Lil Nas X, Rock, and Satanic Panic
How Lil Nas X used devil imagery to critique Southern Evangelical Christianity
Lil Nas X is facing a huge backlash from the Christian right in America this week, after releasing the video for his newest song “Montero (Call me by your name). In the video for the song, Lil Nas X dances on a stripper pole to hell, where he gives a lap dance to the devil before killing him and taking his horns, among other things.
The depiction of the devil in this story, and the “Satan shoes” that were released alongside it, has been read by many Christians are an endorsement of demon worship, which is consistent with their highly literal interpretations of… everything. But the depictions of the devil are very rarely literal in the western canon.
Lil Nas X’s Montero music video uses depictions of the devil to subvert the Christian anti-gay narrative and to deconstruct the discourses of southern evangelism, and in doing so Lil Nas X is joining a tradition of telling devil stories in Rock and Roll that dates back to the 1970's.
The Devil and Rock music
For the past few centuries in western media, the Devil has served as an important metaphor in literature. The metaphors meaning has changed significantly over the course of the 20th century, ranging from tales of moralistic warning in the 1950’s to the presentation of the devil as a corporate overlord in the 90’s and early 00’s (ALA Devil Wears Prada). Generally speaking, society's presentation of the devil is defined by the cultural moment.
Lil Nas X’s newest song is clearly designed to spark outrage with his devil depiction. In releasing his video, he joined a tradition of musical artists who have toyed with devil imagery in their art as a means of subverting the dominant culture, in this case subverting the presentation of gay people being condemned to hell, an argument that is common in southern evangelism.
Rather than depicting a deal with the devil, or having a duel with the devil, or whatever Devil and Daughter by Black Sabbath is about, Lil Nas X uses the devil and hell as a very direct call out of Evangelical condemnations of gay folks.
He metaphorically places himself in the very place where he was taught growing up he would be judged forever for being gay, as an act of reclaiming his identity from those who attempted to traumatize him with hell and brimstone messages.
I doubt very much that Lil Nas X actually worships the devil or consorts with demons, or any of the other wild interpretations I have seen of this video from Christian folks. Those interpretations are used to avoid having to actually address the subject of the video: Christian judgment. Instead, many morally outraged watchers chose to engage in… Christian judgment, which is the exact trap Lil Nas X left for them.
In his book “The Devil’s Music” Randall Stephens argues that the origin of devil imagery in Rock music has never come from outside Christianity, but instead has always come from within. Among other things, Christians have accused Tritones of being demonic, screaming in music being demonic, and even the Beatles being demonic. Yes, the Beatles.
The presentation of Rock music as satanic preceded any devil references in the music at all. In fact, Rock as a format is in part based on Gospel and Church music, something that Elvis and other popular Rock artists were very public about. According to Stephens, it was a book called Cross and the Switchblade written by David Wilkerson in 1963 that riled up Christians against Rock n’ Roll, asserting that Rock concerts are actually a form of demonic speaking in tongues.
Remember, at the time rock sounded like this:
So if you are surprised the Christians think everything is demonic, don’t be. There is a long tradition of Satanic panic in fundamentalist Christian culture. Much like their backlash against all post-modernism, most Christians haven’t done their research, they are just falling in line.
The moral outrage against Rock in the 60’s led to a huge, ill-informed, cultural backlash against Rock artists over the next few decades. The backlash was also racially informed, as most early Rock artists were black folks. There were even those who argued that African drum styles represented a form of demon possession and witchcraft, and of course, Rock folklore held that Robert Johnson made a Faustian deal with the devil to gain his musical skills because white folks just couldn’t quite wrap their heads around someone more talented than them.
In the end, it was this moral panic that formed the foundation for devil rhetoric in the Rock music of the 70s and 80s from artists like Rolling Stones, Black Sabbath, or more recently Black Veil Brides, and of course Lil Nas X. A key thing to notice is that all of these Rock artists used their devil imagery as a rhetorical symbol, and almost never as a literal form of devil worship. In the same way that Milton is not literally arguing the devil is a good guy in paradise lost (I think), most rock artists are not literally arguing for the devil.
So throughout rock and roll history, the devil imagery is a response to the moral panic that preceded it, not a cause of it. The Satanism of Black Sabbath had very little to do with literal worship of Satan, and everything to do with a critique of the way in which religion attempts to control people. The music shocked people, and the more it shocked the morally indignant church-going folks, the more records sold.
Lil Nas X’s devilish rhetoric
Lil Nas X is doing a lot of the same kind of work here in this iconic song that we have seen from Rock artists over the past 50 years. The video starts with him in a garden of Eden environment, where he seduced by a serpent, clearly referencing Genesis and the Christian Fall into sin. Once seduced into the temptation of the sexual encounter, i.e. what Christians would define as a sin, he finds himself facing a court of judges who are dressed in victorian inspired garb and condemning him for his sexuality.
The final section of the video sees him ascending toward a shadowy figure in the heavens while he appears to be out of control of his body, but once he takes control, he pole dances down to hell, where he seduces the devil, does a lapdance on him and then kills him to take the devil’s crown. Then he sprouts wings.
Overall, I think this video is very much in the same tradition as other devil stories I have seen in Rock music, with the exception that this one is about reclaiming his identity as a gay man back from the southern evangelism that he was raised in. The moral panic that is resulting from it is exactly what he wanted, and very much in line with the Satanic-panics of the past.
This article only barely scratches the surface of this topic, but I think that understanding this as a literary work that uses devil imagery to subvert the moral standards of society is important to accurately understand the message of the Montero music video. When people take a second to appreciate how he uses the symbolism to challenge Christian judgment, instead of taking the video so literally, they might find there is something convicting in this story about how Christians treat gay folks.
It would be much more constructive for the Christian community to engage in the discourse about what this video is actually saying, rather than stroking their persecution complex and riling up yet another tired moral panic.