Lil Nas X’s Refusal To Dull His Sexuality Is Revolutionary

Lil Nas X doesn't present the reduced, flimsy picture of attraction that popstars use to sell records or gain attention - he presents sexuality as something complex and real.

lil nas x photo

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Late in March, Lil Nas X unveiled his new single, ‘Montero (Call Me By Your Name)’ and, in doing so, solidified his place as one of the most important popstars currently working.

It wasn’t just that the song is an out and out bop, tethered in place by one of the most sensuous pop hooks in recent memory. It’s that the song seems like an entire statement of the self — like Lil Nas X had given everything to his art, reflecting on his childhood and the factors that made him what he is today. A big part of his journey, gleaming through the song like a ring at a bottom of a river? His sexuality.

Indeed, Lil Nas X represents a queering of the mainstream the likes of which culture hasn’t seen since the early Madonna records. In a culture that is growing increasingly sex-aversive, despite the dominance of sites like OnlyFans, Lil Nas X is unashamed of his queerness; determined not to bend it to the rules of palatability. He doesn’t present the reduced, flimsy picture of attraction that popstars use to sell records or gain attention. In Lil Nas X’s world, sexuality is something big, and complex, and beautiful. Something real.

Such an approach has led to a resurgence in hand-wringing from conservatives, homophobes and prudes alike. Songs like ‘Montero’ and the recently released ‘Industry Baby’ have inspired ire from the worst corners of the internet, with critics claiming that Lil Nas X is corrupting the youth. Lil Nas X might be new, but such argument against him aren’t: dullards said the same thing about Plato. That’s always the reaction of some to the genuinely unique — fear.

And make no mistake: Lil Nas X is unique.

Lil Nas X Understands Taboo

Of course, Lil Nas X isn’t the first queer artist to take the mainstream by storm. For decades, some of the highest profile popstars have made art about their sexuality — everyone from Ricky Martin to Freddie Mercury of Queen have made camp part of their aesthetic code. But Lil Nas is different from these performers in the way that he interacts with taboo. He submerges himself in images dredged up from conservative America’s worst nightmares — prisons, the Devil, Hell itself — and makes these spectres seem fresh and fun.

Take the video for ‘Industry Baby’. Set in Montero State Prison, a winking reference to his own smash hit single, the Lil Nas X-starring clip is steeped in images once surrounded in controversy: prison showers, long, barred corridors, cramped cells. It’s a form of reclamation, a way of taking those practices that have been coated in darkness and drawing them out into the light. And it’s not just an aesthetic rehabilitation attempt — Lil Nas X also made a real difference to the lives of felons by raising money for those who have been incarcerated.

Consider the video a two-pronged attack on the carceral state — a way of reclaiming a narrative, normalising a taboo subject in the process, and a way of making material differences to the lives of actual people.

Yet such a practice is no mere intellectual exercise. Sure, normalising such images has an effect on the mass consciousness, turning what was once scary into something approachable and acceptable. But it’s also determinedly hot. There is nothing more attractive than bending the rules around your little finger, displaying a boundary-breaking sense of freedom. We love confidence, and Lil Nas X’s imagery screams confidence; it’s the product of an imagination that won’t let itself be tethered down to anything, not even convention.

The term ‘unapologetic’ has been overused in recent years, watered down into a form of empty and hollow praise. But Lil Nas X is exactly that. He makes no apologies for who he is, or for his tastes. That’s, after all, the way all great artists work. It’s a poet of the highest order that can make what is niche and personal feel universal, and to do so while making no concessions. With his music videos, and with the humane, trembling magic of his lyrics, Lil Nas X invites listeners into his world; one that will seem familiar in some ways, but also stridently, desperately new.

Call Me By Your Name

That’s not even to talk about the public comments that Lil Nas X has made about his sexuality. The rapper’s boundary-pushing art is reflected in his boundary-pushing Tweets, miniature works of art that display an intellect that refuses to back down under pressure. “Some of y’all not even mad that I’m gay,” he wrote this week. “Some of y’all mad that I’m gay and still succeeding.”

Lil Nas X has stridently refused to bend to the ire of homophobes or to let their damaging comments go unnoticed. Time and time again, he has pointed out the hypocrisy of his haters, noting that sexuality and pop have gone hand in hand for decades and that those who criticise him are displaying a dangerous double standard. “You don’t like gay black men because you are afraid of black men, as a whole, being viewed as weak,” the rapper wrote on Twitter. “You cling on to your masculinity because without it you have nothing else going for yourself.”

There’s a self-awareness to these Tweets — a savvy understanding of the way that the internet can be used to shape mass culture, and of Lil Nas X’s own place in the canon. He is a popstar who knows his own merits, who understands the way that he is influencing the world, and who is using his powers for the greater good.

Such comments are a far cry from those spouted by the figure of the quiet queer that is lodged in popular imagination. Lil Nas X isn’t trying to adapt his sexuality to the mainstream; he’s making the mainstream come to him, furiously re-describing the notions of acceptability and dragging bigoted listeners kicking and screaming into the twenty-first century.

It’s impossible to underestimate the effect of such originality. There are young people right now who are seeing a rapper move from success to success without abandoning what makes him who he is; an artist who embraces the things that make him different, rather than trying to sand his edges away. That doesn’t just make great art. That also makes a great difference in the world.

Joseph Earp is a staff writer at Music Junkee. He tweets @JosephOEarp.