Quare(-in) the Mainstream: Deconstructing New Media in Lil Nas X’s MONTERO
Emily Thomas, Goldsmiths, University of London
This video essay explores how Lil Nas X’s debut album MONTERO (2021) uses the intertextual, post-media possibilities of new media platforms to produce a daring intervention into the dynamics of gender fluidity and race. Contributing to research on New Queer Cinema (NQC), it critiques B. Ruby Rich’s assertion that NQC’s shift from outsider to mainstream cinema has resulted in the demise of its boundary-pushing elements. Instead, it suggests that with MONTERO, Lil Nas X has collated NQC’s practices across new media platforms to enable new, radical expressions of gender and race to arise. This project considers Lil Nas X’s work through the lens of “quare theory,” a theory coined by E. Patrick Johnson which specifically centres the lived experiences of black LGBTQIA+ people.1 Following an examination of the theoretical and historical context surrounding Lil Nas X, MONTERO, and NQC, I argue that the theorisations underpinning MONTERO, such as the media swirl, transmedia and remediation amplify the album’s NQC characteristics. I also consider the myriad ways by which Lil Nas X is feeding into a bigger cultural rupture, wherein other mainstream artists are cultivating quare spaces and assimilating NQC’s ideologies into popular culture. The video essay concludes by suggesting Rich’s stance on NQC’s position in the mainstream ought to be reconsidered, due to the exemplary “quare-ing” of the mainstream exhibited in Lil Nas X’s MONTERO.
Scholars from many disciplines have typically overlooked the importance of an intersectional approach to queer studies. Instead, studies have tended to focus on heteronormative, white queer normativity, and have excluded nuanced identities across race, gender and class.2 Romeo Jackson, Alex C. Lange and Antonio Duran, for instance, discovered that the dominance of whiteness is “emblematic” of LGBTQIA+ academic research, wherein a “dangerous pattern” results in anti-blackness and settler colonialism going unnamed.3 To bypass these pitfalls, this project explores Lil Nas X’s debut album MONTERO (2021) through a “quare” lens, as the term critiques what E. Patrick Johnson refers to as “stable notions of identity” and thereby accommodates Lil Nas X’s nuanced, multiple marginalised experiences as a gay, black man.4 Rather than showcasing what B. Ruby Rich has coined the “cuddlier” and “squeaky clean” LGBTQIA+ identities in popular culture, Lil Nas X has used the new media landscape to subvert typical systems of oppression.5 His work has had a dramatic impact on the LGBTQIA+ community, as exemplified by the Trevor Project’s decision to honour him with the 2021 “Suicide Prevention of the Year Award” for his “openness about struggling with his sexuality and suicidal ideation,” “advocacy around mental health issues” and “unapologetic celebration of his queer identity.”6 As such, an investigation considering what can happen if New Queer Cinema (NQC) is positioned away from the fixed form of cinema and placed into the overlapping simultaneities of new media is an important contribution to this field of study. By highlighting how this project came to fruition, this exegesis will critically assess the project’s theoretical and methodological contexts, and suggest some potential areas for future research. As the primary objective of this research considers how Lil Nas X’s MONTERO used new media to refashion NQC practices for contemporary, Gen Z audiences, the chosen creative research method reflects his cutting-edge new media techniques.
The video essay explores several MONTERO-related theories in succession, rather than focusing on one in detail. This decision was made because the video essay’s main objective is to enmesh a myriad of theories in an easy-to-follow manner, thereby acting as a starting point from which viewers can explore MONTERO further. Accordingly, there is an abundance of content exhibited in the video essay that is fertile for further analysis. Despite extensive journalistic articles and fan-made video essays discussing the album’s radicalism and overt displays of homosexuality, MONTERO is yet to be investigated within the realms of academia. Whilst the scarcity of academic analyses can largely be attributed to the album’s recent release date (17th September 2021), there are only a handful of scholars, such as Mel Stanfill, that explore his earlier “norm-breaking” work from queer perspectives relevant to this study.7 By applying a multitude of theories to Lil Nas X’s MONTERO, this study offers an interdisciplinary take on the potential of quare transmediality and its forms of resistance afforded by mainstream media.
