Lil Nas X’s music videos since “Old Town Road” have been a feast for the eyes and imagination, and his latest, “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” is no exception. While his other videos such as those for “Panini” and even “HOLIDAY” have been located within the realm of science fiction, “MONTERO” is different, taking those themes and integrating them with Biblical stories and fantasy themes. It juxtaposes the Biblical and the sexual, a celebration of his queerness.
Lil Nas X is an internet guru, meme lord, Barb, and pop musician who “pulled a gimmick, I admit it, I got no remorse”; this video proves that he is also a visionary who is able to meld a catchy hit with an undeniable artistic vision.
In this essay, I will first discuss the visuals of the album art and music video. I will not be discussing the lyrics in depth at this time. I do not have the knowledge of music theory to adequately analyze the production and musicality of the song itself, and so I will also not discuss this.
The Album Cover
The album cover for “MONTERO” is a clear allusion to Michangelo’s Sistine Chapel, with Lil Nas X both in the position of Adam and God. Interestingly, the representation of God in this image is not actually true to form — instead of representing God, the Lil Nas X in God’s place is instead an archer, aiming an arrow that has a plaster hand at the tip. Instead of looking at Adam, the archer instead looks directly at the camera.
The Adam’s hair is red, the color that the artist currently sports, while the Archer’s hair is his natural color, perhaps indicating that the earthly Adam version of himself is tied in some artifice while the divine version of himself is a more natural version. (Note: This is not to shame Lil Nas X’s red hair. It’s a good look for him.)
From visuals alone, I cannot figure out what, if any, mythical archer Lil Nas X is representing here. One of my interpretations is the cherub Cupid, who shoots arrows that cause those shot to fall in love with the person they are looking at. With this interpretation, Adam is looking directly at Archer. If the arrow were to fly, Lil Nas X would be looking at himself, and thus would fall in love with himself.
It must be noted, however, that neither is reaching out to the other to touch hands. Adam is reaching forward with a spindly fingernail, and the Archer is reaching out with the arrow. Even if the two were to touch, they wouldn’t actually be touching the other.
There is a subtle allusion to sexuality in this image. Around Adam is a swarm of bees, and in the distance, as viewed through the window created by the Archer’s bow, we can see a distant flock of birds, an obvious reference to the phrase “the birds and the bees,” which is often used when referring to parents talking to their children about sex. It is interesting to note the difference in proximity of the birds and bees in this case — the bees surround Adam in the foreground, while the birds are far into the distance. This may signal a disconnect between Lil Nas X and his education in sexuality. Sexual education, especially that imparted by parental figures, hardly ever includes mentions of queerness, and this distance may symbolize the imbalance present in his sex education, only getting some of the picture.
Next, we must discuss the threads tied to each figure. Adam is tied to three red threads, an allusion to “The Red Thread of Faith” in East Asian mythology. This thread connects two people who are destined to meet one another and who are each others’ “true love.” This thread, however, is usually tied a finger, while the three tied to him are located on each wrist and one calf. This can be interpreted as Lil Nas X not having just one but three romantic attachments, each pulling him in different directions.
The Archer has two threads, one red and tied around the wrist, and one while, tied around the stomach. The red thread around Lil Nas X’s wrist is not connected to anything. Adam has only three threads though he has four limbs, and this thread may be the missing fourth thread. Tied to only himself, the Archer, the one in the position of God, is his own one true love, signaling that at his most divine, Lil Nas X only needs love for himself.
The Meaning of “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)”
The video opens with Lil Nas X’s narration:
In life, we hide the parts of ourselves that 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.
First we must acknowledge the title of the single and how this narration motions us to interpret it. In real life, Lil Nas X’s birth name is Montero Lamar Hill. Within the music video, Montero is the name of the fantasy world that we are invited into; it must then be assumed that we are being invited to his inner world, and when he says “Welcome to Montero,” he means “Welcome to me, the real me behind the pseudonym, behind the persona of Lil Nas X.”
In second part of the title, “Call Me By Your Name”, the antecedents of “me” and “your” are kept ambiguous. “Me” may be interpreted to be “Montero,” or the real person behind his persona, and “your” may refer to Lil Nas X, the performer. In this interpretation, “Call Me By Your Name” may be Montero Lamar Hill asking his persona to call him by his name, “Lil Nas X,” signaling the transformation from his real person to the performer. When he performs, we, the audience, call Montero Lamar Hill “Lil Nas X.”
The narration, however, may signal a different interpretation. In this interpretation, “me” refers to Lil Nas X, the one performing this song, and “your” refers to Montero. Lil Nas X, the performer, is asking to be called “Montero,” signifying a call to be acknowledged as both a performer and a person.
