There is power in naming things.
When Lil Nas X dropped his new single, “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” it incited a social media hailstorm. Within a matter of hours, the Twittering public was fixated on the song’s lasciviously glamorous music video. Memes abounded of Lil Nas X pole dancing down from Heaven in nothing but thigh-high boots and a pair of Calvin Klein’s and giving Satan a lap dance. The biblical imagery paired with the explicitly homoerotic content drew a backlash from conservative Christians and an equally vocal show of support from the queer-friendly denizens of the internet. But the showers of attention, both contemptuous and celebratory, seem to miss the song’s titular point.
Montero Lamar Hill, more widely known by his stage name Lil Nas X, has written a curiously self-referential song. The pacing is swift and efficient. The verses are sleek, sexual and replete with euphemism: “Shoot a child in your mouth while I’m ridin’,” Nas sings. Forty seconds in, the chorus is already underway with deep, slightly sinister vocal layering and a tight lyrical organization built around phrasal repetition. Lil Nas X implores (or instructs) his mystery man to “call me when you want, call me when you need, call me by your name.”
“Call Me By Your Name” is a reference to the 2017 film directed by Luca Guadagnino. On the surface, Lil Nas X’s single has a great deal in common with the cult gay romance portrayed in the film. There is the discovery of new love, the tension of closeted romance, the excitement of sex and travel. However, the similarities break off at the point of representation. The actors in “Call Me By Your Name” do not personally identify as queer men, meaning they were simply playing a part, an identity they could walk away from. The stakes are somewhat different for Lil Nas X. His “Call Me By Your Name” is more than just a coming-out story — it is an audacious step into the public eye as an unapologetically queer Black man.
The music video is iconic, the lyrics are rhythmic and catchy, but there is one piece missing. We know the central request of the title and chorus: “Call me by your name.” We know the speaker’s (and the song’s) name: “Montero.” But we do not know the name of the subject, the man that Lil Nas X is singing about.
On closer inspection, the song appears to be about the spiraling anonymity of closeted love, a story that does not promise a happy resolution. At the end of the music video, Lil Nas X walks up behind Satan and breaks his neck. The singer then takes off the devil’s horns and puts them on himself. This is a coronation of sorts, but a distinctly unromantic one. For all the exquisitely choreographed sensuality of the music video, it is not really about sex. Lil Nas X uses his closeted partner as a foil against which to create an image of radical self-acceptance.
In the words of his father, posted on Twitter shortly after the single dropped: “Live life on your terms.”