By Ruth Stewart
Whether or not Lil Nas X’s sneaker collab is considered blasphemy or a genius marketing stunt is up for debate – but either way, Nike is missing a trick by not standing with him.
In a year that already – by April – has featured murder by the Met, police brutality at peaceful protests, and the continuing horror of the Coronavirus pandemic, it seems odd that a pair of trainers could elicit more than a mere raised eyebrow, let alone a media storm. But hey, it’s 2021 and nothing should surprise us anymore. So here we are: our economy in tatters, thousands dead from a glorified flu, our basic human rights being stripped away before our eyes, and we’re getting worked up over a f***ing shoe.
The “Satan Trainer”
The shoe referred to is, of course, the controversially named “Satan Trainer”. The Satan Trainer is a repurposed Nike Air Max shoe, adorned with a pentagram pendant on the laces, ‘Luke 10:18’ (“He said to them, I saw Satan fall like lightning from Heaven”) embroidered on the side and injected, so the rumours say, with a drop of human blood. The shoe is a collaboration between Lil Nas X and brand/art project/design collective MSCHF – themselves no strangers to controversy – and have been released in a limited number of 666 pairs. Of course.
The shoe is obviously designed to push buttons. MSCHF has curated their entire brand around objects of dubious taste – including but by no means limited to, a bath bomb shaped like a toaster, individually-cut spots from a Damien Hirst painting, sandals made from desiccated Birkin bags… you get the idea. Vulgarity is built into MSCHF’s very ethos. In methods not dissimilar to the Pop artists of the past, they skew culture and artistic value on their heads: taking things and making them art, and vice versa. They exemplify hipster humour – is it funny? Sure. Is it clever? Absolutely. Is it pretentious? Well. Maybe a little. But their commentary remains valid nonetheless.
It shouldn’t surprise us then, that they’ve chosen Christianity as their latest target for satire. Their official line is that they’re commenting on consumer culture’s obsession with often inexplicable collaborations (Forever 21’s 2019 collab with USPS – yes, the United States Postal Service – is a prime example) in a “what next? A collab with SATAN HIMSELF?! What would that look like?” kind of way. Brands, as evidenced by this recent slew of bizarre alliances, will use anything or anyone they can to sell more product – so MSCHF’s use of Beezlebub to hawk trainers isn’t really anything that other big names aren’t already doing. Which is exactly their point.
Lil Nas X and his influence
It’s an impressively shrewd move from Lil Nas X (LNX) to get involved. Not only because it ties beautifully in with his latest music video for ‘MONTERO (Call me by your name)’ – thus completing the circle of consumerism rather succinctly – but it also fits in with LNX’s public persona: a pioneer unafraid of pushing boundaries.
From the opening refrain of his genre-busting, rap/country fusion chart behemoth ‘Old Town Road’, LNX has made waves. Fusing Rap, so deeply rooted in Black culture, with Country – arguably the Whitest musical genre ever invented – was a bold move, and preceded an even bolder one: his Coming Out. Hip Hop, and Country for that matter, are notoriously homophobic, and this revelation about his personal life earned him significant backlash, from Conservative commentators and from within the Rap community. Essentially, at this point, LNX doesn’t owe anyone sh*t.
A “Gay Satanic Agenda”? Yeah, right
Let’s address the elephant in the room: the same angry voices currently frothing over about the Satan Trainer are of the same ilk as those that demonise LNX for his sexuality. Which means, whether consciously or not, the outpouring of fury surrounding the Satan shoe is tinged with homophobia. In response to the shoe, and the ‘MONTERO’ video (featuring a shirtless, stripper-boot wearing LNX pole-dancing down to hell before giving the Devil a lap dance) LNX has been accused of “pushing a Gay Satanic agenda” – because apparently, being Gay and being THE ACTUAL DEVIL are basically the same thing.
You could, of course, argue that LNX’s queerness has nothing to do with it; this is simply Good Christians calling out blatant blasphemy. This might ring true if there had been even close to the same level of outrage concerning the Satan Trainer’s predecessor, the Jesus Trainer.
Ah, yes. The Jesus Trainer. Released by MSCHF in 2019, the Jesus Trainer is, much like its devilish counterpart, a customised Nike Air; however, the Holy Sneaker is scented with Frankincense, executed in a truly heavenly colour-palette of pure white and sky blue, and is decorated with a small Crucifix in place of the pentagram. The Bible verse embroidered on this shoe – Matthew 14:25, “And in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went unto them, walking on the water” – is explicitly referenced by the inclusion of 60ml of bonafide Holy Water, sourced directly from the River Jordan and blessed by a priest for good measure. The allusion being, of course, that the wearer can then walk on water.
