By Rob LeDonne
Starting with its familiar banjo strums, now-iconic opening lines, sudden drop into trap, and baritone proclamation that, yes, he got those horses in the back, “Old Town Road” has now been stuck in America’s head long enough to break records. Lil Nas X‘s genre-bending opus has been the No. 1 song in the country for 18 weeks in a row (a chart milestone), and is so successful an anthem that it’s even given featured artist Billy Ray Cyrus an explosion of 2019 relevance. (Not even Nostradamus himself could have predicted that.) Keep in mind that the song’s impressiveness as an earworm isn’t just chart-related: “Old Town Road,” built from a Nine Inch Nails instrumental sample, also notably toes the line between country and rap, two disparate genres that, despite some successful one-offs in the past, often go together like kale and Krispy Kreme.
As if that weren’t enough of an anomaly, the song’s charismatic mastermind was only 19 when he bought the beat, wrote the lyrics, and released the track to virality. He also fancies calling himself a Black cowboy and happens to be attracted to, well, other boys. Yes, in our game of music Mad Libs about a commercially explosive country-rap song that samples a rock track from a Black, gay teen cowboy, it’s the gay adjective that stands out. It’s perhaps the smash’s most important and lasting quality, both to me personally and on a broader spectrum.
Overnight, gay teens — and Black ones in particular — suddenly have a role model in Lil Nas X, who announced his truth to the world during Pride weekend (becoming the first-ever artist to come out while having a No. 1 song, no less). And aside from your usual trove of internet haters (hi, haters!), he’s been met with a breezy reaction by mainstream culture, almost as if he said that, say, he favored In-N-Out burgers over Shake Shack. The artist himself even joked about it in a recent tweet that elicited over a million favorites: “Wow man last year i was sleeping on my sisters floor, had no money, struggling to get plays on my music, suffering from daily headaches, now i’m gay.”
When I was a pre-teen during the heyday of early 2000s idols like Eminem, Britney Spears, and NSYNC, hearing about the success of a song like “Old Town Road” would have been simply unfathomable (and not only because of the success of Billy Ray). Back in 2000 — a strange time that mostly consisted of praying that someone wouldn’t pick up the phone while you were surfing dial-up AOL — paramount to my shock would have been the idea of Lil Nas X himself. He was still a year away from even being born, but had he debuted then, he would have been an outlier in regard to mainstream music and pop culture’s virtues at the time.
Growing up slowly realizing my own truth about being gay, I have little-to-no memories of gay music culture (if you’d even call it that). Despite whispers about the sexuality of Ricky Martin, one of the era’s biggest chart-toppers, he didn’t publicly come out until 2010. Sure, there was also Elton John, but he certainly didn’t represent youth culture. Lest we forget about t.A.T.u and their ahead-of-their-time lesbian heartbreak anthem “All the Things She Said,” but the Russian duo behind it never became stateside celebrities or teen idols. There was also something about Lance Bass, but he literally announced he was going into space before coming out of the closet.
On the flip side, the popular artists who were talking about homosexuality were the ones downright disparaging it. In 2000, Eminem dropped one of the biggest (and Grammy-winning) rap albums of the year, The Marshall Mathers LP; that project includes “Criminal,” a track as openly homophobic as anything he’s ever recorded. Meanwhile, rap culture in general was full of such an extreme vitriol toward gay people that even Mike Pence would have approved, were he not (presumably) afraid of hip hop. While it may seem like 2000-era Eminem — who has since regretted using homophobic language — and 2019-era Lil Nas X not only live on entirely different planets but also in different universes, Eminem once had the same commercially successful platform that Lil Nas X currently enjoys. But the dichotomy between the 46-year-old rapper and this rising record breaker shows just how far culture has come in the past two decades: The oppressed are rising up and the oppressors slowly fading into the background, kind of like a gay version of the movie 300. (But let’s face it: The movie itself was already plenty homoerotic.)
While it was his absolute right to keep his sexuality to himself, Lil Nas X is instead providing a beacon of light for otherwise closeted teens seeking larger acceptance. Obviously, our culture today is more visibly awash with LGBTQ+ artists and anthems than it was in 1999, but it’s both Lil Nas X’s immense success and the reaction to his coming out that provides a clue about just how much progress the music industry in particular has made. Questions do still abound: Will we ever see him top the charts again or is he simply a flash in the (cultural) pan? Will his success influence an entire generation to be their true selves? Also, how long will Billy Ray Cyrus’s renewed cultural moment last? Regardless of the answers, it’s all a case for optimism moving forward. Get those horses out from the back and party, Lil Nas X. I tip my Gucci cowboy hat to you.