The image of Lil Nas X giving Satan a provocative lap dance only to snap his neck and steal his crown, assuming Hell’s throne, set the internet ablaze last year in the controversial music video for his song “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name),” which was rife with religious references.
“I’m not fazed, only here to sin / If Eve ain’t in your garden, you know that you can / Call me when you want,” Lil Nas X, or Montero Lamar Hill, sings, reclaiming the fall to Hell as he slides down a stripper pole in sparkly thigh-high boots.
Lil Nas X’s insertion of unashamed queer sexuality into Christian imagery was met with a shockwave of both praise from queer fans who felt represented and backlash from Christians who took offense to his reinterpretation of their rhetoric — most notably from Republican South Dakota governor Kristi Noem and conservative news outlet Fox News. This reaction only made his message stronger; it demonstrated the hatred he, as a queer artist, valiantly aims to rescript.
Lil Nas X is not the first artist to subvert religious iconography in the name of queer celebration. Artists such as Rina Sawayama, King Princess, Frank Ocean and Semler have all explored the tension between spirituality and sexuality — and some have even tried to reconcile it.
In the same vein of many of Lil Nas X’s messages, Rina Sawayama expresses her frustration toward organized religion in her raucous single “This Hell.” In the accompanying music video, Sawyama wears a cowgirl-inspired wedding gown and parades down a church aisle as protestors wield hostile signs, proving that her response to hate is simply to dance.
As the angry protestors are obscured by a cheering crowd, a pastor marries Sawayama to a male and female at once. The throuple then shares a three-way kiss before strutting out of the church together, likely symbolic of Sawayama’s pansexual identity and attraction to multiple genders. The pastor raises his hands in blessing over the polyamorous union, striking a radically discordant note against traditionally Christian notions of mariage.
The marked intersection between religion and queerness is also profoundly subverted by Brooklyn-born Jewish singer King Princess, who implements religious language in her music to describe gay love. Instead of directly criticizing the institutions that crucify her, she reverses stifling religious ideology to bathe same-sex love in divine holiness.
“She’s God and I’ve found her,” King Princess croons on her standalone single “Pussy Is God,” casting God as her queer female lover in a romantic, exalted portrayal of fierce devotion. This radical lyricism paints gay sex as akin to worship, the reverence she has for her partner eclipsing even the most devout Christian’s veneration of God.
Using Christian language to reframe “sin” as beautiful and holy is genius in its campness. While queer people may not have historically been accepted by religious communities or ideals, they have found an even greater belonging within themselves.
While Christianity is often a main source of religious inspiration for American musicians, there exists tension between God and queerness within numerous faiths. Frank Ocean’s acclaimed 2018 song “Bad Religion” draws a distinct comparison between Islam and unrequited queer love as he sets up a conversation between himself and a taxi driver. “Allahu akbar” the taxi driver says, Arabic for “God is greatest.” Ocean’s response is “Don’t curse me.”
While Ocean — who came out as bisexual in 2012 — was raised Christian, his family is religiously diverse: Growing up, he was introduced to Islam, Pentecostal Evangelism and agnosticism. “Bad Religion” touches on the idea of comparing religion to queer love, but he hones in on the unrequited aspect. Ocean’s pain at loving an untouchable figure directly parallels the pain religion has the power to inflict on its followers. “If it brings me to my knees, it’s a bad religion,” Ocean mourns in the chorus.
Queer people have also begun trying to make a space for themselves within Christian music. Grace Semler Baldridge, who goes by her stage name Semler, is a 31-year-old American Christian artist who released her EP “Preacher’s Kid” in 2021. The album follows her struggle to balance her identity as a Christian and a lesbian, and despite some controversy, it reached number one on the iTunes Christian chart.
Semler, who was raised Episcopalian, primarily criticizes Christian communities instead of the religious teachings themselves. “What a terrible honor it’s been / To learn that my blessings are things you call sins,” she sings on her song “Jesus From Texas,” an attempt at reconciling her attachment to faith with her realization that this faith is flawed.
Queerness will always have a complicated relationship to religion, but as more queer artists are given platforms, new perspectives continue to be unearthed. Perhaps in these ways, queer people can bypass repentance, and in releasing themselves from remorse, finally reach rapture.