Lil Nas X showed Billboard and his critics that they can't tell him nothin'

The multiplatinum artist is arguably the first microplatform crossover star. And he got there by not listening when people told him no.
Image: Lil Nas X
Lil Nas X performs onstage during the 2019 BET awards at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles on June 23, 2019.Jean-Baptiste Lacroix / AFP - Getty Images
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By Michael Arceneaux

UPDATE: On July 29, Lil Nas X made history by becoming the first artist to have a song spend 17 weeks at the top of Billboard's Hot 100.

Lil Nas X, whose short music career is already rich in accolades, is on the verge of breaking the all-time Hot 100 record. As Billboard recently notes, “Old Town Road,” the 20-year-old’s breakthrough and genre-bending first single, has been No. 1 on the chart for 14 weeks. Only two songs have lasted longer: Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s “One Sweet Day” and Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee's "Despacito" featuring Justin Bieber, both of which sat atop the charts for 16 weeks.

Lil Nas X could plausibly tie or even best those feats — though, even if he doesn’t, his success story has proven itself to be historic and influential, and it matters not if said story can be measured in days, weeks or months as opposed to years.

The Atlanta native’s improbable (albeit not totally implausible) rise is a testament to a number of variables, although, in terms of importance, the standout variable to me is undoubtedly the importance of finding a way to carve out a place for yourself in spaces where those like you are typically told there is no room.

After all, who could have imagined that one of the biggest singles in recording history would be a country-trap tune crafted by a southern Black teen who has since told us that he also happens to be queer?

“Old Town Road” gained initial interest not by way of radio, but as a meme on TikTok, the video-sharing app that debuted in China in 2016 and has since gained popularity in the United States. As Time explained in a piece themed around the song’s initial rise, “millions of video creators used the song as a soundtrack to transform themselves into cowboys and cowgirls. Videos with [the] hashtag #yeehaw, almost all of which sample ‘Old Town Road,’ have been seen more than 67 million times.

Lil Nas X himself gave TikTok all the glory in that article, acknowledging that he had been promoting the song for months as a meme but it wasn’t until it landed on that platform that the song caught fire. “When I became a trending topic on there, it was a crazy moment for me,” he told Time. “A lot of people will try to downplay it, but I saw it as something bigger.”

Of course, controversy — namely the song's removal from the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart over claims that “upon further review, it was determined that ‘Old Town Road’ by Lil Nas X does not currently merit inclusion on Billboard‘s country charts” — also helped fuel the song’s popularity. Many rightfully took aim at such a stance, given that white country acts managed to enjoy success on the charts with their country-rap works, citing a double standard. They felt the backlash was largely fueled by the fact that the industry is predominantly controlled by white men clinging to their overly narrow definition of both "country" and "rural."

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All that act did was to bring greater attention to Lil Nas X’s debut single, and ultimately, more powerful allies. To wit, in response to the egregious claim, Lil Nas X released a new version of the song that included the contributions of 1990s country star Billy Ray Cyrus, perhaps better known to young music buyers and streamers as Miley Cyrus' father. It effectively dared Billboard, which today touts the single's success, to answer the question: Is it country enough for ya now?

In her new Elle cover story, Miley Cyrus said of the collaboration, “My dad doesn’t like when anyone tells anyone no. He loves the underdog and has always been that way.”

As for her thoughts on the song: “That record is the best of both worlds in the way that you get a song that just sounds amazing on the radio — it’s glue, it brings people together. But it’s a f---ing political statement.”

And it hasn't been Lil Nas X's last.

On June 30, the last day of Pride, Lil Nas X joined both Miley and Billy Ray Cyrus to perform “Old Town Road” at Glastonbury. Following that performance, Lil Nas X tweeted a hint about his sexual identity: “Some of y'all already know, some of y'all don't care... But before this month ends I want y'all to listen closely to c7osure."

The song “C7osure (You Like)” from his EP 7 speaks of the desire to be “free” and includes lyrics like "This is what I gotta do, can't be regretting when I'm old.”

In a subsequent tweet, he brought greater attention to EP artwork — zooming in on part of the artwork that is a rainbow, a symbol for LGBTQ pride — and suggested that he'd thought using the symbolism had made something obvious to fans: His sexual orientation. In a later interview with the BBC Breakfast, Lil Nas X confirmed he has already experienced some backlash, but added, “I'm not angry ... because I understand how they want that reaction." Instead, “I'm just going to joke back with them."

Lil Nas X, whose real name is Montero Lamar Hill, went on to say "I don't want to live my entire life ... not doing what I want to do.” And realizing the significance of the reveal in either the country or hip-hop music scenes, he professed hope that people would "feel comfortable" while admitting that queer men are "not really accepted in either."

I have seen criticism of Lil Nas X’s announcement, suggesting that he was “trivializing” the situation for “clout,” but that speaks more to the unimaginative, cynical minds of the few rather than the fold who have already benefited from Lil Nas X bringing greater visibility.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time Lil Nas X’s motives and moves have been questioned.

In April, Intelligencer ran a story titled “Before ‘Old Town Road,’ Lil Nas X Was a Tweetdecker.” In it, writer Brian Feldman alleges that Lil Nas X ran a popular, now-suspended Twitter account that engaged in activities he categorized as “engagement bait.”

“A feel-good story of ingenious platform disruption and merit-based achievement plays a lot better than using pay-for-play meme-propagation systems based on infringement and misrepresentation to build a following and then release a hip-hop track,” Feldman wrote.

Like GQ’s Jordan Coley, I questioned the depiction of “Old Town Road” as “an ancillary footnote to a more interesting story about ill-earned stardom” given the alleged tactics are more or less standard these days — and they certainly are far less nefarious than many of the tricks used by major corporations to generate a hint song. (Payola, for example.) Coley was right to dispel much of Feldman's argument and end with the question: “Why, suddenly, is the game unethical when a young, black kid decides to play it and ends up playing very well?”

As Coley correctly notes, online promotion is how many young Black artists find success as they compete with companies continuously siphoning off what they built and sharing it with their wider audiences. (Take, for example, the widespread corporate appropriation of “Hot Girl Summer,” first popularized by Houston rapper Megan Thee Stallion.)

Memes and controversy — and the capitalization of both — are nothing more than contemporary versions of age-old tricks used to promote creative works; the only difference is that now individuals like Lil Nas X or Megan can do the bulk of the work themselves.

Ultimately, what matters most is whether or not the song is any good. “Old Town Road,” for all its social media attention, is such a big hit because it’s a great song made for the right time. After all, in the post-Trump era, is there any better lyric for anyone than "Can't tell me nothin'?"

Reality television gave us Kelly Clarkson, Fantasia Barrino, One Direction, Danity Kane, Fifth Harmony and many others, for better or for worse. YouTube is directly responsible for helping Justin Bieber, Shawn Mendes, Tori Kelly, Carly Rae Jepsen and Ed Sheeran become music stars. In the social media age, Lil Nas X is arguably the first microplatform crossover star.

I don’t know what Lil Nas X’s future looks like (Will he break the record? Will he have another No. 1?) but, if "7" is any indication, it would be a mistake to think his commercial viability will be limited to one song. Either way, he is a young Black kid from the south who admittedly made a great song out of frustration to prove his naysayers wrong. He has proven more people wrong than perhaps he ever imagined and, in doing so, has made history and has ideally inspired a lot of queer Black men to continue breaking barriers.

As another queer Black man from the south who has also been told there was no space for me but who made room for myself anyway, the significance of Lil Nas X and the moment he has created for himself and those who look like him can never be understated. They can't tell us nothin'.