How Lil Nas X Flipped Conservatives’ Culture-War Playbook

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It’s a tale as old as time. Boy meets humanoid alien creature in a sci-fi Garden of Eden. Boy enters a purgatory where he’s condemned by a chorus of clones of himself clad in drag chic. Boy is sent to Hell, seduces the Devil with a lap dance and dethrones him to start his own satanic reign.

Also: Boy simultaneously releases a line of sneakers with a drop of human blood inside (a limited-edition run of 666, naturally).

If none of this sounds familiar, it means you missed the outrage cycle triggered by Montero Lamar Hill, better known as Lil Nas X, the megafamous rapper who stamped himself permanently on the national consciousness with 2019’s weapons-grade earworm “Old Town Road.”

His new song, “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” debuted this week atop the Billboard Hot 100; its lurid, baroque video has already reached more than 110 million views on YouTube, and as of this writing the song has nearly 105 million streams on Spotify. Musically, it’s pretty much par for the course with today’s top singles — short, repetitive, vaguely moody. Far more interesting than the song is its video, specifically how through it Nas used one of America’s most reliable engines for cultural outrage to his advantage: the conservative media ecosystem.

The video pushes sacrilegious buttons by depicting the aforementioned sexual encounter with Satan, which, if it sounds a little old-fashioned as a cultural provocation, was followed by the announcement of a bootlegged, custom line of Nikes that included real human blood. (Unsurprisingly, Nike swiftly sued to prevent their release.) Among rap fans, and especially Nas “stans,” as artists’ die-hard, cult-like supporters are called, it made a decent-size splash, its outre visuals and loopy premise generating the expected hype for the artist’s forthcoming full-length debut. But in conservative media, ever-eager to talk about something besides the pandemic and Matt Gaetz, it was like touching a match to dry leaves.

Since the video’s release and the sneaker announcement, Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire has published no fewer than nine (!) articles about the video and sneaker controversy, and Christian journalist Raymond Arroyo teamed up with Fox News’ Laura Ingraham to condemn the video on her weeknight program (“Rapper embraces Satan just in time for Holy Week,” the chyron read). The sneakers earned an official slapdown from South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, a potential 2024 presidential candidate, who sent her 400,000 followers a tweet that helpfully included the product shots.

As conservative media worked itself into a frenzy, Nas himself was all too happy to fan the flames, posting a trolling fake “apology” video and joking about evening the score with a line of Chick-fil-A-themed sneakers.

With the “Montero” video, Nas affirmed his personal identity as one of vanishingly few out gay rappers by expressing himself as flamboyantly and unabashedly as possible. He actively courted the controversy, measuring his success by the outrage and teeth-gnashing of his opponents — an approach straight out of the conservative culture-war playbook.

But Nas’ success is something more than just a Promethean, reversed-polarity moment of “owning the conservatives” (although it certainly was that). It’s also a clear and triumphant marker of how much has changed in the culture. Earlier cultural provocateurs, like Marilyn Manson or “Piss Christ” artist Andres Serrano, built their reputations by deliberately offending a hazy, shared notion of “good taste,” but in doing so placed themselves firmly outside mainstream America. Nas’ provocations, on the other hand, have done nothing to dent his mainstream status. The enthusiastic response to his new single ensures he’ll remain a massively popular artist, pulling down brand-name sponsorships and streaming numbers en masse.

If you think it’s not a deliberate, savvy manipulation of the online culture, think again: As Brian Feldman reported for New York in 2019 as “Old Town Road” climbed the charts, for years as a teenager Nas operated a popular Twitter account that reposted and repurposed viral content, as well as advocating on the behalf of his favorite rapper and pop star, Nicki Minaj. Nas isn’t just a “digital native,” he’s a social media native, and clearly understands on a deep level the cultural and algorithmic incentives that drive things to virality. He understands all too well that in 2021, there may be no quicker way to pump oxygen into a brand than to let partisan politics do it for you.

Unlike controversies of previous decades, when clear lines between “us” and “them” made it easy for cultural conservatives to denounce hip-hop artists, it’s possible that much of the offense taken by the right at Nas’ provocation comes from a sense of betrayal. His debut hit was a viral goof on a cowboy anthem which reasserted ownership of the hip-hop beats white “bro-country” artists have been appropriating now for more than a decade. He won a Country Music Association award, rare for a black artist, much less an openly gay one. He scored a collaboration with Wrangler, a brand whose previously most prominent celebrity partnership was with the anti-charismatic uber-square quarterback Drew Brees. In the thick of the Trump era, Nas was a young, brash rapper embraced by red state fans.

And then he burned them. Or, at least, he had the gall to tweak their religious sensibilities. That, too, speaks to the shifting tectonic plates of American pop culture. When Nas was born in 1999, roughly 70 percent of American adults reported belonging to a church, according to Gallup. Today, that number is 47 percent. Marilyn Manson’s sacrilege was an affront to the mainstream; it puts Lil Nas X squarely in the majority. In that sense, the heated reaction from the right is just a confirmation of Trump’s instinct about religion in America: Though seemingly uninterested in religion himself, he recognized that millions of evangelical Christians could be recruited to the culture wars as a minority that feels increasingly embattled.

Just as a series of impotent “Go woke, go broke” boycott attempts have repeatedly failed to dissuade corporations from taking liberal political stances, there is no meaningful pressure threatening Nas’ various corporate partnerships. After four years of the Trump presidency, it’s easy to understand Nas’ provocation as a turning of the tables — making the confrontational demand for conservatives to “stay mad” amid the initial uproar over “Montero,” and sit with the fact that many, probably most, Americans are perfectly unbothered by a campy satanic lap dance.

At the same time, that very fact gives the whole episode a bit of a spiking-the-football quality. Nas, his fans and his critical allies have already won the culture wars, at least nationally. Some liberal responses to the controversy seemed willfully obtuse in ignoring the extent to which many Christians consider Satan a literal and active force for evil, with a lack of charity that likely wouldn’t be expressed toward any other faith. The personally cathartic qualities of the song and video, as laid out in a moving note from Nas that accompanied their release, are undeniable, but their corporate-approved glitz and lack of any real transgression render them inert to anyone but either those who share his catharsis or the most easily offended.

That doesn’t mean that Lil Nas X is a sorry pop star — he’s quite an outstanding one by the genre’s own standards, displaying the same easy charm, sharp aesthetic eye and knowledge of the cultural moment that fueled icons from Jimi Hendrix to Madonna to Beyoncé. The rap world has not been historically friendly to LGBTQ people, to say the very least, making it even more impressive that he managed to somehow leap in a single bound the barriers of acceptance both there and in the world of country music. Pop needs figures like him as catalysts, if for nothing else than to keep its world from becoming stale, self-reflexive, decadent.

But the days of the culture-defining, tone-setting pop star are, at least for now, over. With “Montero,” Nas has proven himself masterful at taking advantage of our current cultural landscape and the incentives toward cheap and manufactured outrage that lurk within it—reacting to the reaction, and drawing energy from it.

He took the playbook conservatives have used during the Trump era to reliably “own the libs,” gratuitously flouting their cultural norms for fun and for profit, and turned it against them. Which is all in a day’s work for a political or ideological actor. But in the world of pop culture, that same savvy is also a weakness — revealing how hopelessly we’re trapped in the cycle of outrage the Trump and post-Trump era have engendered.

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