Let’s say you have watched the delightful music video for Lil Nas X’s #1 single “MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name).” And let’s say you are also a casual reader of what if?, the hypothetical exploration arm of Randall Munroe’s unparalleled webcomic xkcd. And just for good measure, let’s say you’ve been wondering about the same question I have: how is a Heaven-Hell dance pole different from an Earth-Moon fire pole?
I have neither the scientific nor the theological chops to resolve this quandary on my own, so I will take the source material at face value. Lots of wise people have assembled thoughtful explanations of the “MONTERO” video, so I’ll stick to the relevant basics: stoned to death for transgressing gender norms as a gay man, Lil Nas ascends towards Heaven, where Ganymede—or God, depending on your reading—awaits to bless him. Before he reaches the clouds, however, a pole appears. Lil Nas seizes the pole and plummets into Hell, pulling impressive dance moves the whole way down. (Once in Hell, Lil Nas gives Satan a lap dance, then breaks Satan’s neck. It’s not relevant to this comparison, but it is rad.)
Over in science land, Randall answers a German five-year-old’s question: “If there were a kind of a fireman’s pole from the Moon down to the Earth, how long would it take to slide all the way from the Moon to the Earth?” The initial answer is a bit dull; such a pole couldn’t exist because of pesky impediments like gravity and varying orbital distance. But if it could, well, now we’re talking!
I’ll establish the obvious distinctions first. The Moon is not Heaven (as beautiful as it is), and the Earth is not Hell (at least not in the theological sense). The construction of the poles differs, too. A dance pole can be static or spinning, but based on Lil Nas’s sensual twirls, I’ll assume his one spins. A fire pole is simply static—much like ones you may remember from elementary school, but this one is about 384,400 kilometers longer.
The initial descent, which for Lil Nas is as simple as grabbing the pole and dropping down through the colosseum where he was just executed, is trickier from the Moon. Our brilliant satellite has its own gravity, so before Cueball (the unofficial name of xkcd’s generic everyman) can start the standard playground shimmy, he must climb up the pole until Earth’s gravity takes over.
Pole dancing and pole climbing are both incredibly demanding exercises, so the duration of the descent becomes an important factor. By Randall’s calculations, Cueball spends several years hoisting himself up towards the Earth before he is able to slide. Lil Nas X doesn’t have to make his legs bleed for quite so long: based on Milton, his descent into Hell lasts only nine days. (In the video, the journey is conveniently edited to just twenty-two seconds).
Lil Nas lands firmly on both feet, giving a seductive final crouch before walking confidently toward Satan’s chambers. Cueball is not so lucky. His pole is not directly attached to the ground for the same reason that you cannot see the Moon every night: the rotation speed of the Earth is faster than the orbital speed of the Moon. Cueball must survive the speed dangers of atmospheric reentry and supersonic winds while still holding the pole, then release his grasp “near airline cruising altitude” in order to parachute safely to Earth. After years of pole climbing and the dramatic final descent, I imagine Cueball is a bit shaky on his legs for a while. His first order of business probably isn’t a Satan lap dance, in any case.