“I wanted to be even more authentic in my music and let people into my life. I’m much more confident now — in my music, myself, my sexuality, the things that I believe that I stand for.”
That was Lil Nas X in a recent interview with Variety, laying plain his personal growth over the months and years leading up to the release of his highly anticipated debut studio album, “Montero,” out on Friday.
In a music landscape where lyrics of overt queer intimacy remain a rarity, he sings defiantly and playfully into that stillness: “If Eve ain’t in your garden, you know that you can / Call me when you want, call me when you need,” he teases on his No. 1, “Montero (Call Me by Your Name).” Through his chart-topping songs, he explores tropes — longing, dreams and dreaminess, escape — in an explicit manner, embracing his desires as a gay Black man. He argues for his existence in an industry where some continue to dismiss and threaten him.
“I feel like that’s really important for representation in general, and this is gonna open more doors for one day when somebody says this, it’s like, ‘Oh, that person said that and I didn’t think about it,’ ” Lil Nas X said earlier this year of his ambition to normalize gay sex, to vanquish mainstream squeamishness about it.
The 22-year-old Grammy winner, whose real name is Montero Lamar Hill, similarly takes power back in his music videos. In the visual extensions of his songs, he snatches sites that have long been associated with queer pain — the realms of scripture, the hallways of high school — and injects them with joy.
What’s more, through activism, he strives to make reality match his aspirations.
Imagining a better world
Dressed in the best the fictional Montero State Prison has to offer, Lil Nas X invited those watching Sunday’s MTV Video Music Awards to witness a prison sentence-turned-celebration, as he performed his latest single, “Industry Baby.”
He and his army of über-ripped fellow prisoners bopped around the stage. Then, they gyrated in the shower; they wore hot-pink underwear, of course.
In a subsequent interview with MTV News, the pop star said that the performance, which used a lot of the same imagery as the song’s video, represented how he’s had to “break out of” his personal and professional struggles. This conceit of “getting free” permeates his work.
The clip for “Montero” — the full name nods to the 2007 gay coming-of-age novel and its breathtaking 2017 film adaptation — is chockablock with references to the Bible. In one scene, a snake (played by Lil Nas X) seduces Adam (also played by Lil Nas X) in the Garden of Eden. In another, the singer and rapper gleefully pole-dances down into Hell, where he twerks on Satan.
After the show, Lil Nas X snaps the devil’s neck and dons his horns — a delicious subversion, a rollicking rebuke of the hellfire that gay people are often promised: No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper, Lil Nas X seems to say, with a wink. This move, an act of radical world-building, is about “dismantling the throne of judgment and punishment that has kept many of us from embracing our true selves out of fear,” per the artist’s record label.
Here, Hell is turned into a good time to underscore that the threat of eternal damnation has no real power over Lil Nas X.
In the video for “Sun Goes Down,” he takes on a threat that to many young queer people is much scarier than Satan: high schoolers.
The clip paints a moving portrait of Lil Nas X as a teenager. He’s impossibly isolated from his classmates. He roams the hallways alone, stalked by his insecurities about his big lips and his dark skin. At night, he asks that God take away his gay thoughts. He considers suicide.
Then, a turn. After crying in the bathroom at prom, Lil Nas X, revivified by his future self, returns to the dance floor. And there he is, flipping out to the music as the crowd is swept into his orbit.
Call it queer wish-fulfillment, if you want. But also call it a necessary image. For many LGBTQ teenagers, high school is a period of torment. They suffer more bullying on campus (32%) and online (26.6%) than their straight peers (17.1% and 14.1%, respectively), according to a 2019 Youth Risk Behavior Survey.
With “Sun Goes Down,” Lil Nas X puts together an alternate reality, one that provides queer viewers with the sort of happy ending that straight kids — particularly straight White kids — have always enjoyed in pop culture, one John Hughes movie after another.
Just imagine what the world would be like if it were more like Lil Nas X’s videos. If queer people weren’t taught to be afraid of Hell or high school. If all this were ours for the taking — and the dancing.
Bringing reality in line with art
Lil Nas X takes his work beyond imagining a better world; he puts effort into making it a reality.
When he released “Industry Baby,” Lil Nas X announced the Bail X Fund, his partnership with The Bail Project, a nonprofit that works to end cash bail, a system that disproportionately disadvantages Black people and LGBTQ people.
“Music is the way I fight for liberation. It’s my act of resistance. But I also know that true freedom requires real change in how the criminal justice system works. Starting with cash bail,” he explained in a statement. “This isn’t just theoretical for me. It’s personal. I know the pain that incarceration brings to a family. … Ending cash bail is one of the most important civil rights issues of our time.”
Lil Nas X also has sought to bring more attention to the issue of suicide among young queer people, having shared his battles with suicidal ideation earlier this year. For his focus on suicide prevention and mental health, the pop star this month received the inaugural Suicide Prevention Advocate of the Year Award from The Trevor Project, a crisis prevention group for young LGBTQ people.
“It’s particularly inspiring to see someone who is Black and LGBTQ and proud and unapologetic,” Amit Paley, CEO and Executive Director at The Trevor Project, said in an interview with the Associated Press. “And to see someone talk about their experiences with depression and anxiety and suicidal ideation and to talk about those as part of their art and part of their platform to make other people comfortable talking about the challenges that they are going through.”
To borrow a lyric from Lil Nas X, no one ever really roots for queer people. So, he roots for us, one smash hit at a time.
How to get help: In the US, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-271-8255. The International Association for Suicide Prevention and Befrienders Worldwide also can provide contact information for crisis centers around the world.