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Blog: Stripping Men & Myth: Lil Nas X’s Reconstitution of Greek tradition in MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)

Scene from Lil Nas X's music video for MONTERO. A distorted image of a landscape with red trees, large ancient statues, and ancient buildings.

On the eve of March 26th, rapper and internet personality Lil Nas X dropped his newest single, “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name),” which caused immense controversy in its wake. At its heart is a young, gay Black man’s anthem about self-expression, resembling a “coming-out song.” Lil Nas X himself implied this in a letter to his younger self, posted alongside the song’s release. The title references the 2017 film Call Me By Your Name (based on the 2007 André Aciman novel) about the summer relationship between a Classics professor’s son and doctoral student.

This allusion to the film is not the only sidelong glance that Lil Nas X gives to the Classics. One of the first establishing shots of the video shows the landscape of “MONTERO” littered with classically-inspired architecture:

A distorted image of a bleak landscape filled with ancient statues and ruins

The camera then focuses on a lone tree set against this scenery. If the viewer is reminded of the biblical Tree of Knowledge, this allusion is confirmed by the large, semi-human snake that slithers out of its branches. Lil Nas X then tries to evoke a queered Garden of Eden, with his “Adam” character kissing the snake (or Lilith?) in lieu of “eating of the forbidden fruit.” Here, he both plays on the homophobic statement “Adam and Eve, NOT Adam and Steve” and highlights the pre-chorus line that sets up the chorus’ hook:

I’m not fazed, only here to sin
If Eve ain’t in your garden, you know that you can…

Before the scene dissolves, we linger on our newly-contextualized Tree of Knowledge. It bears a quote from Aristophanes’ famous speech in Plato’s Symposium:

A tree trunk into which is carved ancient Greek: ἐπειδὴ οὖν ἡ φύσις δίχα ἐτμήθη, ποθοῦν ἕκαστον τὸ ἥμισυ

Within this first minute, Lil Nas X locates himself in a tradition of classical reception that has long grappled with authentic expressions of queer desire in societies that have historically denied it mythological space. He queers multiple mythologies through a satirical subversion of the act of consumption, a move which follows directly from his symposiac source material through similar episodes of reception. For the sake of brevity, we’ve chosen to include the instance most similar to the aesthetics of “MONTERO”: the animated retelling of Aristophanes’ speech from the movie Hedwig and the Angry Inch. This project will be self-consciously imperfect, as we attempt to navigate this new landscape of queer and digital classical receptions without standardized disciplinary terminology to do so.

Our classical starting point, Aristophanes’ speech, uses mythological fabrication to normalize queer desire within the consumption-oriented event of a symposium. This myth has occupied popular imagination as a facet of Plato’s philosophy, supposedly another attestation of a queer-friendly Ancient Athens. In order to adequately contextualize this speech within “MONTERO,” we should explicitly link the multiple levels of self-conscious satirization taking place in both works.

Those familiar with the Symposium may wonder why Lil Nas X chose a quote from Aristophanes’ speech, rather than the preceding one delivered by Eryximachus. It is Eryximachus, not Aristophanes, who links music to the dialogue’s overarching themes of love and desire (187a–d). The tone of this speech is, however, much more reserved than its successor. Even before Aristophanes begins to speak, Eryximachus accuses him of being too comical.

The playwright responds, “I'm not worried about saying something funny in my coming oration. That would be pure profit, and it comes with the territory of my Muse. What I'm worried about is that I might say something ridiculous” (189b; English text is taken from Alexander Nehamas and Paul Woodruff’s translation of the Symposium). Plato would be expected to disparage the man who so openly ridiculed his own mentor, but settles for a characterization of Aristophanes that delineates the boundaries of this satire. The audience should expect to be entertained by Aristophanes’ speech, but not in a manner that prevents one from entertaining its content.

Aristophanes ends up delivering a creation myth clearly of Plato’s invention. He draws upon traditional gods such as Zeus and Apollo, but with language peppered with references to consumption, knowledge, and sexuality. Zeus, in an attempt to weaken humanity, “cut those human beings in two, the way people cut sorb-apples before they dry them or the way they cut eggs with hairs” (190e). These references to sorb-apples and eggs are not out of place in the dialogue’s dinner party setting. Apollo then shapes the “stomach,” “mouth,” and “breasts” (ibid.), actively prioritizing the act of consumption. The word “στήθη” serves as a poetic substitute for “mind” or “heart,” simultaneously tying this passage to the pursuit of knowledge. Then, Zeus decides to move the “genitals around to the front” (191c), which links the creation myth back to the dialogue’s over-arching theme of erotic desire. Through the satirical representation of Aristophanes, Plato consciously queers the subject of Greek myth, and in doing so also reorients myth towards philosophical inquiry and self-knowledge.