Parallels between NQC works and Lil Nas X’s MONTERO are extensive. For instance, Rich argues that Derek Jarman’s film Edward II (1991) reinscribes homosexuality into the 16th-century, as it combines “past and present in a manner so arch,” depicts homophobia as “a timeless occupation,” and emphasises “queer desire as a legitimate source of tragedy.”8 Like Jarman’s film, Lil Nas X’s visual album reinscribes homosexuality into history by exploring themes of queer desire as tragedy, and uniquely demonstrating homophobia’s ubiquity.9 NQC’s style of “Homo Pomo,” characterised by “appropriation, pastiche, irony,” and a “reworking of history with social constructionism” is also embodied by MONTERO, as demonstrated throughout the video essay.10 Yet, in some ways, MONTERO and my chosen processes of creative research diverge from traditional NQC analyses. For instance, whilst this project’s foundations are strongly rooted in audiovisual and new media scholarship, NQC studies have characteristically excluded discussions of sound and explored traditional cinema. Moreover, whilst Rich noted in 2013 that “then, as now, technological changes could lead to social and political transformation too,” she ultimately believed NQC’s “outlawry” had waned.11 Antithetically, this project contends that MONTERO refashions the aesthetics, styles and audiovisual articulations of NQC, fragmenting its practices and ideologies across new media platforms to enable new and radical expressions of quare-ness to arise, and in turn place NQC, initially a form of “outsider cinema,” into mainstream, popular culture.12
The choice to employ an intersectional framework to activate quare theory was informed by scholars like Kimbery F. Balsam, who argues that LGBTQIA+ racial minorities are a “multiple marginalised population.”13 Researchers, such as Nathian Rodriguez, explain that in black communities, masculinity and homosexuality “occupy distinct social positions,” as “real black men” are presented as being heterosexual and macho, whereas gay black men are seen as an “effeminate, cute, comic homosexuality.”14 Consequently, as noted by Keith J. Watts and Kia J. Bentley, gay black men typically “conform to the heteronormative expectations of masculinity.”15 Lil Nas X rebuffs his designated social position and instead moves fluidly between portraying the “authentic black man,” like in the “INDUSTRY BABY” (2021) music video, and traditional depictions of femininity, such as the wedding dress scene in “THAT’S WHAT I WANT” (2021).16 Lil Nas X thus challenges what Lucía-Garcia Vázquez-Rodríguez, Francisco-José García-Ramos and Francisco Zurian have termed the “reification and naturalization of normative binaries,” whilst presenting his racialised, gendered reality.17 As such, Gayle Murchison’s theorisation of “quare music” is wholly applicable in this context, for Lil Nas X can be placed into what Murchison has called a lineage of quare and Afrofuturist artists who welcome “a range of emancipated black sexualities.”18 In the realms of audiovisual transmedia, MONTERO unabashedly explores the artist’s quare experiences, as he refuses to render his identity, explains Robert Jones Jr., “sexless on behalf of straight people’s disgust.”19 In the MONTERO universe, Lil Nas X situates himself positively and fiercely in environments where a gay black man would typically be rendered powerless.
Carol Vernallis’ Unruly Media: YouTube, Music Video, and the New Digital Cinema was a foundational study for this project, as it interweaves concepts typically only applied to visual content into analyses of audiovisuality and new media.20 In her study, Vernallis notes that when music is presented in an audiovisual context, it becomes an important cultural signifier.21 This emergent, cultural signification is certainly at play in MONTERO, where the album’s radical quareness and ‘newness’ arises through the combined intertextuality of sound and image.22 Vernallis’ work was especially useful in its discussions of music videos and the ways by which they place earlier, remediated images into new audiovisual contexts.23 She uses the term “media swirl” to denote the collision of, and interrelations between, media styles and aesthetics.24 The ease by which Lil Nas X navigates the media swirl demonstrates his acute awareness that the demand for audiovisual content in popular culture continues to grow exponentially and is integral to remaining in the mainstream.25 Unruly Media was thus instrumental in analysing how MONTERO traversed new media, and this project updates Vernallis’ work through its discussions of new media platforms such as TikTok.
