Lil Nas X has his thigh high heel on the industry’s neck.
To be fair, he already did: his oft-remixed, endlessly meme-d “Old Town Road” is the longest-running hit in chart history, even beating the record set by the icon herself Mariah Carey with “One Sweet Day.” He also caused the industry to ponder the confines of country music and reconsider the genre’s sonic limitations in terms of chart and award eligibility. And his follow-up releases, including 7 with “Panini,” a Top 5 hit, and “Rodeo” with Cardi B ensured that he wouldn’t go down as a One Hit Wonder.
Despite only having a handful of tracks to his name, there’s no doubt that Lil Nas X is already a superstar: Miley Cyrus is sending him flowers and fangirling in the comments, he’s embroiled in DM scandals with 6ix9ine and dodging homophobia from Kevin Hart, and his own queen acknowledged his existence, Nicki Minaj. (Barb supremacy!)
But with “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” the 22-year-old viral hit-maker is accomplishing something more noteworthy beyond the typical charts and sales number-crunching in the music industry: he’s putting unabashedly queer representation in the mainstream’s face.
Yes, he is shoving his lifestyle down your throat, Karen. Deal with it.
The accompanying music video for “Montero,” released on Friday (March 26), is exactly what I’d imagine a newly out 20-something gay pop star with a massive budget would dream up in 2021. It’s full of pop culture, sex and rebellion themes, and feels inspired by a number of things: video games like Final Fantasy, Hunger Games, Chromatica, FKA twigs‘ “Cellophane,” the Bible.
It’s a tale as old as time (well, Abrahamic religion): tasting the “forbidden fruit” of homosexuality (that stomach lick!), getting punished and cast straight to the pits of Hell.
Only here, Lil Nas X is grabbing hold of the stripper pole ride down to damnation and supplying devious glances and sexy gyrations. Far from shame, he’s feeling quite comfortable in his Calvin Klein undies and leaning all the way into “sin” – or, rather, doing splits and advanced bottom-ography right on the lap of the Devil himself, before ultimately claiming the horns and reigning supreme over Hell. (Cue the Illuminati / New World Order / Hollywood baby-eating conspiracy theory panic.)
“Montero” is lyrically gay as hell too, which might be overshadowed by the understandably buzzed-about video: he’s talking about grabbing ass, fucking and riding until he shoots his load. (“I wanna feel on your ass in Hawaii / I want that jet lag from fuckin’ and flyin’ / Shoot a child in your mouth while I’m ridin’.“)
It’s the dirty stuff plenty of gays talk about privately, but subject matter that’s nowhere to be found on YouTube’s top trending videos or Spotify Viral Charts. Sex talk in a hit song? It’s almost inevitable. But gay sex talk? Revolutionary.
And the explicit sex stuff is the point. Popular culture might have made space for acts like Sam Smith, who sings sweetly of romance and heartbreak – no disrespect to their craft. But gay fucking? From a major label artist? It’s still taboo – and so, incredibly refreshingly normal to hear from a horny gay guy.
Musically speaking, which will go even more overlooked than the music video and lyrics: “Montero” is a hit! It’s a quick and catchy bop for the TikTok attention span generation, sure, but we knew that already from the moment he played that catchy hook in the car nearly a full year ago. Fans have been clamoring to hear that instant earworm in full ever since, making the song seem almost mythological up until this point, which is genius marketing.
He really just knows how to work the Internet. He’s so fucking Internet funny, especially when poking fun at his critics, which comes as no surprise as “a veteran of Barb Twitter,” as JP Brammer once described him. He supplies good memes and funny videos daily in a way that makes me feel like the Harry Potter-loving, Buzzfeed quiz-taking lame millennial TikTok tells me I am. And I’m at peace with it! I’m in my 30s! He’s so fresh, and so exciting – and he’s genuinely thriving.
But for all the humor he provides, there was nothing funny about Lil Nas X’s heartfelt open letter to his 14-year-old self upon the song’s release.
The queer experience certainly isn’t a universal one – it’s different for everyone, largely affected by factors like race, socioeconomic status, nationality and religion – but what he wrote cuts deep for anyone who felt (or still feels) that all-too-familiar feeling of the need to stay closeted for safety, or eventually coming out and saying things like “my sexuality doesn’t define me” or “I don’t even get why there’s Pride” to tell yourself that you aren’t like those gays.
“I know we promised to never be ‘that’ type of gay person…but this will open doors for many other queer people to simply exist,” he wrote.
It’s an insight wise well beyond his years, because only with life experience does one eventually realize that being deemed “acceptable” to heteronormative society isn’t the goal: equality and liberation for all queer people is. Sexuality exists on a spectrum. Things like masculinity and femininity are subjective. Promiscuity does not determine someone’s inherent goodness. So long as no one is hurting anyone else, everyone has the right to exist exactly as they are – regardless of whether you choose to live your life the same way.
As anticipated, and even provoked – “i’m gonna be so pissed if i don’t get any illuminati conspiracy videos, i worked so hard for this,” he tweeted – there are negative reactions coming out from conservative pundits and religious fanatics. It’s the same song and dance about damnation and the erosion of society we’ve heard since the Original Sin. (Madonna‘s “Like a Prayer.”) Lil Nas X is going to Hell? Oh, honey. Look around. We’re already there. He might as well make himself at home.
While Lil Nas X is far from the first queer entertainer, he is undoubtedly one of this younger generation’s biggest new stars. His coming out in 2019 mattered in a big way – and his decidedly Gay-with-a-capital-G output in 2021 now matters even more. The more he racks up those views and sales and awards while being unabashedly his gay self, the more likely it is that similarly loud-and-proud queer acts, who have already been at this for way longer, will get even bigger opportunities that might have been deemed “too risky” by record labels or companies, or whoever else gatekeeps mainstream visibility. “Just look at Lil Nas X!” Perhaps some queer music acts will be less shy about expressing their horny desires. And maybe it’ll provide the encouragement for other stars to come out of the closet.
But maybe the biggest victory of all is what it’ll mean to the teenagers who see themselves in that letter he wrote. It’s all that I’ve been thinking about, really.
To see a genuinely cool pop star my age, living out his sexy weirdo fantasies, freely exploring and fluidly playing between masculine and feminine presentation, and expressing my same desires at that formative age? Thank God for all of my Queens of Pop who made me feel strong and empowered of course, but I can only imagine what it could have been like to watch that video – and maybe even aspire to be like him one day, too. Right now, all I feel is an immense sense of pride.
Just keep going and staying true to your experience, incredible sense of humor and wild imagination, Lil Nas X. You’re never going to please everyone, or be everything to everybody. But for some, you actually are – and you are certainly helping to change the world for the better.