Such is the immediate context for the Symposium quote in “MONTERO.” Before delving back into the video’s content, let us take a moment to appreciate the Aristophanic moves from the song’s rollout. Lil Nas X has released multiple versions thus far, none labeled as expected. For example, there’s an instrumental track, “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name) - But Lil Nas X Is Silent The Entire Time” and an acapella version similarly titled, “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name) - But Lil Nas X Makes All The Sounds With His Mouth.” These titles are outrageous, but the tracks themselves slap. Even here, one can see the resonances between Lil Nas X, Aristophanes, and Plato. In these alternate renditions of “MONTERO,” artistry is not sacrificed for the sake of shock value.

Now we return to Lil Nas X’s queer Eden: certainly jarring, definitely outrageous, but still saturated with metaphor. As mentioned earlier, Lil Nas X’s “Adam” figure leans against the Tree of Knowledge. Adam strums a bright pink guitar before a serpent, also played by Lil Nas X, startles him. After a brief chase, the two kiss, and the Symposium quote appears, carved onto the Tree. The blending of the Christian and pagan traditions is intentionally blasphemous, emphasizing the parallels between the two. The original Biblical and Platonic passages both combine self-knowledge with an awareness of sexuality through an act of consumption. Lil Nas X notably both replaces Eve and the apple with the apparently male serpent, simultaneously reimagining the sexual dynamics and consumptive act of Genesis. With this, he queers the subjects of his own religious tradition in a manner reminiscent of Plato’s Aristophanes. Lil Nas X’s satirization of Christianity à la Plato enables him to openly acknowledge his entire self, sexuality included.

Here we see another similarity between “MONTERO” and the myth of the Symposium. In Plato’s myth, the satisfaction of homoerotic desire simulates the reunification of a once-whole person. Just before this quote appears in “MONTERO,” Lil Nas X accomplishes a reunification by kissing the serpent he himself portrays. Playing on this notion of ὁμός, Lil Nas X’s Adam figure gains self-recognition through the acceptance of his homosexuality. For both Lil Nas X and Plato’s Aristophanes, the consummation of homoerotic desire is intertwined with self-knowledge, and more importantly, self-love.

“The Origin of Love” and Plato’s Symposium

“MONTERO” is not the first (and hopefully not the last) music video to engage with reception of Aristophanes’ speech from the Symposium. Though Lil Nas X had no prior knowledge of it at the time of his video release, the song “The Origin of Love” from the John Cameron Mitchell musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch is a dramatic retelling of the speech that disorients multiple mythological traditions as well as the Platonic myth. Mitchell reshapes the Children of the Moon into a metaphor for trans and genderqueer individuals…

Large yellow sphere with spikes next to two naked human bodies back to back

…distinct from the homosexual spectrum of the “Children of the Sun” (homosexual cis men)…

Two naked female bodies back to back next to a globe

…and the “Children of the Earth” (homosexual cis women).

The animation of the video helps illustrate the fantastical nature of the story that couldn’t be reproduced in a live action interpretation at the turn of the century. The animations flow seamlessly together, new forms coming out of amorphous shapes before they dissolve into new ones. It is not a straight retelling of Aristophanes’ account (pun intended), as Mitchell uses multiple elements from myths across the world (Norse, Hindu, and Egyptian alongside the Greek) to create a patchwork quilt of his own mythological interpretations for his heroine Hedwig. By using the format of an animated music video, he’s able to blend all these narratives together seamlessly into a cohesive aesthetic.

Lil Nas X achieves a similar feat by remixing classical and theological conversations around queerness in his “MONTERO” through computer animation. Both Mitchell and Lil Nas X create new receptions of these myths by using them as pieces — rather than the central focus — of their queered narratives. To return to Mitchell’s “The Origin of Love”:

Well, the gods grew quite scared of our strength and defiance
And Thor said I’m gonna kill them all with my hammer
Like I killed the giants…

Sketch of a figure holding a hammer, looking at another figure wearing a helmet

But Zeus said, “No —
You'd better let me use my lightning like scissors
Like I cut the legs off the whales
Dinosaurs into lizards.”
Then he grabbed up some bolts, he let out a laugh
Said “I’ll split them right down the middle
Gonna cut them right up in half!”

