On Friday, Lil Nas X released the music video for his new single “Montero (Call Me by Your Name),” in which he rides a stripper pole down to hell and twerks for Lucifer, triggering a satanic panic rarely seen in America since its colonial days. But as scandalized as the Christian right may be, there’s really nothing surprising about this turn from the 21-year-old rapper.
On Wednesday’s episode of ICYMI, Slate’s new podcast about internet culture, hosts Rachelle Hampton and Madison Malone Kircher explained why none of this is all that shocking if you know anything about the “Old Town Road” rapper’s internet origin story. In this transcript, adapted from the episode, Kircher and Hampton recap the weekend’s drama and put it in the context of the former tweetdecker’s Very Online career.
Kircher: Before we connect everything back to Lil Nas X’s internet roots, we’ve got to talk first about this video, which Lil Nas X released on Friday. It takes place in a sort of mythical Garden of Eden fantasy land/underworld called Montero. It is, for lack of a better descriptor, queer, in the best possible way.
Hampton: Yeah, I cannot recommend highly enough just watching the video because it is honestly stunning. There’s this inquisition-type court in which Lil Nas X is put on trial by a Lil Nas X who looks like Marie Antoinette crossed with a ’90s-era Missy Elliott. You know what I’m talking about?
Kircher: Yeah, or I was thinking Effie Trinket in The Hunger Games.
Hampton: Honestly, yeah, same vibe. The pastel colors really sell it.
So Lil Nas X, while he’s on trial by Effie Trinket, he gets hit in the head with a butt plug, but as he dies, he ascends up to heaven only to then ride a stripper pole down to hell, where he gives Satan a lap dance and then kills Satan and takes his horns.
Kircher: I really feel like I owe Lil Nas X a thank you, as a gay person who spent 10 years in Catholic school, because I feel very much primed to explain that there is a quote in the Book of Luke that goes, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like lightning,” which this video takes incredibly literally.
Hampton: The reaction Madison and I are having is largely the reaction the Friday night internet had. People were losing their absolute shit. There were just so many supportive tweets. There were so many tweets from gay kids who grew up in the church. There were tweets from people like someone named Catboy Slim, who said, “If being quiet and chill is your thing that is absolutely wonderful for you but it’s genuinely nice to see someone with Lil Nas X’s reach and influence getting killed by a buttplug and pole dancing into hell, finally a little freak representation.”
Kircher: Didn’t Lil Nas X’s father say something about the video?
Hampton: Yeah, Lil Nas X’s father texted him, “A very creative video. I got through it. Congratulations. Live life on your terms. Very proud of you,” with the appropriate amount of emojis that you expect a dad to send.
Kircher: That’s the thing that I find really impressive about what he’s done with this video. So it’s incredibly raunchy and very fun, and it could just be an entertaining piece of art for those reasons alone, but it’s more personal and it’s actually very poignant. Lil Nas X’s real name is Montero. So the song is named after him, this world he’s built is named after him.
And he posted this note on Instagram when he released the song, and it’s a short letter to his 14-year-old self: “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 to die with the secret, but this will open doors for many other queer people to simply exist.”
That takes guts, first of all, and, second, I’m choked up reading that. Securing this platform as a young, gay, Black creator who was born of the internet is such a difficult path, and then to choose to really do some good with it …
Hampton: I think some people look at the video as this troll of the morality of America, which, based on the reaction, is easy to assume. But when you look at the statements that Nas has actually put out about the video, you can see that there’s very much a personal message involved. Of course, that went right over the heads of seemingly every single right-wing Christian person on the internet.
Kircher: And it’s so funny because this is not a video Lil Nas X dropped and was like, “Hmm, people will get the message.” In this letter, he says, “People will be angry” and “They will say I’m pushing an agenda. The truth is, I am.” He knew exactly what he was doing. And the Christian right is acting like he’s taunting them instead of very earnestly saying, “This is who I am and who I want to encourage other people to be, if that suits them too.”
Hampton: Exactly. And the Christian right has all the subtlety of a bull in a China shop, and so they looked at this video and thought, “Ahhh!”
Kircher: “The children!”
Hampton: “The children!”
Kircher: The children who statistically … you know … they’re queer. Accept it.
So that’s where Lil Nas X is now. But to understand how we got here, we’re going to need to take a trip back in time, to when Lil Nas X was what’s known as a tweetdecker.