There is ample evidence that this music video, despite the spectacle of CGI, fantasy, and costuming, is actually a more vulnerable and authentic look into Montero Lamar Hill as a person. For one, he plays (almost) every character in the music video, from Adam to the Serpent, the judge and accused, an angel and the successor of Satan. This duality is mirrored in the album art, with Lil Nas X as both Adam and “God.” In this we find conflict between two sides of himself that continues through different scenes. (Note: I was unable to find a cast listing for the music video. Many of the characters are obviously Lil Nas X himself, but some of the costumes are so extreme that it is difficult to tell. In this essay, I am making the assumption that he plays every character except for Satan and some background characters in the judgement scene. Apologies if this is incorrect.)
The music video opens with a flyover shot of an alien world, lush with hot pink and purple plants and glowing pink crystals. The landscape is dotted with ruins of Greco-Roman architecture, including the Acropolis. We also see a large statue of Lil Nas X not unlike the Statue of Zeus at Olympia that is styled similar to the powdered-wigged judge in a later section of the video. There is also a giant statue of Lil Nas X’s face, laying on its side, a toppled monument.
Following along the viewpoint of a black and red snake, we arrive at an alien tree. Sitting at its base is Lil Nas X playing a hot pink guitar, as Adam in this alien Garden of Eden (though styled differently from the Adam in the album art).
The acoustic guitar is a callback to his first single, “Old Town Road,” and the color of the guitar is the same as the pink Versace cowboy outfit he wore to the 62nd Grammy Awards ceremony in 2020, where he was the most nominated male artist. It was at this performance that “Old Town Road” was nominated for Record of the Year, Best Pop Duo/Group Performance, and Best Music Video, the latter two of which he won. His other single, “Panini” was nominated for Best Rap/Sung Performance. His album, 7, was nominated for album of the year and the artist himself was nominated for best New Artist.
The 2020 Grammys marked the overwhelming success of his budding career, so it is no surprise that we find this callback in the Garden of Eden, where, Biblically speaking, humankind began.
The version of Adam we seen in the music video has long, loosely dreaded hair, and is wearing a skintight bodysuit shimmering with crystal embellishments that outline a naked body. He also sports several crystals on his face, which otherwise has minimal makeup. It feels absurd to call this a “natural” look, but relative to the rest of the music video, it is. The glittering natural look may symbolize the natural beauty that he started out as, shimmering like morning dew or a precious gemstone freshly wrested from the earth.
From behind the tree we see the Serpent, also played by Lil Nas X, appear. The body of the Serpent is black, with cracks alight with a red-orange glow reminiscent of lava fields. We’ll return to the significance of lava later, when we discuss his descent to Hell. The body of the serpent is more akin to a Naga, with a human torso attached to the tail of a snake, which more explicitly referencing the temptation of sexuality that the Serpent represents. This is in line with depictions of the serpent with a human woman’s face or body.
The torso and head of the Serpent is style in a distinctively alien manner, with a pointy, ribbed, bald head, unnaturally angular lips, a lavender third eye, and black decorative lines forming a symbol on its forehead. He wears a black sheer outfit that is tied in the back like a corset and long stiletto nails. This purposefully otherworldly look with the Biblical context of the Serpent form a clear message: sexuality is unsettling, scary, and unnatural. Lil Nas X is gay, and in a heteronormative society, homosexuality is often decried as unnatural and forbidden. It is no surprise, then, that when Adam sees the Serpent, he runs away scared.
As Adam runs, he encounters the Serpent’s visage in the natural world around him. Trees come to life, flowers bloom with the Serpent’s head at its center, smiling lustfully and licking its lips. In this, we see the temptation of sexuality reflected in the natural world, and while Adam finds this frightening it actually affirms that homosexuality is natural and undeniable.
After seeing his face in a swirling pink cloud overhead, the Serpent again materializes in front of him. Unable to escape his sexuality any longer, Adam freezes, and the Serpent leans in close, holding Adam’s face between his hands, and hypnotizes Adam with its third eye. Within Indian spiritual traditions and its derivations in modern spirituality, opening the third eye is associated with achieving a state of higher consciousness, connection to the universe, and enlightenment. By associating the opening of the third eye and the surrender to his sexuality, Lil Nas X connects this higher state of consciousness with the acknowledgement of his sexuality.