Sketch of a figure laughing, holding two lightning bolts in hand

And then storm clouds gathered above into great balls of fire
And then fire shot down from the sky in bolts
Like shining blades of a knife
And it ripped right through the flesh
Of the Children of the Sun and the Moon and the Earth
And some Indian god sewed the wound up to a hole
Turned it ’round to our bellies to remind us of the price we paid

Sketch of a naked woman with a red spot on her abdomen

And Osiris and the gods of the Nile gathered up a big storm
To blow a hurricane
To scatter us away
A flood of wind and rain, a sea of tidal waves
To wash us all away
And if we don’t behave they’ll cut us down again
And we'll be hopping ’round on one foot
Looking through one eye…

This reinterpretation of Aristophanes’ speech is in service of illustrating Hedwig’s heartbroken nature throughout the musical — she is following around the tour of her estranged ex-boyfriend, who stole all her songs and became a rock star. By the end of the musical, she comes to terms with the fact that she must find acceptance within herself instead of within a relationship that continuously haunts her (and replicates itself in her other relationships). The film version of Hedwig, the source of these screenshots for “The Origin of Love,” highlights this self-acceptance at the end with an animation of the moon morphing into a symbol of love and wholeness. With this, Mitchell signals that his protagonist’s emotional journey is complete.

Circle split in half down the middle, each half with a single eye

From the animated sequence of “The Origin of Love” to “MONTERO,” and even as far back as the myth of Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium, each writer pulls from different aspects of mythology, sexuality, and identity to create new forms of myths and to reorient narratives around desire. Our scholarly discourse lacks sufficient terminology for thinking comparatively about antiquity and contemporary digital media, despite more engagement with music videos from classicists in recent years (especially Hardeep Dhindsa, Helen Morales, Dan-el Padilla Peralta, and Anise K. Strong).

Placing “MONTERO” and “The Origin of Love” in conversation with each other hints at the range of possible narratives inspired by the Symposium. Aristophanes’ speech is a stand-out absurd moment in the middle of the dialogue, yet “The Origin of Love” is one of the more subdued songs in the entire Hedwig soundtrack. The mythmaking also deviates from the source text with the addition of mythologies outside of the Greco-Roman sphere, orienting Hedwig’s narrative towards gender identity in the original triptych of the Children of the Sun, Moon, and Earth. This adaptation in turn echoes the spirit of the Platonic dialogues — an aesthete curates myth to create their own harmonized philosophical treatise.

Lil Nas X, on the other hand, even as he uses different aspects of mythmaking like Hedwig and Plato do, at the same time makes a declarative statement about his identity in a manner far more in line with the actual playwright Aristophanes. He uses different aspects of myth to peel back and strip away the fabrications that queer youth growing up around the church often hear about their damnation. The spoken-word prologue he gives in the video makes this explicit:

In life, we hide the parts of ourselves we don’t want the world to see. We lock them away, we tell them no, we banish them… but here? We don’t. Welcome to MONTERO.

The statement and subsequent video are incredibly Aristophanic, as he leans into the admonishments that queer youth experience and transforms them into absurd comedy. First, he sets up the forbidden fruit narrative, before he is tried by a court of hypocrites (versions of himself done up in powder blue wigs in contrast to his own baby pink ensemble), followed by being stoned by beings made of stone in a colosseum…

Large hexagonal court structure

A crowd of human beings made of stone

…then passes up his one chance at ascension to slide down a pole to hell…

A view of the sky above, signifying heaven

Lil Nas X rides a pole down into Hell

…where he rides Satan himself, before snapping his neck. With the dark lord’s braided, horned headband as a crown, he “christens” himself the new king of Hell.

Lil Nas X assumes the role of Satan, colored red with feathered wings and white eyes.

Aristophanes would be so proud.

Header image: Scene from Lil Nas X's music video for MONTERO. 

Headshot of Kiran Mansukhani

Kiran Pizarro Mansukhani (he/him/his) is a PhD student in Classics at The Graduate Center, CUNY. His research interests include ancient philosophy and its relationship with Greek literature, as well as classical reception. You can reach him at kmansukhani@gradcenter.cuny.edu or @phaedotimaeus on Twitter. 

Vanessa Ruth Stovall's picture

Vanessa Stovall is an independent and interdisciplinary scholar of classical studies. A student of ancient mythology and narrative, she primarily focuses on hair, music, and synaesthetics — in addition to more recent avenues of digital reception that she’s explored through her alternative classics blog Corona Borealis. She received her B.A. from The Evergreen State College and her M.A. from Columbia University studying Greek tragedy.

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