Pop stars are not babysitters. Pop music is not wholesome entertainment. If you play mainstream music expecting to have your values reaffirmed, you will — inevitably, eventually — be disappointed. Pop stars (at least the good ones) push against the boundaries of what’s possible and acceptable, sometimes in the noble interest of challenging the prevailing social mores, sometimes just for the devilish thrill of crossing lines, and sometimes because they just can’t help it. These people aren’t, like politicians or superheroes, paragons of justice or hometown pride. Their job is to reflect on their lives and sing about what they have learned. Sometimes those reflections align with our own experiences, and we connect with the music on a visceral level; you could argue that the best stars working in any era have a sense for what’s culturally prescient that keeps them in the conversation. The blend of aspiration and passive aggression at play in the catalog of Drake feels like a uniquely postmillennial commentary on social-media era narcissism in the same way that the loss of innocence recalled in the best early Britney Spears singles seems inextricably tethered to the late ’90s, when we all became incrementally more online and judged by more onlookers’ standards.
It takes more than visibility and cultural savvy to be a role model, though. We hand that title away too freely. We expect too much. We believe the world should accommodate our thinking. We fight fiercely against perceived threats to the median wholesome values and traditions we’re raised with. This is the story of the Beatles in 1966, when John Lennon voiced frustrations with religion and declared his band “more popular than Jesus,” sparking bans, bonfires, and protests that seemed to quell the British quartet’s interest in performing live, and it’s the story of the Rolling Stones in 1968, when “Sympathy for the Devil” drew devious insinuations. (“There are black magicians who think we are acting as unknown agents of Lucifer and others who think we are Lucifer,” Keith Richards told Rolling Stone in 1971, recalling the controversy.) It’s the story of Loretta Lynn in 1975, when she released “The Pill,” a song about a wife who’s driven by her husband’s cheating to start taking birth control, and country radio stations banned the single, seeking to curtail the success of what would ultimately become one of the singer’s biggest hits. It’s the story of Senate hearings about explicit lyrics in 1985, of Pepsi pulling an ad starring Madonna in 1989 after the singer’s “Like a Prayer” met outrage for its mix of sensual scenes and Catholic iconography, of 1990 obscenity trials over 2 Live Crew’s As Nasty As They Wanna Be and complaints from George H.W. Bush about Ice-T’s “Cop Killer” in 1992, of backlash for the sexual liberation of Britney Spears’s “Oops!… I Did It Again” in 1999, of Janet Jackson being shunned after a wardrobe malfunction in 2004, of blowback over Lady Gaga’s Luhrmann-esque “Judas” video in 2011. It’s the story again this spring as conservatives lash out at risqué performances from Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion, and Lil Nas X. Times change, but the message is consistent: You have a responsibility to make art that is appropriate for young eyes. It’s naïve.
The fuss about Megan and Cardi’s “WAP” was a greatest-hits album of scare-mongering about rap music and pearl clutching about female sexuality so canned and dated that you couldn’t help but laugh at the people trying to sell it. Ben Shapiro’s reading of the lyrics to the song was instant meme gold, much like Charlton Heston’s recitations of the lyrics to “Cop Killer” in 1992. These performances both suppose that the artist is always using words literally, misunderstanding rap fundamentally as a form rich with embellishment that asks listeners to suspend their disbelief for the more extravagant and ridiculous lines as much as we are expected to believe it when it speaks to the artists’ passions and struggles. No one who heard “WAP” thinks Cardi B really likes uvula play. The point is upending power dynamics and countering the male gaze. The least interesting approach to processing deliberately transgressive art is to rate it on how well it dispenses or upholds traditional values, judging it for its success or failure to meet purposes it clearly doesn’t aspire to. It is a narcissistic framework that seats the listener at the center of the universe and values outside stimuli on how comfortable they make us, rather than on their own merits and traditions. (The question with “WAP” isn’t whether or not it should be played on the radio during the daytime or whether it’s even appropriate for late primetime, as renewed complaints around the performance of the song at this year’s Grammys seemed to suppose American children would be tuned in after 10 p.m. to see it on television. It’s how sharp the bars are and how tall it stands in the pantheon of twerk jams it evokes with its Baltimore club sample.)