Adam then falls backwards, and the Serpent climbs on top of him. This time, it is Adam that holds the Serpent’s head, pulling him close and they kiss. The Serpent then runs his hand down Adam’s body and licks his stomach as the camera zooms away to the tree. Carved into the trunk of the tree is the symbol on the Serpent’s forehead as well as multiple symbols and Greek writing. I need to get an actual Greek speaker to translate this exact sentence, but according to Twitter user @hashtagoras this is from Symposium 191A. This was retweeted by Lil Nas X himself, confirming the validity of this observation.
The Symposium is a fictional dialectic between Socrates, Alcibiades, and Aristophanes, where each of these figures discusses Eros, the god of love and desire. I did read The Symposium, but it was in college and I only have a cursory memory of it and Wikipedia to guide me, so this will be a high level, cursory look into this allusion.
The quote carved into the tree refers to Symposium 189D — 190B, where Aristophanes discusses the origin of desire. Aristophanes’s claims that the original form of humankind was a singular being, composed essentially of two people fused together:
You must begin your lesson with the nature of man and its development. For our original nature was by no means the same as it is now. In the first place, there were three kinds of human beings, not merely the two sexes, male and female, as at present: there was a third kind as well, which had equal shares of the other two… For ‘man-woman’ was then a unity in form no less than name, composed of both sexes and sharing equally in male and female… the form of each person was round all over, with back and sides encompassing it every way; each had four arms, and legs to match these, and two faces perfectly alike on a cylindrical neck. There was one head to the two faces, which looked opposite ways; there were four ears, two privy members, and all the other parts, as may be imagined, in proportion. The creature walked upright as now, in either direction as it pleased and whenever it started running fast, it went like our acrobats, whirling over and over with legs stuck out straight; only then they had eight limbs to support and speed them swiftly round and round.
-The Symposium, 190D
In order to weaken humanity, the Gods decided to “slice every one of them in two, so that while making them weaker we shall find them more useful by reason of their multiplication.” After being cleaved, humans would long to be brought together once again:
Now when our first form had been cut in two, each half in longing for its fellow would come to it again; and then would they fling their arms about each other and in mutual embraces yearn to be grafted together, till they began to perish of hunger and general indolence, through refusing to do anything apart. And whenever on the death of one half the other was left alone, it went searching and embracing to see if it might happen on that half of the whole woman which now we call a woman, or perchance the half of the whole man.
- The Symposium 191A — 191B
Leaving aside the heteronormativity inherent to this particular framing, we see the connection between the tale in The Symposium and this part of the MONTERO music video. When the Serpent, representing Lil Nas X’s homosexuality, and Adam, representing the man himself, consummate, it is not only a sexual awakening, but an act of completion — in embracing the temptation of sexuality, he becomes whole.
The letters on the tree turn to fire, and as the image burns away we are transported to the next scene.
The next scene in the video opens with a close-up on the face of Lil Nas X, who is wearing a tall, blue wig, blue eyeshadow, a denim dress with a collar like a blazer and jewelry with large coins on it. The camera pulls away and we see another version of this outfit, a more ‘masculine’ interpretation with a button-up denim shirt and shorter hair, though still earrings and a necklace. These two are holding onto the arms of the protagonist of this scene, a pink Lil Nas X, with a short pink wig that has looser curls than the blue wigs, wearing a pastel-pink fuzzy cross shoulder sling and a rose gold chain with a ram’s head pendant. He is also wearing what appears to be metallic pink loins that look like a diaper and a collar with the initials “LNX” (for Lil Nas X) on it.
I will refer to all versions of Lil Nas X in the blue costume as “Judges”, and the pink version as “The Accused” from this point forth.
The Judges’ wigs look a bit like Marge Simpson’s hair, but I believe that the true reference is to the powdered wigs of European nobility, such as that worn by Marie Antoinette. I believe that this connection is further exemplified by the use of the color blue, which is also prominently featured in Marie Antoinette costumes. These costumes are also made with patchwork denim. Blue jeans are a mainstay of American fashion, so this outfit is a mash up of European and American culture. (NOTE: The historic veracity of my interpretation of Marie Antoinette is poor. I believe that this is a reference more to the cultural zeitgeist of Marie Antoinette rather than the woman herself.)
In addition, this baby blue contrasts with the pastel pink of the Accused. With pink and blue both present, we can infer that the use of blue references masculinity, while pink references femininity. It must be noted then, that everyone in this room is wearing blue except for the Accused, which references the dominance of masculinity in Western culture.
In this scene, the Accused is being brought to trial where five Judges and an audience look on. The court room is styled in white marble and has several shining white statues, all wearing the tall wigs of the Judges. Greco-Roman architecture is often used in buildings associated with the American government and, more extensively, the American Justice system. We see the scene now as the allegory it is: Lil Nas X’s femininity being put on trial against the patriarchal, masculine hegemony of Western society, brought forth as criminal.