Also intrinsic to this study was Henry Jenkins’ theorisation of “transmedia storytelling.”26 The intricately connected MONTERO world(s) employ an integral characteristic of transmedia “world-building,” in which an “encyclopaedic impulse in both readers and writers” is encouraged as “we are drawn to master what can be known about a world which expands beyond our grasp.”27 The album’s narrative flows across social media platforms, with each contributing something unique by way of “additive comprehension,” another core component of transmedia storytelling.28 Jenkins argues transmedia is the “ideal aesthetic form for collective intelligence,” wherein new social structures are enabled, and a “cultural attractor,” in this instance Lil Nas X, “draws together like-minded individuals to form new knowledge communities.”29 Despite the applicability of Jenkins’ theorisations to this study, his work on transmedia does not incorporate musical analyses and focuses predominantly on visual case studies. Paola Brembilla’s work on transmedia music is thus an important extension of Jenkins’ work. Discussing transmedia music, Brembilla has noted that an interaction between narrativising music, cross-marketing, branding and industry practices can form a “storyworld” that “fosters fan engagement and social discourse.”30 Lil Nas X certainly embodies Brembilla’s findings and, thus, a combination of her work and Jenkins’ original conceptualisation were integral to this study. The video essay enhances the notion of transmediality to consider what Matthew Jordan Miller has labelled MONTERO’s “innovative transmedia incursion into the cultural zeitgeist of ‘genre’,” that traditionally marginalises quare Afrofuturist voices.31
Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin’s discussions of remediation provided an equally substantial theoretical underpinning for this project, as Lil Nas X has continuously refashioned elements of old media onto new platforms.32 MONTERO’s remediations come in many forms: through intertextual references to other media forms via the merging of discrete videos to forge a multi-platform world available through multiple access points and the blurring of online and offline worlds. His remediation of popular cultural forms, including music videos, vlogs, celebrities’ pregnancy announcements, Twitter feeds and Instagram stories unlocked a “pluriverse” of quare meanings.33 Whilst Bolter and Grusin’s analyses are key pillars of this project, like Jenkins, they too dedicate a modest amount of time to discussing audiovisual and musical remediations. As such, this project necessarily broadens their definitions of remediation, by analysing Lil Nas X’s audiovisual, self-remediated versions of his songs and music videos. MONTERO is a prime example of the ways by which new media aesthetics enable remediation to shine a new light on quare culture.
It quickly became apparent that using a non-traditional, open-ended and accessible form of academia was the most appropriate approach to investigating MONTERO’s innovations, as Lil Nas X’s boundary-breaking, quare and multimedia work does not fit within the confines of tradition. Traditional learning methods typically involve detailed rubrics, step-by-step instructions, and written essays.34 Sean Redmond and Joanna Tai argue that these methods of learning are typically synonymous with “regulated, corporatized boxes with little opportunity to see beyond their mirrored or slitted windows.”35 Hence, this project’s methodological frameworks were designed in an attempt to demonstrate the importance of utilising non-traditional academic methods in anti-hegemonic contexts.
After careful consideration, I decided to put the project’s research into practice through the methodology of a video essay, a form of pedagogy that provided ample opportunity to replicate Lil Nas X’s creative processes. The video essay is “a vehicle for critical analysis that advances an argument and is expressed creatively via audiovisual means.”36 As MONTERO is an album that emphasises the convergence of audiovisual media, a response that used sound, image and various media forms enables a performative form of analysis. Redmond and Tai argue that video essays are a radical pedagogy that “reframe and resist dominant forms of learning” and often engage in “counter-hegemonic practices where students can craft feminist, queer, and positive minority explorations.”37 The video essay format contains striking similarities with MONTERO, as its audiovisual contents prioritise the subversion of dominant social paradigms. Redmond and Tai discuss how the video essay format can “open up the learning box from the inside.”38 Similarly, Lil Nas X has used his position at the centre of popular culture to dismantle heteronormative power relations from the “inside.”39 Thus, using a radical pedagogy to explore how Lil Nas X has used new media to assimilate NQC’s ideologies into the mainstream seemed fitting, as video essays typically shun traditional learning methods, instead favouring defiance and open-access.40 It is, however, important to note that the video essay may also be implicated in “new forms of learner marginalisation,” for those who have no access to technology and struggle with verbal expression.41 Accordingly, this video essay has ensured that subtitles are enabled as an option, to combat accessibility issues where possible.
Alongside deploying a form of “radical pedagogy” to convey Lil Nas X’s NQC innovations, it was integral to ensure the creative research techniques contained within the video essay were similarly reflective of his work.42 As such, my creative research was only partly informed by the numerous video essays on Lil Nas X which have proliferated since the release of the album’s first single, “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name).” Particularly innovative is Khadjija Mbowe’s, “Who’s afraid of Lil Nas X?,” as it centres black, male voices and explores why Lil Nas X’s displays of masculinity have caused such controversy.43 Yet, many video essay analyses of the album follow a “talking heads” approach, in which the narrator is shown talking to the camera, and the content focuses almost entirely on social and cultural issues rather than audiovisual processes.44 Instead, I opted for a style akin to Charlie Lynes’ video essay, “Criticism in the age of TikTok,” in which the essayist screen records his iPhone to replicate how TikTok is used to re-appropriate existing media.45 For my project, I recorded my laptop screen, moving between different tabs and new media platforms swiftly. The purpose of this “screen capture” approach is to replicate Lil Nas X’s “media swirl,” and the fast-paced ways by which consumers traverse across the new media landscape.46 Using this technique, I employed a qualitative methodology anchored in textual, sonic and visual analysis, and strived to create a didactic video essay that encourages the viewer to form their own conclusions. These decisions were made to ensure that the form and content of the project mirrored one another cohesively.