Tweetdecking is a Twitter growth hack. It involves a group of people known collectively as a “deck,” who collaborate to force a tweet into virality. So the idea is these members of a tweetdeck all have pretty decent Twitter followings themselves, so when a person pays them to retweet something, that tweet has a really increased potential of going viral, since it’s now being shared by a group of people with collectively tens of thousands of followers. Twitter has now really cracked down on this, but it’s smart, it’s innovative, and it’s also a little shady.
Hampton: Yeah, and Lil Nas X really took advantage of this tactic with his Nicki Minaj stan account called @Nasmaraj. First, great name. Second, if you know anything about Nicki stans …
Kircher: We’re talking about the Barbz, right?
Hampton: Yes. The Barbz are one of the most active fan groups on the internet. And so in a way, Lil Nas X very much grew up and his sensibility was shaped by learning how to game the system to go viral.
Kircher: These are the same tactics that helped rocket “Old Town Road” to mega, chart-topping success.
Hampton: “Old Town Road” was a banger, and nothing should take away from that, but it was also a sort of meme in and of itself. The innate quality of a meme is its ability to build on itself, and “Old Town Road” does that with just the endless amount of remixes that Lil Nas X was putting out. I don’t know if you remember that moment during the “Old Town Road” rush where it felt like, every other week, there was a new remix. The most popular one was probably Billy Ray Cyrus, but there was Young Thug, there was Mason Ramsey, who was a meme in and of himself.
Even BTS had “Seoul Town Road.”
“Montero (Call Me by Your Name)” builds on that ingrained knowledge of how things go viral. Lil Nas X tweeted about using stills from SpongeBob—which, if you have spent any time on the internet, you know is one of the most memeable shows in existence—as inspiration for specific scenes.
Kircher: Unlike “Old Town Road,” and SpongeBob for that matter, “Montero” is, let’s say, not rated G for everyone. The slide down an infinite stripper pole has absolutely pissed off people who are acting like, because Lil Nas X once made a song about horses that their kids go nuts for, he owes them more music in that vein. He’s not Raffi. He’s not a children’s entertainer.
Nick Young, a former NBA player, was going off on Twitter about how his kids will never play “Old Town Road” again, which, OK, I mean, that’s your kid’s loss.
Hampton: Yeah, he’s also apparently going to boycott Nike because of the exclusive sneaker release that came with “Montero.”
Kircher: To be very clear, Nike is not affiliated with this sneaker drop. Lil Nas X has released a custom sneaker line of—wait for it—666 pairs of individually numbered, black-and-red Nike Air Maxes in partnership with a design studio called MSCHF. There’s a pentagram charm on the laces, and the studio claims that there is a drop of human blood in each pair.
Hampton: One of MSCHF’s founders, Daniel Greenberg, actually said in an email to the New York Times on Sunday, “ ‘Sacrificed’ is just a cool word—it was just the MSCHF team that gave the blood.” The Times asked who collected the blood and Daniel Greenberg replied, “Uhhhhhh yeah hahah not medical professionals we did it ourselves lol.”
Kircher: Kristi Noem, who’s the governor of South Dakota, tweeted just a whole screed against Lil Nas X about these sneakers, and Lil Nas X, because he is so good at the internet and at harnessing negative attention for his own purposes, quote-tweets her in response, “ur a whole governor and u on here tweeting about some damn shoes. do ur job!,” which is just this perfect example of how much better than the people he’s up against Lil Nas X understands the internet.
And I know it seems very easy to just be like, “This is a digital native. This is a 21-year-old person who’s been online their whole life. Everyone is like this.” Every 21-year-old is not like this.
Hampton: They are not.
Kircher: This is a special skill.
So not one to not get the final word, Lil Nas X has actually posted an “apology video.”
OK, it’s obviously not an apology video. It is a troll where he’s “apologizing” to the camera, and then, as he’s about to go into the promised apology, it cuts to a clip of “Montero”—the clip where he is giving Satan a lap dance.
It’s so smart. YouTube views now count in how charts are calculated and how the Hot 100 gets tallied, and that clip of the music video is long enough that I actually think it’s going to help boost listens of the song.
Hampton: By God, he’s done it again.
Kircher: His mind. Truly, his mind.
Hampton: So we should not only be hyping Lil Nas X up for the fact that he just continues to release banger after banger, but for the fact that he has created an online culture around himself.
Kircher: He’s an internet strategist as much as he is a musical artist.
Hampton: Exactly. I don’t think most PR companies could even do something like this.
Kircher: This stuff is hard to do right.
Hampton: And he just keeps doing it right.