I believe that it is no mistake, either, that the outfit that the Accused is wearing is significantly more revealing than that of the Judges. We see the Black body on trial here as well. The Accused standing in chains in the oppressive atmosphere of the courtyard alludes to both the criminal justice system and the history of enslavement perpetuated by American society, two realms in which the Black body is policed and kept captive. This is not just about masculinity bringing down and condemning femininity — whiteness polices not only the physical Black body, but also the gender expression and sexuality of Black people. (NOTE: I could probably write an entire book about the topic of European culture’s policing of gender and sexuality throughout history from colonialism to the modern day, but this essay is already long for the absurdity of its subject matter, so I’m going to move on, forgive me.)
The five Judges on the panel look onto the Accused’s confession with disinterest, even yawning, and we zoom out to see the entire courthouse. From this zoom-out we see that it’s in fact an entire stadium, with a huge audience of stone men looking on and screaming in rage.
All of them either have the same hair as the Accused or are bald, and are each wearing loins and the LNX collar. My interpretation of this spectacle is that these are those who had previously been put on trial, but who instead of embracing their softness, their pinkness, their femininity, have hardened and turned to stone. In denying this part of themselves, they lose their humanity in exchange for the safety of impermeability. This crowd flies into a frenzy and starts to throw things at the accused. A butt plug hits the Accused in the face and he passes out.
The Descent to Hell
The scene fades to white, and we are brought into a column of clouds. We see an iridescent Lil Nas X slowly rising up this column in the clouds, limbs akimbo. Lil Nas X has died and is floating up to heaven. We should note here that his body is styled in a similar way to the stone men in the courthouse. His hair is the same style, and all embellishments are gone except for the LNX collar and loin. He is transforming here — the closer he gets to heaven, the more like stone he becomes.
As he rises, we see the blurred silhouette of an angel, and just as he is about to reach it, a pole shoots up from beneath him directly into his hand. When he grabs the pole, his outfit transforms and instead of slowly rising he starts to swiftly plummet, pole dancing the whole way.
His new outfit consists of thigh-high, high-heeled, black, patent-leather boots, black underwear emblazoned with the ‘CK’ Calvin Klein logo, chains, and long red braids. The red in his hair here is the same as he sports as Adam on the album art, and is also the color he currently sports. Red is associated with the devil, and we see there that this version of him is embracing the association.
He falls down from heaven, down through Greco-Roman ruins, down into the Earth. This fall is one of the longest shots in the music video, taking up an entire chorus of the song. He lands in a lava field in front of the gates of Hell.
We see through outfit and expression that this is Lil Nas X not only embracing but owning his sexuality. He faced judgement for it, and in the last moment, he rejected passage into heaven, as it would have meant relinquishing his identity, all those things that make him unique. Instead, he gleefully accepts his entrance to Hell — he approaches the gates with swagger and confidence, strutting in high heels.
The architecture of the gates of Hell and its interior clearly are inspired by Greco-Roman architecture, but are a bastardized interpretation, lacking flourish. The gates themselves are a mish-mash of styles, a castle built by mashing different monuments into one, asymmetrical hybrid. The corridors are lined with columns, but these columns are more like stalactites than man-made structures.
He walks past several statues that look like Judges, only these are built out of cooled lava and have glowing red eyes, and enters Satan’s throne room.
Satan is wearing black Nike Air Max 97s with a pentagram charm on the laces, black pants, and a grid-like leather harness styled like BDSM harnesses. We wears facial piercings and his horns are sculpted out of black braids, a brilliant use of the artistry of Black hair. Satan does not react to Lil Nas X’s entrance, and he keep completely expressionless even as Lil Nas X proceeds to give him a lap dance. He does move when reaching to touch Lil Nas X’s legs and ass during the lap dance, and is thus participating, but does not actually acknowledge him.
Lil Nas X throws it back on Satan, alternatively looking at Satan and at us, the audience. He continues to stay confident and as he dances we see him flirting with both Satan and the camera. He has fully embraced his sexuality and is putting it all on display for the world to see.
This irreverence reflects that which he has in real life to haters who want to speak poorly about him because of his sexuality. On the day of the video’s release, Lil Nas X tweeted “y’all love saying we going to hell but get upset when i actually go there lmao” (Source) Not only is Lil Nas X not ashamed of his homosexuality, he doesn’t even care if people tell him he’s going to Hell for it. In a world where homosexuality is criminalized, hated, and called unholy, Lil Nas X makes it clear that he is going to not only be gay, but celebrate being gay in the face of these admonitions.
