Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Lil Nas X, the Latest Face of Pop’s Gay Sexual Revolution

The Wild Reed’s 2021 Queer Appreciation series continues with an excerpt from Jazmine Hughes’ recent New York Times Magazine cover story, “The Subversive Joy of Lil Nas X’s Gay Pop Stardom.”


Somehow, I remember precisely where I was the first time I heard Lil Nas X: in the back seat of a friend’s car, speeding toward upstate New York for a girls’ weekend that we would spend sliding back to a version of adolescence, stoned on the power of our own giddiness. But first, we had to get there, and somewhere along Interstate 87, someone turned on “Old Town Road.”

Could anyone have it made it through 2019 without hearing “Old Town Road,” an international anthem of defiance (“Can’t nobody tell me nothing”), tenacity (“I’m gonna ride till I can’t no more”) and travel plans (“I’m gonna take my horse to the old town road”)? Listening to the song felt like ingesting amphetamines, happiness clomping through my brain in spurs. The song was both absurd and earnest, its opening sounding exactly like the swaggering steps of a cowboy swinging open a saloon door. I had climbed into the back seat that spring afternoon still covered in the frost of a winter funk, but I emerged – after a long car ride, some light emotional processing and no fewer than five listens to “Old Town Road” – goofy and loose, fun drummed back into me.

This is the difference between the Nas of “Old Town Road” and the one heard now, both in musical approach and in self-depiction: The new one is really, really gay. Coming out, for Nas, was a recalibration. He wanted to be not just a pop star but a visibly gay one, a figure built on that Gen Z tendency to heighten a sexual identity into an exaggerated shtick, but one founded on a genuine pride and comfort. . . . After years of hiding himself, there was now no mistaking it: He was trying to be, all at once, a hitmaker, a huge pop star, an out gay man and a sexual being.

You’re nobody until you’re part of a conspiracy theory – and Nas, if you listen to some corners of the internet, is part of an evil, far-ranging effort to emasculate the Black man. In this he joins a lineage of many visibly queer Black men, from James Baldwin to Little Richard, whose sexuality has been seen as a siege on the purity of Black masculinity, already under so much duress.

Nowhere has this allegation weighed more heavily than with “Montero (Call Me by Your Name),” a song whose music video is a purposefully provocative sendup of the eternal damnation that Nas, and countless gay people, have been promised. In it, Nas is seduced by a serpent and brought in front of a tribunal for judgment, where he is killed by a flying butt plug. He then descends into hell via a stripper pole and ends up grinding on the devil, his face lavish with pleasure of the highest perversion. Lyrically, he describes, in lurid detail, how he wants to have sex with another man: “I want that jet lag from [expletive] and flyin’/Shoot a child in your mouth while I’m riding.” (As Susan Sontag said, “Camp is a tender feeling.”) He kills the devil, removing his horns and placing them atop his own head, suggesting that just because you are sentenced to hell doesn’t mean you are sentenced to suffering.

. . . Gay pop stardom is nothing new, but a pop stardom in a position to include overt sexuality might be. Nas is a bouillabaisse of his forebears: the wholesome sex appeal of a George Michael, the glitz of an Elton John or a David Bowie, the disruption of a Le1f or a Sylvester, the emotion of a Frank Ocean. He also follows in the path of artists like Salt-N-Pepa and Lil’ Kim and his idol Nicki Minaj, all of whom made rabid sexual attraction to men into something interesting enough to sing about, as well as Janelle Monáe, whose “PYNK” was a lively song about one woman performing oral sex on another.

Nas’s project, though, is to move past the mainstream and publicly acceptable practice of queerness, which is often so divorced from actual sexual pleasure that it can feel neutered. It’s one thing to accept a gay person, as many do, by ignoring what we do behind closed doors. But it’s quite another to embrace gay people as sexual beings, who can also enact an identity – just as straight people so proudly, publicly and lucratively do – in part through sex itself. Unlike many of his predecessors, Nas’s claim to his sexuality is explicit. He does not, say, sing love songs with elided pronouns. This is a man who has sex with other men. Even within the queer community, to have a young, strong, Black man openly identify as a bottom – a feminized position that’s often the target of misogynistic ire – is rare, a subversion of both power structures and social codes.

