, Nick Jonas in Kingdom – though stories of that nature need not be discounted in their own right). This is pure bottom pride. Even the gay community itself has its own misplaced prejudices towards feminism, and many queer people are often deemed weak or less-than for being submissive. “You live in the dark boy, I cannot pretend,” sings Lil Nas X, breaking free of the “in the closet” motif that frequently surrounds gay narratives and vowing to truly “just be himself.” To exhume such intense energy of a fiercely unashamed bottom (or versatile) in a mainstream hip hop song no less, is without a doubt a step forward.
The argument of those needlessly trying to bring down the significance of “Montero” is the very thing that raises it up even more. You might instinctively think that overt queerness has come around to being mainstream, meaning that “Montero” is nothing special, but the mere fact that the video has drummed up so much controversy just goes to show that (1) we aren’t as far along as we think we are, and (2) the worlds of hip hop and queerness haven’t truly merged in popular culture until now. What makes it so groundbreaking is the mere status it has amassed in such a short period of time. Simply put, no hip hop song and video this unapologetically queer has amassed as much notoriety and popularity, and that is partially what propels it to such great heights for the genre. Even recent breakout star Orville Peck, equally groundbreaking for his chosen genre of country music, did not reach the same level of omnipresence for his similarly homoerotic video for single “Hope to Die.” The same goes for songs like Janelle Monae’s “Pynk.”
This is not to discount the music of artists like Frank Ocean, and Orville Peck. It is up to queer artists on an individual level how much of their queerness they wish to express, and how much of that queerness they choose to define their identity by. That “Montero” is the most unabashedly queer song and video in hip hop to make it this big is simply what makes it so incredible in 2021.
As one of the brightest and most popular Gen-Z queer ambassadors, Lil Nas X is very much a product of his generation. Those “just be yourself” mantras in mainstream children’s movies were never explicitly aimed at queer people, but it has taken until Generation Z for the majority of young people to finally start embracing them anyway.