Can music still genuinely shock people like it did in years past with artists like Marilyn Manson, 2 Live Crew and Elvis?
For the past decade, this question has been in the back of my mind. As pop culture becomes more fractured and society becomes more numb to aspects like profanity, sex and violence, the answer seemed to be a clear “No.”
Enter two songs released over the past year that decimated that notion: the current number-one single “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)” by rapper/singer/social media expert Lil Nas X and last summer’s smash “WAP” by Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion.
The shared DNA between these songs: They’re unabashedly sexual, frank about their subject matter and humorous. While there’s been no shortage of hit songs centered around sex, just take a look at current tunes like Ariana Grande’s “34+35,” Harry Styles’ “Watermelon Sugar” and Camila Cabello’s “My Oh My.” None of those have broken through like the other two songs, simply because they’re not trying to water down the subject with cute double entendres.
For “MONTERO,” there’s a little more going on with the controversy. First off, it’s a rare hit song by a gay artist with queer themes. If you don’t get that overt message from the song, the music video drives it home, as Lil Nas X pole dances his way to hell so he can twerk on the Devil and kill him.
Is Lil Nas X being provocative and leaning into the controversy? Of course. Within a week of the single, he sold 666 Nike Air Max 97 “Satan Shoes,” which feature pentagrams, inverted crosses and a drop of blood in the sole (Nike did not authorize the shoe and sued the maker, MSCHF). He’s also spent the better part of the past week replying to people on Twitter who are vocal about their disgust at the song and video.
Having lived through the age of Marilyn Manson and Nine Inch Nails in the ’90s’, whose peak brought new waves of the “Satanic panic” of the ’70s and ’80s, Lil Nas X’s playful use of Satan, as well as the celebration of his sexuality seems to be doing what these artists used to be able to do on a regular basis: Make parents mad.
It’s similar to the response we’ve seen during the past year with “WAP,” which, despite carrying a Parental Advisory label and being aimed at adults, has been blamed for everything from “canceling” Dr. Seuss to the giant drop in viewers for the Grammys to, I assume, the downfall of humanity.
But what must be the most annoying thing to people railing against these songs is the same reason they hated Manson’s “Antichrist Superstar” or Eminem’s “Marshall Mathers LP” — they’re earning critical praise and threaten to bring new elements to popular music and culture. In these cases, the songs are ushering in people of color embracing sexuality and LGBTQ+ romance.
While I enjoy both songs, I recognize their explicit material is certainly not for everyone, especially kids. On that same note, it’s also giving this generation of teens that antiquated rite of passage of listening to music their parents despise. With that in mind, expect “MONTERO” to be around for a long, long time.
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