We all remember when Lil Nas X featuring Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Old Town Road” hit the charts and consistently held the #1 spot. Not only did it become one of the most streamed songs, this year it became the highest certified song ever by the Recording Industry of Association of America, reaching 14-times platinum status in the United States. Once Lil Nas made a name for himself with Old Town Road, he pivoted towards a new genre, vibe and brand. The drop of his new song, “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” took many fans aback, especially with his blatant satanic references and satan-themed sneakers (that Nike eventually sued him for since it used the iconic swoop on them). Similarly to “Old Town Road”, “Montero” broke records in the music industry with 46.9 million U.S. streams and sold 21,000 downloads in the first week after it was released.
When he released his remix of “Old Town Road” with Billy Ray, he pushed the boundary of race within the music industry. According to the Huffington post, country has historically been a white genre of music, despite the original Black influence. Throughout the country genre, there has been discrimination against Black artists and Lil Nas felt this when his song was removed from the “Country” charts.
Huffington post stated that, “…while [B]lack artists dominate charts across multiple genres, country music charts are a predominantly white space. So when Billboard removed Lil Nas X’s smash hit “Old Town Road” from its Hot Country Songs chart in March, some fans weren’t surprised. In a statement to Rolling Stone, Billboard justified its decision, saying, “[Old Town Road] does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.” This begs the obvious follow-up question: What are the elements of country music?”
First, he made history as a Black man with a chart-topping song in country – a historically white genre. Next, after that he took on homophobia. Lil Nas hung up his cowboy hat and the world got a taste of the new and improved artist – a man who gives satan lap dances in Hell. Enter his music industry changing song, “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)”. With that release, Lil Nas took a strong stance against homophobic beliefs with his crude satanic references throughout his marketing and music video production of this song.
After Lil Nas came out, he naturally received backlash from homophobic members of our country. Fellow rapper, Pastor Troy, even made homophobic comments about Lil Nas’s Grammy outfit from earlier this year.
Billboard stated, “Pastor Troy posted a photo of Lil Nas in his pink leather Grammys outfit on Instagram and unleashed a homophobic tirade against the “Old Town Road” rapper. “Welp, Guess I won’t be winning a GRAMMY…If this what I gotta wear,” he wrote. “They love to push this sh– on our kids!!”
Lil Nas, naturally, responded with wit and humor saying how good he looked in that outfit as a response.
NPR chimed in and said, “The rap-pop star is openly gay and, through his lyrics, music videos like “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” and comedic clapbacks to critics, he’s using his platform to generate new conversations about representations of Black queerness and dismantling homophobia in hip-hop.”
Simply put: when homophobic fanatics told Lil Nas to “go to hell” for being gay he responded…okay, I will. The music video for “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” shows a plethora of characters, all played by Lil Nas, that show his trial to see if he will get into Heaven. When he inevitably does not make it, he rides a mile long stripper pole down to Hell. The obvious satanic references made a huge splash in the music industry and absolutely blew up the charts due to its controversial nature. According to Billboard, the single smash-hit, “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” “drew 46.9 million U.S. streams and sold 21,000 downloads in the week ending April 1, according to MRC Data.” This single made history, both in Heaven and Hell.
By blatantly leaning into his criticism when homophobic listeners would say, “go to hell” he showed that he not only doesn’t listen to his criticism, but he welcomes it. The best way to avoid criticism is to steer into the skid – Lil Nas did just that and also (tried to) take down homophobia while he was at it with his blatant clapbacks.
Fast forward to a few weeks ago. On September 17th, Lil Nas dropped his full album, “Montero” which had slowly become one of the most anticipated albums of the year. Why did this album drop become so hyped up? Lil Nas had launched a marketing campaign to promote the album where he is…pregnant. And not just “pregnant” like…he looks genuinely pregnant. In the campaign, he had a full pregnant belly and “gave birth” to the album on September 17th (Oooh a Virgo baby. This checks out). One of the reasons that Lil Nas is a true feminist icon is because through this marketing campaign and his actions as musician, he pushes the boundary of gender. He takes the idea of something normally associated with the experience of being a cisgender woman and decides to take on that experience while identifying as a man. It makes some people uncomfortable – especially his music videos. In his number one hit, “That’s What I Want”, Lil Nas continued to make statements about gender and sexuality by adding a twist to traditionally gendered roles – he plays a gay football player, Brokeback Mountain cowboy, and the bride at his own wedding. Los Angeles Times discusses how Lil Nas has the “most radical run of queer music videos in pop history”.
Virginia Kuhn, a cinema professor at USC who teaches feminist film theory says, “[t]hese videos are hugely important. They’re such an antidote to the toxic masculinity rampant in the Trump years…[i]n a culture dominated by visual media, to disrupt that core imagery is so powerful. He’s taking on football and Christianity, prison, childbirth and marriage. This has it all. It feels like the ’80s with Madonna’s videos.”
A queer Black man playing with the spectrum of gender and sexuality is making people uncomfortable – and it’s getting attention. Not only is it intriguing his own fans but it’s making people ask questions. Why am I uncomfortable seeing this? Gender is a spectrum and Lil Nas X’s music videos, marketing, and persona are fully embracing that idea. Whatever is traditionally associated with either having a male or female experience can and should be questioned.
The Los Angeles Times also stated, ““So often, we see subversive work like this not be pleasurable,” Kuhn said. “That’s why he’s so important right now, it’s so joyful and visually lush. He has such a sense of humor, but he makes you examine your assumptions.” He is making all of his fans and critics question the spectrum of gender, sexuality, religion and institutions such as marriage and prison.
Beyond his bold personality, music and marketing, Lil Nas X is all about giving back through his platform. During his pregnancy marketing campaign, Lil Nas put out a “baby registry” where each one of the songs on his new album was associated with a charity that you could donate to. If you clicked on the baby registry, you found numerous charities supporting Black and LGBTQ+ charities. Lil Nas has never been a performative activist and he showed his true support by giving the option to donate to causes that were personally connected to him and his music.
Lil Nas X, as known as Montero Lamar Hill, is a 22-year-old superstar. He may be one of the most famous artists of our time and he is also an extremely influential voice in the LGBTQ+ and BIPOC communities. He has the power to make change and has been doing just so through his platform by supporting causes that uplift historically underrepresented groups, pushes the boundaries of gender and sexuality and has become one of the first Black gay] people to make history in a white-heteronormative genre like Country music. Through his intersectional approach to his music and image, Lil Nas portrays what is means to be a true feminist.