Backlash for Lil Nas X’s new “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” and the blood-tinged Nike “Satan shoes” sold to commemorate the spiritual warfare in the song’s video runs on some of the same precepts, though it’s a different debacle, because he seems to have anticipated negative responses to the extent that he has spent days trading insults with the worst denizens of the internet, making everyone look powerfully square. “Montero” doesn’t deserve this kind of attention; left to its own devices, it’s a pleasant summer song about not letting anyone put you down and living life in the light while others hide who they are. In the song’s big viral moment, Nas slides down a stripper pole to hell, where he snaps the devil’s neck after a lap dance, symbolizing his own journey to break free from shame bestowed upon many LGBTQ youth in Christian communities (where often, your prospects for coming out to your family are either slow, pained, hard-won acceptance, a vow of celibacy, or science-averse, unspeakable horrors like conversion therapy). The note Lil Nas posted to his 14-year-old self on the night of the song’s release was tender and affecting, and the video hits some of the same points of psychedelic Black futurism and spirituality as the videos for songs like OutKast’s “Prototype,” TLC’s “Unpretty,” FKA twigs’s “Cellophane,” and Solange’s “Sound of Rain,” though “Montero” is heavy-handed in ways the others knew to resist. Lil Nas is not a delicate provocateur, and he’s trying something no one else has. We’ve had expert trolls in pop — remember Rihanna’s prolific trash-talk era? — and we’ve had out-and-proud stars. Lil Nas checks several boxes as a gay pop star who’s prideful and present, perpetually online and daring you to come for him. “Montero” feels like a watershed moment in music that could only have happened after years and years of delicate pushing of envelopes.
We haven’t gotten to talk about this enough — or to delve into the song’s naïve preachiness on the subject of partying — because “Montero” was immediately adopted as an object of popular conservative Christian scorn. The video has united a veritable Suicide Squad of terrors from various corners of the internet and proven how often ostensibly left-leaning people’s social conservatism puts them at the same table as figures on the right-wing outrage circuit. Kristi Noem, governor of South Dakota, took time away from drafting executive orders banning trans teens from girls’ sports to trash the video. Disgraced UFC star Jon Jones, retired baller Nick “Swaggy P” Young, rapper Joyner Lucas (who knows something about using music videos to provoke viewers, since his breakout video for “I’m Not Racist” had a MAGA bro and a Black teen hugging through their differences), and others weighed in. Each response spotlighted a different strain of tiresome moralist posturing: What about our children? Gays want to make us just like them! Devil worshipers are taking over the country! (What’s peculiar about this reaction — and maybe even suggests that some of these people have only seen snippets and screenshots of “Montero” — is that the kid kills the devil in the end. Calling that satanic is like mistaking Black Sabbath’s cautionary tales about occult dabbling for simple pro-devil rhetoric, an unrefined and uninformed take undeserving of space in the discourse, since it can’t process simplistic and direct symbolism.) Releasing the song and the shoe — which, it must be noted, isn’t the first sneaker or music collectable to include blood as a perk — so close to Holy Week, as Lady Gaga did with “Judas,” posits outrage as the desired response. Lil Nas is using this attention to slingshot to the top of the charts because he spent enough time in the meme mines of Twitter before “Old Town Road” to know that if you’re strong enough, and your mouth is slick enough, all your haters can do is watch and seethe.
But this reality cuts both ways. Culture war is big business, and the reason the flies are swarming now is that there’s as much attention in this for them as for the artist. Bush went on the record about “Cop Killer” as an unpopular incumbent president on the campaign trail; this year’s crop of grievance grifters is using pop-culture gripes as a contingency plan for rebounding from political losses in 2020. After a year spent promising that a Biden presidency would usher in a leftist takeover of the United States — and where is it? — these people are now having to jump at shadows to prove it’s actually happening. Lil Nas pivoting from playing elementary schools to twerking on satan is better Fox News fodder than the debates on children’s toys, books, and cartoons they’ve bet 2021 on. (This embarrassing play is going to backfire; showing an incoming generation of voters that you hate everything cool is quite the first impression.)
But “Old Town Road” wasn’t a song for kids. It’s reckless if you pay attention. Last year’s single “Holiday” was more than enough fair warning that this album cycle was going to cover gay sex. A casual glance over Lil Nas’s social media feeds in the weeks leading up to the “Montero” drop would’ve suggested that the intent there was crossing wires and playing religion and sexuality off one another. What parents are really after when they come for creators over content in this decade or any other — and no one has stated this more clearly than Joyner Lucas, who in his since-deleted Twitter remarks said he only took issue because he felt “Montero” came out of left field with no disclaimer — is to not have to screen their children’s media intake so much. They want wholesome brands they can trust, and that’s reasonable, and so much of it already exists. You have plenty of Peppa Pig, Jojo Siwa, Cocomelon, and Trolls songs to choose from. Playing music made by and for adults in the presence of non-adults is rolling the dice on kids learning about something a little beyond their station, and blaming other people for this when you could take all of these possibilities off the table by being a little more vigilant on your own time is breaking a cardinal rule for kids: Don’t trust strangers!