About a month or so ago, I got into a vehement argument with a good friend of mine. Our passionate conversation escalated quickly, and it reached a newfound intensity for most of our debates. And yet, the debate emerged from a very casual, unassuming subject: a music video. We discussed Rapper and Popstar Lil Nas X’s “MONTERO (Call me by your name)” music video.
In part, I argued so passionately with my friend because of our debate’s proximity to Media Literacy. While we refuted one another, oscillating between casual conversation and weighted debate, we also were approaching key concepts of Media Literacy. The phenomena we articulated were much bigger than just the phenom Lil Nas X.
Lil Nas X’s career has been built on a foundation of calculated irreverence and casual creativity. He emerged onto America’s radio waves with “Old Town Road”- a melange of Country music tropes and Rap beats. “Old Town Road” shattered records. The song became the longest number one single on Billboard’s Hot 100 List, remaining in the premier position for seventeen weeks. The song also received around four remixes which not only extended the single’s position on Billboard’s Hot 100 List, but reflected the artists disdain of genres and all industry norms alike.
“MONTERO (Call me by your name)” continues the thread of unapologetic irreverence that has thus far defined Nas’s career. The music video reappropriates biblical imagery: Nas is pursued by a serpent, he faces judgement in a glittering court, he ascends to Heaven, only to fall to Hell. The video is as intensely subversive as it is explicitly sexual.
This imagery irritated my friend.
Amidst the unprecedented virality of “Old Town Road” and its record-breaking success, Lil Nas X amassed a large following of children (the summer the song came out, I worked as a summer school teacher in a local elementary school. Nearly everyday, “Old Town Road” echoed through the school’s halls). My friend condemned Lil Nas X’s music video. She criticized Nas’s irreverence and sexual liberty, demanding that he be a better role model for the many children that adore his songs.
She raised the question of what is an artist's responsibility to his audience.
At the time, I found this question very frustrating. My friend wasn’t alone in asking. Much of the backlash to the video articulated similar demands. Many of these reactions also promoted a disguised, implicit homophobia, whereas other reactions were much more forthright with intolerance.
The lyrics of “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” detail a love affair between Nas and another man. The video is saturated with imagery that expresses Nas’s sexual liberation and blurs gender norms. It is encoded with both allusions to the Bible and to LGBTQ+ culture. Lil Nas X slithers as an anthropomorphized snake; he poses in a tall blue wig; he dances in knee-high leather stiletto boots. Nas plays every character in the video.
And that’s what motivated my frustration with my friend’s demand. I felt as though criticizing the sexual imagery ignored the substance of the video. Not only does the imagery express an unapologetic reclamation of Nas’s sexuality, it depicts an intimate story.
The video is an exploration into Nas’s sexuality particularly in the face of the pervasive homophobia he’s experienced.
I felt as though demanding Lil Nas X become a “better role model” stripped him of his agency.
“MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” seemed, to me, to be an authentic form of self-expression. Censuring his work, asking him to make it more palatable to his audience and the public would only detract from it’s meaning. Nas’s irreverence- like the video’s imagery- is essential; The rapper is attempting to subvert the cultural norms, gender binary, and homophobia that impact his experience as a queer man.
Instead of dulling Lil Nas X’s artistry to become more age-appropriate or conventionally agreeable, I argued with my friend for a more thorough viewing practice. Locating the video’s motifs and appreciating the allusions in “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” only enriches the experience of watching it.
Lil Nas X is responsible for his self-expression, not his audience’s intolerance.
Ultimately, my friend and I had watched the same video, but we understood it in vastly different ways; We negotiated different interpretations. My friend raised a good point when she asked what is the artist’s responsibility to his audience? She acknowledged that media bears influence.
I have to say that while at the time, I fiercely held my position and frankly dismissed my friend’s argument, looking back I am quite proud of our thinking. We both were engaging with key concepts of Media Literacy. We discussed how audiences’s decode meaning. We argued over the responsibility of the artist, and we compared different viewing practices. Most importantly, however, we immersed ourselves in the music video, sifting through its complexities. We were active consumers, and we engaged in critical analysis.
My friend and I not only discussed Media Literacy, we practiced it.