Nike’s blatant hypocrisy
Sure, a small amount of concerned chatter arose, but on the whole, the Jesus Trainer was a smash hit. They sold out in a single minute after their release. Drake bought a pair. Preachers and pastors across the land proudly showed off their Christian creps. Interestingly, Nike kept schtum. They didn’t endorse, nor were affiliated with the production of the shoe in any way, so their silence might not be newsworthy were it not for the fact that they were lightning-fast in disavowing the Satan Trainer. After Conservative voices made a rallying cry to boycott Nike forevermore, Nike immediately released a statement washing their hands of the whole affair, even going so far as to file a lawsuit (that has since been settled) against MSCHF.
This simply smacks of hypocrisy. Why now? They didn’t give a singular hoot about “diluting their brand name” or creating an “erroneous association” when the Jesus shoes dropped. It’s a doubly confusing move when you consider Nike seemed to relish in p*ssing off Conservative America when they released their Colin Kapaernik ad campaign.
For those that don’t remember, late 2019 saw Nike launch their Emmy-winning ‘Dream Crazy‘ campaign. The widely circulated image featured a black-and-white portrait of Kapaernik emblazoned with the words, “believe in something, even if it means sacrificing everything“. It was a reference to Kap’s taking the knee to protest police brutality and subsequent sacking from the NFL. And boy, did it get certain folks’ backs up. We all laughed when the videos circulated of incandescent former Nike fans burning their Swoosh-adorned garms (particularly, the ones that were still wearing said garms when they set them alight). Nike, it seemed, was in on the joke, laughing along with us.
So, the fact that they’re now pandering to the same pool of incensed prudes has left many scratching their heads. Standing with LNX on this issue – or at the very least, maintaining their silence – would’ve sent a powerful message. Lil Nas X is a young man, trying ardently to live unashamedly as his truest self, and at the top of his game: his songs are all mega-hits, he’s a fashion icon, and he’s only just old enough to legally drunk in his home country. From the moment he publicly came out as gay, his aggressors have been relentless in their attempts to take him down. Nike sent us the message two years ago that they support Black Lives Matter – yet refuse to support the life, career or creativity of this one particular Black man. The ‘MONTERO‘ video – and by association, the Satan Trainer – is LNX’s public statement about how his queerness has been treated, not just by the public, but in his own eyes.
Nike missed out big time, and here’s why
Lil Nas X has spoken candidly and at length about his own internal struggle in coming to terms with his sexuality. In a refreshingly honest interview with BBC breakfast, he revealed that he used to “pray and pray” that his being gay was a phase, and that for a long time he thought it was a secret he would “take to the grave”. He divulged that it was his public platform that compelled him to come out, that being a popular persona would make it easier for him to do so. That he hoped it would “open doors” for more people to live authentically, particularly in both Country and Hip Hop communities in which being gay is still not readily accepted.
The ‘MONTERO’ video – and the eponymous album from which it is taken – is, in Nas’s own words, a celebration of gay sexuality. It knowingly pokes fun at his critics: “you think gay is evil? I’ll show you evil!” he alludes as he slithers seductively over Satan’s knee. He knows he’s causing a stir but is quick to remind us all that it’s a stir that needn’t exist. In response to US Governor Kristi Noem’s condemnation of what is tantamount to an elaborate publicity stunt, he responded “do ur job!” – and rightly so. Put simply, we collectively have far greater concerns right now that a young, ambitious rapper and how he chooses to promote his music. The critical response is a depressingly predictable example of orthodox traditionalists missing the point entirely and pointing their laser beam of vitriol at entirely the wrong source: accusing LNX of “destroying America” (yes, REALLY) instead of sharing his anger at spending his “entire teenage years hating myself because of the [things] y’all preached would happen to me if I was gay“. It’s not a ‘satanic agenda‘; it’s a metaphor. And it’s a damn shame that Nike, with the power of their global-reaching platform, has chosen to ignore it.
In any case: all 666 pairs of the Satan Trainer sold out instantly. ‘MONTERO (Call me by your name)’ topped the US and UK charts, with a combined total of almost 50 million video streams. Blasphemy or no, it’s clear who the real winner here is, and it’s Mr Montero. It’s about time his critics gave the devil his due, dont’cha think?
Graphic courtesy of Ruth Stewart.