Lil Nas X is bringing 2000s era drama back to music

As normality becomes the overarching MO for today’s biggest stars, we owe it to Lil Nas X for keeping things interesting.

by Douglas Greenwood
03 September 2021, 2:37pm

Lil Nas X on Twitter

There’s an art to great pop music and an art to selling an album. Lil Nas X, arguably one of the few real provocateurs operating on a Billboard dominatrix level of popularity, has nailed them both. Yesterday, he spoke to People magazine -- an American celebrity mag known best for their wedding scoops and similar announcements -- revealing photos that showed him resplendent in a serene California garden, wearing a billowing white outfit and flower crown with a baby bump on show. He was pregnant, he said, with his forthcoming album, Montero

It was, by turns, beautiful and outrageous -- a strange mix of in-on-the-act satire with People magazine’s co-sign. But Lil Nas X was, as always, the real orchestrator here -- proof he knows how to market his own music better than any major label could.

That is a rarity nowadays. In the early 2000s, all the way through to the early 2010s, pop music thrived on stunts. There was the iconic three-way kiss of Madonna, Britney and Christina at the 2003 VMAs. Then, we had Lady Gaga stepping out of hotel lobbies in myriad wild outfits, extending the narrative of the nuts visual universe within her work into the IRL. She bled out on stage at the VMAs six years after the famed menage-a-trois, before pretending to hang, lifeless, from a chandelier. Then, two years after that, Beyoncé dropped her mic and revealed she was pregnant after performing “Love on Top”. The VMAs are perhaps the last chance for stars to get their talked-about tabloid moment in, but few are really interested in that side of the game anyway.

The defining hallmark of new pop is normality. It’s what’s made Lorde, Taylor Swift, Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo the genre’s leading quartet: the idea that young stars, like the ones in the audience watching them, could be made in their image. 

Lil Nas X represents a different progress: a mainstream queering of rap that makes him the most alluring and anomalous talent in that world right now. With each new music video, he’s managed to get a tighter grip on the public. At this point, with just weeks to go before his album launch, he feels untouchable. 

It all goes back to the summer of 2019, when the former moderator of a Nicki Minaj stan account accidentally made the hit of the year, single-handedly transforming the manner through which new music comes up, and established artists get ahold of their hits. The TikTok music algorithm was Lil Nas X’s doing thanks to the success of “Old Town Road”, and it became a hard act for him to follow. “Panini”, his second single, was a tepid commercial success that no one talked about with the same kind of zeal.

It was at this point that Lil Nas X became, perhaps inadvertently, pop’s greatest contemporary marketing genius. A string of 2020 singles led up to the moment that felt like his real coming out: “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)”, his salacious ode to queer love made greater by the video that pissed off homophobes and conservatives. He pole-danced to hell and lap-danced the devil, making Satanic sneakers that caused, as Jon Caramanica of the New York Times put it “good old-fashioned moral panic”. His time on the internet -- a golden marketing tool for any pop star -- had taught him how to respond to public figures freaked out by his blue-humoured and brilliant visual language. When a US governor tweeted her concerns about Satanic shoes commissioned to promote the track, Lil Nas responded, pointedly: “do ur job!”.

It’s a theme that carried through to its follow-up, “Industry Baby”, which saw Lil Nas unpack pushback for his queer identity and thrive in the face of it. A brilliant riff on the don’t-drop-the-soap gay sex in prison trope that saw men dancing suggestively, completely naked, in the prison shower room, its sheer loudness meant even those who didn’t like the song itself could appreciate the audacity of its artist’s vision. 

This has become the commendable trait of Lil Nas X and his work; even those who aren’t completely enraptured by the music itself -- for many, the unequivocal main ingredient of someone’s success -- they can at least accept that he’s interesting, and knows how to get the stans onside. 

The marketing stunt is a dying art today. Pop stars are coming back down to our level; their vulnerabilities on show, painstakingly human. For Nas X, those same vulnerabilities are the ingredients for high camp, provocative art; the kind we’ve sorely missed over the past few years. Perhaps, much in the same way Taylor and Billie catalysed a shattering of performative starpower, pregnant Lil Nas X on People magazine will build it up again. Pop culture thrives on moments like it.

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