Sometime in my early 20s, I stopped following the Grammys. Pop music changes so fast that it quickly feels utterly pointless to try and keep up with what’s cool any more. That’s why I find it utterly astonishing that in middle age I am suddenly following a 22-year-old singer on social media. Sometimes I am even tempted to write a comment on his post, a post that already has 22,42,583 likes. Is there a term for a middle-aged version of fanboy?
There’s just something about Lil Nas X. I had not paid much attention when he became an unusual country music sensation in 2019 with his song Old Town Road—a teenaged black star in the very white world of country music in America. It was in the weeks and months leading up to his new album, Montero, that I began taking startled note of him. It wasn’t just that he was openly gay but that he was upturning every rule about how to be gay and a star. Best of all, he seemed to be having a great time doing it. That is what is truly inspiring about Lil Nas.
In the early 1990s, when I was part of the first South Asian LGBTQ+ group Trikone, the members went out of their way to reassure the community that they were not scary freaks. They worked software jobs, loved their dal chawal and went to Diwali parties in kurta pyjamas like every other desi out there. When Trikone marched for the first time in an India Day parade, they assured nervous organisers that no one would march shirtless or in leather chaps. In the lead-up to the Supreme Court hearing on Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which criminalised homosexual sex, in 2018, we saw many heartwarming stories reassuring us that queer people didn’t have horns. Then along comes Lil Nas, who plucks the horns from the devil in his music video and puts them on his own head.
But he’s not cut out in the angry queer activist mould either, the kind who shook their fists in the face of homophobic politicians and threw pies at them. Instead, he unapologetically legitimises pleasure, something we puritanically remain deeply suspicious of. When he kisses a man during the BET Awards, the audience gasps. While his determination to push boundaries is undisputed, it does not feel like something done for titillation or shock value—like Madonna kissing Britney Spears in 2003. It’s done because it feels good, it feels natural and he enjoys it. And that shows.
There have been other gay pop stars before him. But they came from a generation where there was always a hint of apology around them. George Michael’s gayness was common knowledge long before he was busted for cruising in a men’s toilet. Freddie Mercury was unable to admit to his homosexuality before he died of AIDS. When Ricky Martin finally came out in his 2011 memoir, long after his teenage heartthrob heyday, he said he remembered “the heavy sadness” that he carried within him. “I could high-five God but I wasn’t living life to the fullest,” he told Pride Radio. Boy George played up his androgynous image more than his sexuality, once telling an interviewer he preferred a “nice cup of tea” to sex. Elton John officially came out as bisexual in 1976, saying “It’s not a bad thing to be”, and then became the gay best friend to Elizabeth Taylor and Princess Diana, turning into a sort of flamboyant teddy bear.
Lil Nas walks on all their shoulders but goes where none of them dared to. He’s a singer at the beginning of his career. He can put on make-up and Marie Antoinette wigs but he does not desexualise himself in order to be acceptable to the world. In the video for Montero (Call Me By Your Name), he gives a lap dance to the devil. In That’s What I Want, he starts making out in a men’s locker room with a football player and then rips open a Durex condom to have sex in the shower. Industry Baby has a prison filled with black gay men doing a wet wild and naked (albeit pixelated) dance under the shower. All this to say, no one has to read between the lines any more, like they once did, to uncover gay desire. His gayness is not encoded. It does not smoulder in secret. It burns bright.
He makes it seem easy but it was not. In Old Town Road, he was singing about cheating on a female partner and “bull riding and boobies”. The success of that song could have pushed him further into the closet. The pride and comfort he exhibits did not come easy. “When you’re conditioned by society to hate yourself your entire life it takes a lot of unlearning,” he tweeted. “Which is exactly why I do what I do.” His father was a gospel singer in church and Lil Nas said in an interview he thought his same-sex attraction was a test from God. He would watch gay porn and then feel like “I just laid in mud and ate poop”. He even dreamt of ending his life. This is a far cry from the confident young man who can take on the governor of South Dakota. When Governor Kristi Noem, scandalised by his customised “Satan shoes”, tweeted “We are in a fight for the soul of our nation”, Lil Nas tweeted right back, “Ur a whole governor and u on here tweeting about some damn shoes. Do ur job!”
Some think this is too much too fast, that he is just an attention seeker whose antics will distract from the real issue of civil rights. He has been criticised for his “pregnant” photographs before the new album dropped and for setting a gay fantasy music video in a prison where so many young black men languish in real life. While prison can be an “eyebrow-raising backdrop”, writes Reanna Cruz on NPR’s website, one could also say that Lil Nas might consider “homophobia a prison, claustrophobic and imposing, especially in the music industry”. Responding to the criticism of his pregnancy photographs, he created a “baby registry” where each song in the new album links to a non-profit organisation like The Bail Project, which pays bail for people in need and provides pretrial services.
Ultimately, though, what makes Lil Nas special is not this kind of activism but the joy he brings to it. That joy makes many people, many who would call themselves tolerant, uncomfortable. We may not want gayness criminalised but we want it firmly behind closed doors. A “supportive” friend once said: “No one cares who you kiss but do it in your own bedroom. Don’t flaunt it.” He didn’t stop to think that heterosexual pride is constantly being flaunted publicly even if it’s just via the family picture stuck on one’s office computer.
Lil Nas calls that bluff and demands that he be guaranteed what civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr once called “the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as promised by the US Declaration of Independence. All over the world, we denigrate the importance of the “pursuit of happiness”. It can be seen as selfish and we lead circumscribed lives in order to win social acceptance. Lil Nas puts himself out there in a way few celebrities have. They take stances and then, faced with backlash, quickly backtrack with half-apologies. They post selfies with powerful politicians they once criticised. They are wary of being accused of having an agenda, while Lil Nas says openly in a letter to his 14-year-old self that he is pushing an agenda—“the agenda to make people stay the f*** out of other people’s lives and stop dictating who they should be”.
It’s early days yet. One does not know whether Lil Nas could burn out, tire of being the focus of a new culture war in America or cross some line and be cancelled. But for now he’s reminding all of us, gay or straight or anywhere in between, 14 or 40 or 80, of the joy that comes from being true to ourselves. I find myself learning a lot from him.
Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.