Satan has never been so popular as in the last few days, and the rapper Lil Nas X is leading the way to hell with a viral video and a pair of sneakers. Who knew all it took was a clever marketing campaign and some Twitter buzz to take Holy Week by storm?
But the "Old Town Road" artist has not only created a media and marketing sensation; he’s invoked a cultural reaction that feels similar to the episodes of Satanic Panic that have consistently arisen in the American imagination, specifically with the rise of the Religious Right in the 1970s.
The video in question, “Montero (Call Be By Your Name),” has 54 million views and counting on YouTube, and is No. 1 on the charts. Coinciding with the release was a limited drop of 666 “Satan Shoes,” a Nike Air Max 97 redesigned by the streetwear company MSCHF complete with a pentagram, red ink and a drop of human blood in the sole. The sneakers sold out in one minute at $1,018 each.
The strange price point? A reference to New Testament scripture Luke 10:18, which reads: “I saw Satan fall from heaven like lightning.”
Lil Nas X’s new music video has been met with both anxiety and applause. In it, the artist enacts a sort of biblical passion play, portraying Eve in the Garden of Eden, and a persecuted figure (Jesus?) who is killed by a torrent of silver — ahem — plugs.
While ascending to heaven, Lil Nas X reroutes and instead decides to take the scenic route down to hell on a stripper pole, wearing thigh-high boots and briefs. On arrival, he proceeds to give Satan a lap dance before breaking Satan's neck, putting on his horns and sprouting wings.
Part of the irony here is that, whether you look at ritual abuse, backward masking, Pokémon or any of the myriad of other panics, Lil Nas X’s video and song fit right into the framework of fear-mongering Christianity and conspiracy theories like Q-anon, which, notably, some evangelicals have embraced.
While the visuals are arresting, the lyrics of the song, which Lil Nas X has explained, are actually about something pretty much everyone can relate to: an attraction that’s explosive and sexual. The difference here is that it is a same-sex attraction, which, for conservatives, is shocking — and, for those who identify, freeing.
The rollout of song, sneakers, and snark by Lil Nas X cleverly plays on both the fears and moral playbook of some devout Christians who have constructed the devil and hell as a place to avoid while condemning everyone else who doesn’t believe or live as they do to the very hell they claim to fear.
But the fear is real, and has real world consequences. In the last few weeks, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican said it could not bless same-sex unions because it considers them sinful. Mississippi, Arkansas and Tennessee all have recently passed anti-transgender laws, ranging from limiting gender-affirming care to requiring students to play sports on the basis of the gender listed on their birth certificate.
This backlash, after the legal and social gains of the LGBTQ+ community, suggests that the battle for acceptance and the link between religion and politics is far, far from over. These moral issues that evangelicals and other conservative Christians claim as their beliefs are also used to police people who do not ascribe to their belief system. While conservatives work to protect their rights to discriminate in their churches and educational communities in America, they also work to erode the legal gains of the gay and transgender community through legislation.
This use of morality, as I discuss in my new book, is a ploy that uses conservatives' faith to marginalize communities they perceive to be hostile to their beliefs, and that challenge their social and political control.
It also reveals what a pillar fear itself is for conservative Christianity. The fear of not only losing power, but the fear of the Satan they have constructed. Lil Nas X’s joyful skewering of preachers and churches losing it over "Satan Shoes" by countering their critiques with a mock Chick-fil-A Christian sneaker suggests that he understands the neoliberalism that evangelicals and conservatives have embraced.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of the video is a moment where we see Greek letters emblazoned on a tree in the garden of Eden. Thanks to historian Joseph A. Howley, we know that those letters are from Plato’s Symposium 191 A, Aristophanes’ tale of divided bodies as origins of desire, and the desire for different kinds of bodies. The video’s clever use of Plato as a hidden message speaks to the long history of sexuality, acceptance and desire, as well as the denigration of desire.
The division of the body and the soul has led to much pain for Christians who are subjected to heterosexual normativity in conservative churches and denominations. Lil Nas X’s video is not only a letter to his 14-year-old self, but it is also a mirror that illuminates truth about those who view it, and what lies behind their responses to it.
How people continue to respond to the video, whether to vilify, applaud or ignore it, conveys important truths about how religion has influenced our sexuality, and our relationship to our own sense of sexuality.