Despite choosing the method of creative research that was best suited to my project, several technical issues were encountered. Due to my lack of proficiency with Adobe Premiere Pro and difficulties that arose from laptop performance, it became challenging to balance the focus between “skills of production” and “intellectual purpose.”47 In hindsight, I would have avoided pausing YouTube clips, to elude the noticeable gaps between audio, and thereby allow more editing freedom and seamless playback. That said, these ruptures in consistency arguably function as part of the screen capture aesthetic and can be seen to mirror Lil Nas X’s DIY approach and transmedial incursions. Irrespective of the project’s shortcomings, priority was given to keeping the project instructive and straightforward, whilst ensuring that it was shaped to imitate the fast-paced nature of the digital landscape to the best of my capabilities. Moreover, the editing experience allowed for experimentation and technical training that have not traditionally been given space in academia.48
As MONTERO’s platform-based transmedia campaign had already taken place, the broad number of promotional activities used by Lil Nas X presented methodological difficulties.49 As this project documented a transmedia campaign that had already occurred, it was impossible to collect all possible data, because live promotional content such as Instagram stories were no longer available.50 Issues were also encountered when social media posts were deleted, meaning the video essay had to be re-recorded with alternative data.51 Linda Ryan Bengtsson and Jessica Edlom’s argument that understanding “a media landscape in flux therefore calls for innovative and unconventional methods” is relevant in this context, as my project necessarily evolved alongside the data. Borrowing from Bengtsson and Edlom’s methodology, I employed a process similar to Foucauldian genealogy, “reversed engineering,” which requires the researcher to follow the reverse direction from the final product to its original conception, thus allowing them to both dismantle and fully realise how it operates. By using this process to visually map out the MONTERO transmedia campaign, I was able to manually reconstruct it and bring “specific attention” to its components and construction.52 Thus, whilst some methodological challenges could not be bypassed, the frameworks provided by Bengtsson and Edlom facilitated an accurate reconstruction of MONTERO’s transmedia campaign with the available data.53
Ethical issues were also encountered during the research process. As noted by Deborah Warr et al., research involving human participants is “laced with issues of ethics.”54 Social media has complicated matters even further, for there is no clear ethical framework and privacy terms vary from platform to platform.55 Issues arose when it became apparent that social media users who had commented on Lil Nas X’s social media posts may unknowingly become part of the project. Anna Harris argues that individuals “going about their everyday lives are not obliged to be part of everyday research,” and she questions whether social media users understand the “trade-offs,” that they are potentially making when posting online.56 Like Harris, Kristina Busse and Karen Hellekson ascertain that because fans do not submit their work via a traditional publication venue meant for broad dissemination, their work cannot be treated in the same manner and can be deemed “unwilling exposure.”57 Busse’s research in particular reveals the “complexities of online interaction,” and implores that fan researchers should “negotiate their own positions” with subjects, friends and fans.58 Moreover, a key ethical problem arose from the collected data: it is personal and sensitive because it centres upon sexual orientation and minority representations. Social media users may have therefore been at risk if their comments were included. Consequently, their comments have been anonymised and in some cases paraphrased to protect their identities. As ethical concerns are ever present in the context of new media studies, it remains integral to adopt a flexible approach that acknowledges these complexities.
This creative research project found that Lil Nas X’s strategies play into music practices which have had to fundamentally change to adjust to contemporary forms of distribution, monetisation and fan engagement since the proliferation of YouTube and music streaming services. As Jessica Edlom has noted, the contemporary musicians’ methods now “[resemble] more that of a skilled entrepreneur,” as “it is absolutely necessary to be on social media and interact in order to build up an audience.”59 Lil Nas X’s MONTERO campaign had a complete, working understanding of the necessity to make new media what Eric Skelton describes as “a key part of the whole experience.”60 Acutely aware of social media’s cross-promotional possibilities, Lil Nas X’s marketing techniques are yet another reason why he can be considered more than just a musician; he is also a proficient marketer and entrepreneur.
