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The Devil didn’t make Lil Nas X do it – we did

6 mins read

By Terry Manning

The controversy involving rapper Lil Nas X and the video for his song “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” should be instructive for parents: Not everything that is marketed to the general public is appropriate for children, not even when children make the choice.

For those who don’t know, the performer best known for his inescapable 2019 hit, “Old Town Road,” released a video for a new song that features him reenacting the Biblical fall of man, his death by stoning and subsequent descent into Hell via stripper pole.

There, the protagonist seduces the Devil, kills him and assumes the throne. Edgy stuff for a pop music video, even without the visuals of Nas X performing a lapdance on Ol’ Scratch.

The usual suspects — conservative politicians, faith leaders, concerned parents — jumped at the chance to criticize the video and its homoerotic content. Surprisingly, they were joined by groups less common to public condemnation of rap music, such as other rappers who felt the gay imagery in the video was a step too far, even for a genre where materialism, glorification of drugs and violence, and denigration of women are par for the course.

The flames of discontent only burned hotter after Nas X collaborated with a fashion company to release “Satan Shoes,” customized Nike athletic shoes with the number 666, an upside-down pentagram and (allegedly) a single drop of human blood incorporated into their black-and-red design. The limited-edition shoes — only 666 pair were produced — sold out in less than a minute after their official release despite being priced at $1,018. Nike was able to get an injunction against shipment of the controversial footwear, at least for the short term.

Nas X hit all the buttons. And purposefully. He said he wanted to draw out the people who regularly make life a living Hell for members of the LGBTQ community so he could rub their noses in their own biases and prejudices. The lyrics of the song describe the negative messages thrown at gays and how those messages are internalized and become denial, self-hatred and, sometimes, death.

Now, this is not an invitation for you to bombard me with your opinions on sexuality. I have read all the Bible verses you’ll quote. I agree with and support gay rights, but that’s not why I am discussing Lil Nas X. I’m talking about the song and video because so much of the criticism of the new song amounts to, “What about the children?”

A lot of children took a liking to “Old Town Road.” The repetitive chorus, the rap-country combo of thump and twang, even the cornball videos. These were things a lot of young people found appealing. Nas X won awards from the Grammys, BET, MTV, and was Best New Artist at the Nickelodeon Kids Choice Awards.

Few of the people listening to the song, though, were really listening to the song.

The lyrics referenced lean, a concoction of carbonated soda and narcotic drugs; infidelity; and female body parts. As Nas X asked in response to the clamor over “Montero,” who was worried about the children when they were walking around singing “Old Town Road”? Were the inappropriate lyrics less inappropriate when they were in reference to heterosexual relationships? Or had parents been fooled because they figured, if the song was bad no one would play it in front of kids?

The same thing happened a couple years ago with Chance the Rapper. Chance rose to fame on streaming platforms, and he set records on Grammy night, winning best new artist, best rap album, and best rap performance for music from an album with no sales. What really raised his public profile was a gospel-flavored medley he performed that night with guest input from luminaries Kirk Franklin, Tamela Mann, and even a full gospel choir.

Parents ate it up. Until they bought the album, Coloring Book, and played it at home and were greeted on just the second track by repeated uses of the b-word, f-word, n-word, s-word and — OK, you get the idea. Friends of mine expressed shock, but at least on iTunes, nine of the album’s 14 tracks are clearly marked as having explicit content. That one performance fooled them.

I’m not saying it’s easy to raise a child, and kids do get introduced to things we might not think they’re ready for, but before you start crying “What about the children?” over things they see in popular culture, make sure the culture can’t point back and ask, “What about the parents?”

Terry E. Manning lives and works in Savannah, Ga. He is a Clemson graduate and worked for 20 years as a journalist. He can be reached at teemanning@gmail.com.

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