At the end of the lap dance, Lil Nas X comes from behind Satan. It appears that he’s going to sensually massage Satan’s chest and shoulders, but instead he snaps Satan’s neck. He removes Satan’s horns and dons them himself, declaring himself the new King of Hell. By killing the Satan that was there before, Lil Nas X is staking a claim on Hell, usurping the evil, Christian Satan and imbuing the role with new meaning. After being condemned on Earth and in heaven, Lil Nas X has finally found the place where he can be himself, and yes that place is Hell, but we can see that this is not a realm of internal damnation. It’s a realm for bad bitches to live their lives in full, a place where the gays become divine.
dear 14 year old montero,
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.
Lil Nas X tweeted the above right as the video for “MONTERO (Call me By Your Name)” was released. In this, we see Lil Nas X, the grown Montero Lamar Hill, addressed to his fourteen year old self. As what I hope is an appropriate conclusion to this essay. I’m going to break this message down line by line.
i wrote a song with our name in it.
“Our” name refers to “Montero,” and with this he means both Montero Lamar Hill in the present and the younger version of himself. In this, he makes it clear that this song is not just for himself now, but also for his younger self.
it’s about a guy i met last summer.
This statement disambiguates the subject of this song. The important thing to note is that he specifies that this person is “a guy,” in case anyone wanted to deny its subject matter.
i know we promised to never come out publicly
In this, Lil Nas X acknowledges a promise he made to himself in the past. Given the specificity of the age of Montero that Lil Nas X is addressing this to, we may assume that this was the age at which Lil Nas X fully realized he was gay. In that moment, he may also have made a promise to never let the world know.
i know we promised never to be “that” type of gay person
There is not only a stigma for being gay among heterosexual people, there is also a fair deal of internalized homophobia present in the gay community. This manifests in many ways — gay men ostracizing those who present more femininely, for example — and in this letter he references “that” type. The air quotes indicate that there is one specific interpretation for what kind of gay person he is talking about. With the topic of this conversation being “coming out publicly,” Lil Nas X is indicating that “that time of gay person” he promised never to become was the type of gay person whose identity centers around his sexuality, someone who is loud and out and “shoves their homosexuality in everyone’s face.”
In a culture that would prefer that gays be hidden, there are also those who might say things like “I don’t mind gays but I wish they weren’t so blatant/loud/annoying/in your face about it.” In this, homosexuality is only acceptable if it is quiet and out of the way. Lil Nas X may have resigned himself to being quiet about being gay, to only let those closest to him know.
i know we promised to die with the secret
In this Lil Nas X confirms that his plan, at least at 14, was to be in the closet until he died.
but this will open doors for many other queer people to simply exist
Here we see Lil Nas X has acknowledged the concerns of his younger self, but now says that he cannot do those things he promised himself. He cannot stay quiet about it. He cannot stay closeted forever. He cannot die with his secret. Why? Because he is a public figure, and him doing the most will allow others to exist without having to do the most. This is the significance of “simply exist” — Lil Nas X is making a statement by having the gayest, most irreverent music video, but he is doing it, in some ways, to contrast with those who are not out here living the gayest, most irreverent lives.
you see this is very scary for me
This is a rare moment of vulnerability from Lil Nas X. The persona of Lil Nas X the performer and the internet personality may lead you to believe that he doesn’t care what others think at all, but he does find this moment “very scary.” It is notable that he is only able to be this vulnerable while talking to himself. He is letting himself be vulnerable for his younger self, and, by proxy, all other young queer people who are struggling with this issue alongside him.
people will be angry, they will say i’m pushing an agenda.
There is inherent risk in what Lil Nas X is doing — speaking openly about homosexuality, sure, but also spitting in the face of Christianity by literally dancing with the devil. In the culture wars, one of the phrases used by homophobic people is that queer people have some kind of “gay agenda” — they think queer people are trying to convert their children, ruin American culture, destroy the sanctity of marriage, etc. etc. Lil Nas X anticipates this backlash.
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.
Here, Lil Nas X affirms that yes, he is trying to make a statement, and he clarifies his statement explicitly. People (homophobic people, people who think being gay is wrong, and especially those who attempt to make such things illegal) should stay out of other people’s (queer people’s) lives. No one can dictate who queer people should or should not be.
sending you love from the future — lnx 🏹🤍 (bow and arrow then white heart emoji)
The bow and arrow emoji, referencing the bow and arrow of the Archer in the album art, now points the arrow of self love to his younger self. The white heart may symbolize purity and innocence in this case. With this, this letter concludes with a message of self love, directed now at his younger self, an older version who has finally found in him the strength to carry on this legacy and to make the world better for young queer people.