. . . There is a contemporary understanding of Black male identity that is condescending even as it intends to be caring: It posits that to be Black and a man is to be, exclusively, in constant danger. Attempts to complicate Black masculinity – like the once-constant rendering of Black men wearing flower crowns, as though this were a shocking juxtaposition – often seem built on those same stereotypes. Some people seem to enjoy defining what a Black man should or should not be. On Nas, though, masculinity turns expansive. His identity is capacious enough to accommodate fantasy. Grazing all six of his abs might be a hand adorned with white nail polish. His chest might be bound by a corset. Last Halloween, he dressed up as Minaj, complete with a blond wig, cinched waist and false breasts. He knew it would make people uncomfortable. (An internet native, he measures this in terms of “losing followers.”) Drag on Black men is typically done for laughs or else so clearly fixed in a queer space that it doesn’t much infringe on mainstream gender politics. But something about a cis Black man dressed in women’s clothing purely for fun was too close for comfort, especially when his music sits near hip-hop. Nas ended up having to defend himself to people like the rapper 50 Cent, whose own exaggerated masculinity is rooted in big muscles and having survived being shot. “What makes Lil Nas X so extraordinary is how brave he is at being so outwardly gay within the urban music world,” Elton John said to me in an email. “That’s where he’s truly groundbreaking.”

– Jazmine Hughes
Excerpted from “The Subversive Joy
of Lil Nas X’s Gay Pop Stardom

New York Times Magazine
July 7, 2021

NEXT: Kuan Yin: “A Mirror of the Queer Experience”

Related Off-site Links:
From Internet Sensation to Global Icon: How Lil Nas X Is Navigating Music As a Gay Artist: An Interview With Jazmine HughesPress Play With Madeleine Brand (July 12, 2021).
Lil Nas X and Pop's Gay Sexual Revolution – Louis Staples (BBC Culture, July 11, 2021).
The Lil Nas X Gay Coronation Covers New York Times Magazine; Crowned With “Elaborately Braided Black Boy Joy” – Brian Bell (Towleroad, July 9, 2021). Lil Nas X Gives Epic Performance at BET Awards During Pride MonthThe Black Wall Street Times (June 29, 2021).
Lil Nas X Was Thankfully Not Shy Last Night During the BET Awards – Jason A. Michael (Pride Source, June 28, 2021).
Lil Nas X Hits Back at "Hypocritical," Homophobic Criticism over BET Awards Kiss: “I Love Who I Am” – Cydney Henderson (USA Today, June 28, 2021).
From Adam Lambert’s Blurred Gay TV Kiss to Lil Nas X at the BET Awards: What Changed? – James Duke Mason (LGBTQ Nation, July 6, 2021).
Adam Lambert Addresses Lil Nas X’s Same-Sex Kiss at the 2021 BET Awards – Stephen Daw (Billboard, June 29, 2021).
Lil Nas X Says He Knew His “Montero” Music Video Would Be Controversial – Joe Price (Complex, June 21, 2021).
Meet Yai Ariza, Lil Nas X’s Dancer (and Rumored Boyfriend) – Raffy Ermac (Out, July 13, 2021).

UPDATE: Lil Nas X’s Queer Brilliance Is Redefining Black Masculinity – Phillip Clark (Lessons From a Recovering Prude, September 22, 2021).

For previous installments in The Wild Reed’s 2021 Queer Appreciation series, see:
“A Book About Revolutionary People That Feels Revolutionary Itself”
Remembering Dusty Springfield’s “Daring” 1979 Gay-Affirming Song
Zaylore Stout on the Meaning of Emancipation in 2021
Maebe A. Girl: A “Decidedly Progressive Candidate” for Congress
The Art of Tania Rivilis

See also the related Wild Reed posts:
In a Historic First, Country Music’s Latest Star Is a Queer Black Man
Nakhane Touré’s “Tortured Journey to Clarity”
Nakhane’s Hymn to Freedom
Rahsaan Patterson: Standing Within His True Light
Ocean Trip
Remembering Little Richard, 1932–2020
Remembering Prince, “Fabulous Freak, Defiant Outsider, Dark Dandy” – 1958-2016
David Bowie: Queer Messiah
Dusty Springfield: Queer Icon
No Surprise, But an Important Event Nonetheless
Adam Lamert Comes Out: It Shouldn’t Matter. Except it Does
“Glambert” and the New Gay Stereotype
Sam Sparro
Play It Again, Sam
Actually, I Do Feel Like Dancing
Rules and Regulations – Rufus Style
Darren Hayes, Coming Out . . . Oh, and Time Travel
The Latest from Darren Hayes
Remembering Stephen Gately, Gay Pop Pioneer
No Matter What

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