At the start of his career, twenty-two-year-old musician Lil Nas X was a poster child for success on TikTok, after the platform helped propel his song “Old Town Road” to unprecedented ubiquity. Lately he’s become something more old-fashioned: a music video star. Pop culture is more visual than ever, but traditional music video – in all its big-budget cinematic glory – has been overtaken by small-sized, out-of-the-box material designed for quick social media consumption. Still, the extravagant music video has become the most effective way for Lil Nas X, a master of visual iconography, to cause a stir. In March, he released a video for a new single called “Montero (Call Me by Your Name),” which begins with a voiceover: “In life we hide the parts of ourselves that we don’t want. the world sees. . . . But here we don’t. Welcome to Montero. Lil Nas X, born Montero Lamar Hill, used his first name for a fantasy underworld of his own making, a pastel-colored utopia where anyone could fly a freak flag. Rendered in CGI, the video follows Lil Nas X through a baroque and Boschian Netherlands, populated by outrageously costumed clones of the artist, and crackling with sex load.
For Lil Nas X, who revealed in 2019 that he is gay, “Montero” marked a new, decidedly libidinal phase in his art. At the end of the video, the singer, wearing only briefs and thigh high boots, slides down an endless stripper bar and lands in a version of Hell, where he performs a striptease. for Satan. As part of the video’s rollout, Lil Nas X announced a collaboration with a company called MSCHF, who designed a limited edition satanic-themed Nikes, each allegedly containing a drop of human blood in their sole. The video was steamy, sure, but it was too absurd to be as salacious as its detractors claimed. Nonetheless, after the video and the sneakers came out, Lil Nas X was maligned by Christian pastors, Fox News, and even South Dakota Governor Kristi Noem. (“We are fighting for the soul of our nation,” she tweeted.) Critics have only affirmed Lil Nas X’s intuitive ability to create a major moment in pop culture. “Montero” the song – a fusion of hip-hop and flamenco with lyrics about Lil Nas X’s desperate desire for a man – was almost irrelevant. “Old Town Road” lived in an alternate psychedelic universe, bridging the familiar and the futuristic. “Montero” positioned Lil Nas X in today’s pop music reality, which isn’t as fun.
The frenzy of attention surrounding the “Montero” video only seemed to fuel Lil Nas X’s taste for provocation. In July, he released the music video for a new single, “Industry Baby,” another ambitious visual feast, this time with a mischievous eye trained on the prison institution. The clip features Lil Nas X as an inmate at Montero State Prison, a place where prisoners wear hot pink uniforms, and sometimes nothing at all. Riffing on black male sexuality in the context of incarceration, Lil Nas X performs an energetic dance routine in the showers with his fellow inmates. The song, which nods to a hip-hop part of Lil Nas X’s hometown of Atlanta, features a triumphal horn arrangement and a boisterous chorus: “This one’s for the champions.” It also has a forgettable verse from Jack Harlow, the slightly charming and confident white rapper of the day. (Towards the end of the video, Lil Nas X escapes the prison when one of the guards is distracted while watching the video for “Montero (Call me by your name).”) Not since Lady Gaga had her A celebrity debut the artist has taken so much advantage of music video as a receptacle for camp, comedy, social commentary and ostentation. And as with Lady Gaga, there is a certain cognitive dissonance involved in associating these exaggerated videos with otherwise mundane pop songs. Since “Old Town Road”, Lil Nas X has yet to produce a song worthy of such pomp.
He may never need it. In today’s pop ecosystem, music is often a vehicle for celebrity and charisma, not the other way around. And Lil Nas X’s bizarre understanding of the internet’s attention economy has rarely failed him. In 2018, he was a student in Atlanta and managed a popular Nicki Minaj fan account on Twitter. He started recording songs and promoting them by attaching them to memes that were already going viral. After dropping out of school, he recorded “Old Town Road,” a rudimentary country song filled with hip-hop Easter eggs, not necessarily because he was interested in reversing gender tropes, but because ‘he had noticed that country trap was all the rage online. . As everyone knows, his strategies worked: his remix of “Old Town Road”, starring Billy Ray Cyrus, became the oldest No. 1 song in history, a track with a miraculous ability to transcend cultural and generational divisions.
“Montero (Call Me by Your Name)”, on the strength of the music video, also reached number 1 and helped transform Lil Nas X from a one-hit wonder into a full-fledged pop star. It underscored his common sense, although characterizing him as a marketing genius, as many did, ignores his nascent artistic talents. The song, along with “Industry Baby,” made Lil Nas X an icon due to his unrestrained expressions of queer sexual desire. Unlike some of his more successful contemporaries, such as Frank Ocean or Tyler, the creator, Lil Nas X refuses to participate in the game of shyness when it comes to his sexuality. (“I’m queer, ha!” He says in “Industry Baby.”)
But his new full album, also called “Montero”, is not the debauchery game fans might have expected. If these singles were about Lil Nas X’s desires, much of the album is about the disappointment resulting from passions left unfulfilled, or the melancholy that floods once you have what you want. Lil Nas X refuted the hypothesis that he would never have been successful after “Old Town Road”, but accomplishment comes with a host of new demands and stressors, and he did. not fulfill all his wishes. Even the happiest and most energetic songs on the album are backlit with an innocent desire: “I want someone to love / This is what I fucking want!” he shouts on a track called “This is what I want”. Co-written by Ryan Tedder, the song is a whirlwind of screams and applause that seems designed for the wedding dance floor. Like much of this mostly healthy record, it is hardly an expression of demonic lust or sexual debasement.
“Old Town Road”, at the height of its popularity, generated a heated discussion about the limits of the genre. Initially, Lil Nas X had rated the song as country, but as it gained in velocity Billboard withdrew the song from his country record, arguing that his label had not promoted it as a suitable country track. At the time, the decision seemed odd, especially given the stylistic breadth of the country charts. “Old Town Road” has grown so culturally strong that these accolades no longer seem relevant, but the song’s success helped fuel an evolution in the cross between hip-hop and country. “Montero,” a pop-rap album that shares almost no DNA with country music, is less interested in musical innovation. It’s an agnostic genre, a blur of hi-hat, guitar frills, and mid-trap beats that make you wonder who, exactly, the record is for. It’s an awkward vehicle for Lil Nas X’s charisma. It highlights the album’s inadequacy as a format for the modern pop star.
The back half of “Montero” takes an unexpected turn towards morose and introspection. On one song, “Void”, Lil Nas X writes a letter to an old friend letting him know that the exuberance of his public image is smoke and mirrors. The song is simple, with a dull electric guitar line but not much else; in the open space, Nas is able to use his voice to outline his emotions more delicately than on his other songs. “I’ve had a crazy time / Trapped in a lonely and lonely life / Looking for love where I’m denied,” he sings sadly in a half-whisper, like in a confessional. We’ve experienced Lil Nas X as an internet troll, a hypersexual provocateur, a pop star with Warholian visual sensibility, but “Montero” shows something different: a human being. ??