Using Vernallis’ work as a guideline, this project also revealed that Lil Nas X’s newness arises through his audiovisuality. With content and its delivery so deeply intertwined, MONTERO forges a new mode of expression for LGBTQIA+ communities, not only propelling quare-ness into mainstream, popular culture, but also by undoing earlier, heteronormative conventions of queer audiovisuality. The “scared black geography” that he charts represents a radical undoing of cinema’s traditional structures.61 MONTERO does not offer a distinct, coherent world. Instead, it uses the specificities of new media to offer several simultaneous yet connected story fragments. While the examples demonstrated in the video essay are striking, several more delicate themes traverse between his uploads: butterflies, a metaphor for spiritual rebirth, transformation, change and hope; the artist’s silhouette floating in mid-air, which appears before his descent to hell on the back of the pink prison attire and, in his album announcement video, becomes a metaphor for quare emancipation. Other themes move between cybermedia and the real world: the Nike court case; references to album artwork in his audiovisual content; and the use of the artist’s controversial kiss with his dancer at the BET Awards appearing as the poster concealing the escape route in “INDUSTRY BABY.”
It was also discovered that Lil Nas X’s overt quare celebration is part of a wider cultural rupture that is also taking place in other mainstream spaces. As discussed in the video essay, examples of other artists and musicians causing this rupture include Todrick Hall, whose song “Nails, Hair, Hips, Heels” (2019), appears as Eric dances and puts on makeup in Season 3 of Sex Education (2021). Discussing Lil Nas X’s overt gayness in popular culture, Hall explains that “I love the fact Lil Nas X is showing up to these spaces where it would have never been welcomed.”62 Composer Nicholas Britell’s “chopped and screwed” version of Jidenna’s “Classic Man” (2015) in Barry Jenkins’ film Moonlight (2017) functions similarly by replicating the quare experiences of Chiron, the film’s main protagonist.63 Working against the mainstream heterosexual lens, these minority mediated representations have the potential to reconfigure power relations. Lil Nas X has accelerated the mobilisation of quare-ness, pushing it further into mainstream, popular culture.
In its multimedia and interdisciplinary endeavours, this creative research project showcases an original interpretation of NQC and quare studies, thereby demonstrating how carefully calibrated new media campaigns can propel quare messaging into open-access, mainstream spaces. It carves out a new theoretical space for NQC by assimilating its practices and ideologies into new media and away from classical cinema structures, and by utilising the video essay form to present the research findings. There is ample possibility for further research as this project acts as a ‘way-in’ to Lil Nas X’s MONTERO and is intended to ignite further enquiry and analyses of his multi-faceted use of new media. Going forward, I will continue exploring Lil Nas X’s MONTERO and, in particular, the album’s use of YouTube as the project’s technological conduit. Other researchers may want to consider where Lil Nas X sits in the lineage of Afrofuturism, for, although touched upon in this project, there are striking audiovisual examples that require deeper analysis. There is also yet to be extensive research on how LGBTQIA+ youths use digital media to nurture communities.64 In lieu of this, the incorporation of first-hand interviews with LGBTQIA+ fanbases could be considered. This might therefore avoid the limitations of my project as it did not incorporate quare participation and relied heavily on secondary material. The application of quare theory to audiovisual transmedia is a cross-pollination markedly underexplored in academia. Using this project as a starting point, researchers may want to continue surveying how dominant social paradigms can be combatted through propelling NQC practices onto new media platforms in ways that directly impact LGBTQIA+ people.
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Edlom, Jessica. “Authenticity and Digital Popular Music Brands.” In Popular Music, Technology, and the Changing Media Ecosystem: From Cassettes to Stream. Edited by Tomas Tofalvy and Emília Barna, 129–145. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2020.
Gauk-Roger, Topher. “Todrick Hall Made ‘Conscious Decision’ to Create Content for ‘People Who Have Been Undeserved.” People, July 15, 2021. https://people.com/music/todrick-hall-conscious-decision-to-make-content-for-underserved-people/.
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Emily Thomas is an MA student in Music and Audiovisual Culture at Goldsmiths, University of London. Previously, she read music at the University of Manchester, where she received First Class (Hons). Her research included a critical examination of falsehoods in electronic music culture’s utopian rhetoric. Emily’s present research explores how Lil Nas X’s MONTERO and its use of new media has propelled New Queer Cinema’s practices and ideologies into mainstream popular culture. Other research projects include an exploration of hauntology and its relationship with futuristic pop music. Emily is also a DJ and classically trained singer. She is currently working on a collaborative debut EP that will encompass elements of popular, electronic, and classical music. Its release will be accompanied by her first audiovisual installation.