Photo by Kevin Mazur/Wireimage and Will Heath/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

The Britney Spears-ification of Lil Nas X

The critical response to the young artist is similar to what Britney experienced in the early2000s.

by Beatrice Hazlehurst
26 October 2021, 10:45am

Photo by Kevin Mazur/Wireimage and Will Heath/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

In 1998, a former Disney regular named Britney Spears debuted her first single, the pop classic “…Baby One More Time”. In the accompanying video, the pigtailed singer stared down the camera lens with doe eyes, cementing her status as youth mouthpiece with one, expertly-crafted line: “My loneliness is killing me”. `The song eventually peaked at number one. In early 1999, an album of the same name followed. Three months later, Montero Lamar Hill — known better now as Lil Nas X — was born in backwater Georgia.

By the time he reached cognitive age, Britney had reached supernova status — burning with unsustainable brightness until she spontaneously combust. Montero might have been too young to recognise the contributing factors to Britney’s infamous mental breakdown; the insurmountable pressure made evident in media appearances, where the popstar was quizzed on her breast size or virginity. On-screen since age nine, millions had watched Britney mature. The problem was that very few could forgive her for it. 

Montero was a year older than Britney had been when he emerged as the self-made star Lil Nas X. While Britney’s natural talent was primed and packaged for radio ready success by numerous external forces, Lil Nas X bought his own beat, recorded and released his first single, and secured his own high profile feature. Of course, he had social media on his side; fans adjudicating discovery-worthy artists had facilitated a power shift in the music industry. Unlike Britney Spears' reliance on the music ‘machine,’ Lil Nas X was only beholden to the clicks. 

Still, the artists are not as different as they might seem. Both rejected their initial platform. Britney’s all-too-innocent teen dream image was cast away for a “not-that-innocent” sex-starved bad girl, while Lil Nas X shocked someOld Town Road” fans by coming out — simultaneously foregoing a deeper exploration of trap-country for sugar-coated hip hop. Both would cement their respective positions with a series of stunts (provocative output or public interaction), but one echoed the loudest. A same-sex kiss, shared at two separate award shows, almost two decades apart.

“I feel like it's what needed to be done,” Lil Nas X told PEOPLE. “Because it's easy to just hug a guy, but I feel like if you kiss the guy, you get straight to the point.”

The climax to Lil Nas X’s unapologetic expressions of queerness, the 2021 BET Awards show kiss was enough to tip many fans and critics over the edge. Like Britney, Lil Nas X had already reached mega fame prior to the release of his debut album. Montero was led by single “Call Me by Your Name”, with a video of him sliding down a pole and lap dancing on Satan. Twitter users accused him of “corrupting” young minds. T.I. added: “I just can’t look at it… And I don’t want my children seeing it, either.”

While misogyny may have been interchanged for homophobia in the case of Lil Nas X, the argument has remained the same. Britney Spears’ transition from schoolgirl to femme fatale with her provocatively titled sophomore album Oops!… I Did it Again “upset a lot of mothers,” according to Diane Sawyer. In a now infamous and widely-criticized primetime interview, the TV broadcaster showed Britney footage of Maryland First Lady Kendel Ehrlich, a mom of two, attending an anti-domestic violence rally. She told the camera, “If I had an opportunity to shoot Britney Spears, I think I would.” 

In another clip from 2000, a teenage Britney is forced to watch a compilation of passersby discussing her VMA performance (you know, with the skimpy shorts and snake); many tell her to reconsider what she wears for the sake of “the younger generation”. It’s the comment section come-to-life, and the young entertainer must stomach each opinion on camera. In the aftermath, Britney addresses an unseen producer, “I’m not their children’s parents.”

We’ve long been aware that transferring onus for wayward youth onto celebrities, MTV or video games is a favourite pastime of both neglectful parents and elected officials, but ‘children’ are also the perfect Trojan Horse for one’s own prejudices. It’s not T.I.’s personal discomfort with two gay men kissing, it’s that Lil Nas X should have more respect for his children. It’s not Diane Sawyer, Kendel Ehrlich or a substantial portion of America that Britney Spears made uncomfortable by visibly embracing her sexuality, it’s the kids

In the wake of her Diane Sawyer interview, Britney would begin to unravel in the public eye. By the time she was 25 years old, she would live through a mental health crisis and — as we better understand in 2021 — be placed under a conservatorship that would oversee her every move for the next 13 years. While Lil Nas X, now 22, has faced somewhat comparable scrutiny this year alone, he has something Britney never did: the opportunity to offer an unmediated response. 

“There is a mass shooting every week that our government does nothing to stop,” Lil Nas X said, in reply to a now-deleted tweet about “Call Me by Your Name” “destroying society.” “Me sliding down a cgi pole isn’t what’s destroying society.”

If Britney had been afforded a platform to rebut critics (as a tireless Lil Nas X does again and again), maybe things would have turned out much differently. Nonetheless, forcing a young woman to shoulder the responsibility of society’s development — as well as women’s complicated relationship to sexual expression — is impossibly unfair, but asking her to do so in silence is unforgivable. 

It’s easy to reflect on our treatment of women artists a quarter-century on with regret. After all, what was it all for? We, the generation raised on and by Britney Spears arguably turned out fine (if not much more sexually-explorative and emotionally-aware than our predecessors), and Generation Alpha will definitely turn out even better. Still, saving Nas X from a Spears-level demise will require fierce protection of his platform. As long as he has access to, and outlet for self-expression, he’ll be stronger than yesterday.

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