Lil Nas X and the New Era of Religious Symbolism in Music

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Lil Nas X Montero
Lil Nas X, MonteroCourtesy YouTube

In the second instalment of her AnOther column, Believe, Ruqaiya Haris unpacks the controversy around blasphemy, religion-inspired pop music, and the provocative visuals of Lil Nas X

Believe: a new column from Ruqaiya Haris exploring the intersection of faith, fashion and culture.

Religious symbols and references have always been present in music, speaking to universal ideals of faith as well complex, individualised relationships between artists and spirituality. With themes of religion and sexuality on his platinum-selling debut pop-rap album Montero (in reference to his real name Montero Lamar Hill), Lil Nas X follows in the tradition of other popular musicians who have been accused of blasphemy for depicting religion in controversial ways through art. 

Religious symbols and iconography in music are nothing new or uncommon: a 1995 study of music videos on MTV showed 38 per cent of them featured religious imagery. This phenomenon has been seen across decades and genres, from Madonna’s 1989 pop song Like A Prayer whose video depicted the singer referencing her Catholic upbringing in front of burning crosses, causing the Vatican to call for a boycott of her music, to Kanye West’s Christian-inspired rap albums Yeezus, Jesus Is King and most recently Donda

West is often accused of having a God complex, something he doesn’t exactly shy away from with lyrics like “I am a God/ Even though I’m a man of God. Blasphemous connotations are at times reconciled through his characterisation as ‘eccentric’ by the press, amid his struggles with bipolar disorder. West’s attempts to negotiate the humility of the esoteric with the materialism of being a rap icon in his weekly gospel-inspired ‘Sunday Service’ and live listening events for Donda – the latter of which drew mixed reactions, with striking visuals of church buildings and lyrics chronicling the saving grace of faith in his life.

This revival of religion-inspired popular music also includes Justin Bieber’s album Justice, released earlier this year. It addresses themes of faith and redemption following his reconnection with his Christianity through the Pentecostal megachurch Hillsong, after well-known battles with drug dependence and mental health issues. Bieber’s redemption arc – from troubled party boy to married man of God – has generally been embraced, with religious communities holding it up as a shining example of the transformative power of faith.

But the stakes feel different for Lil Nas X; an openly gay 22-year-old Black American man from the South who was raised around Christianity, and catapulted to viral success more or less overnight while still a teen. He publicly came out as gay after his country-rap debut single Old Town Road broke industry records, then went on to challenge gender norms through fashion, making him a subject of controversy and condemnation long before he started depicting religion in his music. 

When he released the music video for Montero, loaded with unmistakable biblical symbolism (and most notably that scene giving the devil a lap dance), it was perhaps unsurprising that it received widespread backlash and criticism from conservative religious communities. By now, Lil Nas X had shown the world he was both self-aware and deeply intentional, often using social media to generate interest and hype around his art rather than allowing himself to become a passive subject in the digital gossip sphere. 

The Montero video was designed to shock and push boundaries, and it was demonstrably successful in both pursuits. Yet beneath the surface-level shock value, the video featured enough detailed medieval Christian and ancient Greek iconography to pique the interest of classical historians. The first scene depicts a retelling of the well-known biblical story of the ‘original sin’, set in an ethereal Garden of Eden. Lil Nas X plays a character representative of Adam and Eve, or perhaps Lilith; Adam’s demonic first wife who appears in Judaic mythology, as well as the serpent thought to have tempted humans into sin. While this story is often interpreted as misogynistic due to the blame placed on Eve for the original sin, Lil Nas X subverts these gender norms, and by being both the fearful, passive recipient and the instigator of temptation, he plays with the idea of what it means to be a sinner.

A Greek inscription on the Tree of Knowledge appears, translated to read “after the division the two parts of man, each desiring his other half taken from Plato’s Symposium. It alludes to the Greek mythological creation story whereby humans were initially two conjoined bodies, then separated and left longing for their other half. It is a clear reference to early ideas about normative queerness that divest from Abrahamic religious rulings on homosexuality, and an exploration of self-acceptance.

As Lil Nas X, dressed like a renaissance-style cherub dipped in glitter, is chained up and brought before an amphitheatre of people passing judgment and pelting him with stones like a martyr, the persecution of homosexuality in this scene is apparent. By the time his ascension to heaven is cut short by a stripper pole that leads him to hell, Lil Nas X has made clear that queer people are rejected and excluded from religious acceptance. Rather than abandoning religiosity, he has been forced away from it. When he descends into the fires of hell in thigh-high latex stiletto boots, it is the only possible option after being refused entry into heaven. Walking up to the throne of the devil reads a phrase in Latin that says “They condemn what they do not understand.” As he gyrates on the lap of Satan himself, Lil Nas X holds a mirror up to the ways in which queer people are depicted and condemned in many religious communities.

Themes of queer exclusion and heteronormativity are further explored in the That’s What I Want video. It shows a queer love story between two Black athletes played by Lil Nas X and his ex-boyfriend Yai Ariza, and features a steamy locker room tryst, with a momentary Durex product placement demonstrating the artist’s direct attitude towards sexuality. While sex is a commonly used visual tool in music videos, it’s rare (if ever) that contraception is alluded to. It seems ironic that whilst Lil Nas X receives intensive criticism for “corrupting” the youth through his depictions of queer sexuality, he is also promoting safe sex; something that his heterosexual contemporaries have failed to do, with risky sexual practices glorified in numerous chart-topping songs going back decades.

Patriarchal family structures are visited again, with Lil Nas X discovering his lover has a woman and child waiting for him at home, and subsequently falling into despair. While gay marriage is still inaccessible to many across the world, the video ends with him walking alone down the aisle of a church in a white bridal dress, to a cheering congregation, where Billy Porter stands in place of a priest and hands him a black electric guitar. 

While the Montero video’s satanic visuals caused outrage among religious communities, condemned even by the governor of South Dakota, it may be worth religious people examining why many queer people have traumatic experiences with faith. The album shows a deep reflection on navigating same-sex desires and queer identity in a way that many young people from faith communities will be able to identify with. Lyrics from the song Sun Goes Down speak of suicidal feelings and inner turmoil regarding sexuality: these gay thoughts would always haunt me/ I prayed God would take it from me.”

For people of faith, it is vital that we engage with those who feel ostracised by religious communities and listen to their experiences of life. Through the success of his debut album, Lil Nas X has brought valuable insights into his upbringing and life as a queer Black young person from a Christian background. As religious and queer people are often presented as being at odds with one another, it’s crucial to remember that many individuals fall at the intersection of these communities or have complex experiences with both. A revival of religious-inspired music should open our minds to new perspectives.