what lil nas x coming out means for music
The ‘Old Town Road’ star confirmed he is part of the LGBTQ community on the last day of Pride month.
Image via Instagram
Music isn’t as progressive as we’d like to think it is. Sure, visibility is high; artists like Troye Sivan, Years & Years, Frank Ocean, Hayley Kiyoko and SOPHIE have cemented themselves as cultural figures, appearing everywhere from the Met Gala to Vogue’s 73 Questions. But when it comes to sales -- the thing that really drives the music industry, a business after all -- LGBTQ artists, while successful, aren’t breaking any records.
At least they weren’t until Lil Nas X. The 20-year-old from Atlanta, Georgia, became a household name with his memeable viral hit Old Town Road. The track has spent 12 weeks at Number 1 on America’s Billboard music chart. It has broken Drake’s record for the most streams in a single week. It inspired a remix featuring Billy Ray Cyrus. It had people debating whether it was eligible for Billboard’s country chart (it was and now it isn’t) and helped kick start conversations about rap’s place in country music. It’s also a proper banger.
All this time, however, Lil Nas X’s personal life was being quietly discussed. It became clear that he used to run a Nicki Minaj stan account, although he denied this, telling NPR that it was “a big misunderstanding”. Screenshots of old tweets started circulating on Twitter about the account. And then on the last day of Pride month in the United States, Lil Nas X cleared everything up.
"Now, though, Lil Nas X’s queer identity will colour the rest of his work. Before his coming out, his music existed within the privileged walls of heterosexuality, free from the burdens placed on queer artists to either pimp their trauma out for art or the expectations that their art must in someway relate to their experiences as LGBTQ individuals."
“some of y’all already know, some of y’all don’t care, some of y’all not gone fwm no more,” he wrote. “but before this month ends i want y’all to listen closely to c7osure.” He also included a clip from the song C7osure (You Like) from his debut EP 7 as well as the rainbow emoji. Later, he shared the artwork for 7, zooming in on a rainbow flag and writing: “deadass thought i made it obvious.”
An artist coming out shouldn’t be (and isn’t, really) a big deal. But when that artist is behind the biggest song on the planet right now, it sort of becomes one. All you have to do is look at the responses to his coming out tweet to see how bothered a subsection of his fans are by the news. Given how pervasive Old Town Road is, most of Lil Nas X’s fans will be straight.
Over the last few years, hip-hop has become less homophobic. However, as Vulture’s music critic Craig Jenkins wrote in 2017, the genre still has a way to go. Hip-hop’s machismo is ingrained, a part of the genre’s DNA dating back to its inception. This often toxic masculinity is something that it continues to grapple with. Only a few years ago, Migos were accused of homophobia over their comments about out gay rapper iLoveMakonnen. Eminem’s last album was filled with the most vile and base-level homophobia, a trend that weaves throughout his entire discography.
Of course, there have been more positive moments in the last few years. Frank Ocean made headlines with his coming out letter and was embraced by those in the hip-hop community. Likewise Tyler, the Creator, who was previously accused of writing homophobic lyrics, seemed to embrace his sexuality on his record Flower Boy. Brockhampton, the self-professed best boyband in the word, has queerness front and centre in their music, the group’s leader Kevin Abstract constantly celebrating and discussing his sexuality.
Lil Nas X hadn’t publicly announced his queerness when Old Town Road came out, and as the success of the song might be something of a happy surprise, perhaps he thought he might not have to. Whatever and whenever he decided to tell the world is his business and his alone. But there is something delicious about how withholding this facet of his identity meant that audiences bopped regardless. And now, with the song as big as it is -- and his debut EP landing at Number 2 on the Billboard albums chart -- it feels that Lil Nas X’s position as pop’s primary competitor has solidified. No matter how he identifies, Old Town Road is so big that he’s no longer in control of its trajectory. That it managed to infiltrate two musical genres still grappling with their handling of the LGBTQ community, country and hip-hop, is like a chef’s kiss.
Now, though, Lil Nas X’s queer identity will colour the rest of his work. Before his coming out, his music existed within the privileged walls of heterosexuality, free from the burdens placed on queer artists to either pimp their trauma out for art or the expectations that their art must in someway relate to their experiences as LGBTQ individuals. When Old Town Road was just a viral hit, the song was literally about riding a horse. Now Lil Nas X is out, the meaning behind it has already been twisted and sexualised, as LGBTQ identities so often are.
It’ll be telling over the next few weeks whether his coming out will have an impact on his music. The cynic always wants to catastrophise, although perhaps that’s just being a realist. As we learn how attitudes towards LGBTQ people are rolling backwards, it would be disappointing but not surprising to see things begin to dip commercially.
But given that Pride month in the US has just ended and with London Pride this coming weekend, perhaps it’s worth holding on to optimism. Since Old Town Road came out, Lil Nas X’s approach to pop has been unique, rising through social media like a digital marketing expert before smashing it commercially. His blend of musical genres is symptomatic of how Gen Z are creating, free from rules and restrictions. Nothing about his career has been predictable or formulaic. He has instead created his own unique path, free from the shackles of music industry bullshit. Perhaps, given his singular experience, Lil Nas X will escape the castigation, bigotry and hurdles LGBTQ artists so often face. Perhaps things might not follow that old town road after all.