Lil Nas X’s video for “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)” — with its glistening pole to hell and sexy satanic lap dance — has reignited the culture wars in ways not seen since the 1980s. Back then, Madonna’s video for “Like a Prayer” was the controversy to beat.
It featured the singer, then 30, dancing in front of burning crosses, experiencing stigmata and kissing a statue of a Black Jesus who comes to life in a church. (The “Saint,” as he was described in the script to appease production executives, was portrayed by actor Leon, who also plays a young man wrongly accused of a crime in the piece.) The video debuted on MTV on Feb. 23, 1989 and was the fifth that Mary Lambert had conceived and directed for the pop star.
“I wanted to explore the correlation between sexual ecstasy and religious ecstasy,” Lambert, 69, tells THR, adding that “the idea of a Black Jesus was scary to a lot of people.” That character “came from Madonna telling me she wanted to ‘fuck a Black guy on the altar,'” Lambert recalls. “I said, ‘Well, why not have it be a Black Jesus? Let’s just go all the way.’ She liked that.” The burning crosses evoked “the idea of appropriation,” Lambert continues, “that the Ku Klux Klan could take a cross, which is a holy symbol to a lot of people, and appropriate it in a way to instill fear and horror and promote race hatred. I wanted to turn that on its head.”
The backlash to the video was intense: The Vatican banned it, and Pope John Paul II encouraged fans to boycott Madonna in Italy. “I don’t remember anybody standing up for it,” she says. “Except the general public.” A far tamer Pepsi commercial set to the song (and made for four times the budget) was yanked fast. “I was very proud of that,” Lambert says.
As for Lil Nas X’s effort, Lambert is impressed, calling it “an amazing visual poem — a sort of folktale about fucking the devil, basically.”
This story first appeared in the April 7 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.