God Bless Lil Nas X by Shaun Ponsonby

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It’s Saturday 22nd May 2021. The iconic American sketch show Saturday Night Live is airing the final episode of its 46th season, hosted by the actress Anya Taylor-Joy. 

Like any long-running show, it has seen peaks and troughs in quality. The sheer insanity of the Trump presidency allowed it to shine once again. But between the Orange Wotsit leaving office, the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic and the bizarre decision to let Elon Musk host an episode, that goodwill seems to have passed. No longer edgy or controversial, just another half-amusing late night comedy show.

That was the general feeling during this episode. Then, Taylor-Joy announced the musical guest; “Ladies and gentlemen, Lil Nas X.

Truth be told, I wasn’t expecting Lil Nas X to still be here two years on from his debut single, a country-and-trap hybrid called Old Town Road. Despite being number one for an astonishing 19 weeks in America, its novelty suggested a one hit wonder. Like a musical meme that had trolled a bit longer than it should have.

Now I know that I had underestimated him. Old Town Road wasn’t an out of control meme. Nas was in control during every moment of its run. He knew exactly what he was doing and played it perfectly every step of the way.

Lil Nas X came out of the closet during Old Town Road’s near five month reign at the top of the charts – and given the history of homophobia in both country and hip hop communities, this was no small fete. He received backlashes from some fans and even some other artists, such as Pastor Troy who went on a massively homophobic rant directed at Nas on Instagram in regards to the outfit he wore to the Grammys.

But, as the image he cultivated during Old Town Road suggested, he responded to these trolls by trolling them back, laughing them off and showing true strength. This led up to his recent single, Montero (Call Me By Your Name), a rap song which explicitly relates a gay experience with perhaps the most unsubtle music video in the history of pop.

This is what Nas performed on this particular episode of Saturday Night Live. Not content with the imagery of the video seen by fans on YouTube, he burst into middle America’s living rooms, scantily clad in a suggestive pose, pole dancing around buff, barely dressed male dancers with their arses hanging out – one of whom seductively licked his neck, and all of whom caressed his bare torso as Nas felt his crotch.

It may have been the gayest thing ever broadcast on American network television. It was a fantastic performance, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that somewhere in the Midwest of America, a bunch of closeted queer kids had just felt seen.

Lil Nas X is unapologetic, he is open about shamelessly trolling the very people who told him he would be going to hell for being gay, who made him feel ashamed of who he was. He isn’t letting himself be shamed by anything anymore. He is in control of every aspect of this “controversy”.

The closest moment I can relate to this may be George Michael’s forced outing in the 90s. The press attempted to humiliate him for it, but he stayed one step ahead of them. He responded with one of pop’s greatest ever middle fingers with the single and video for Outside. In that seminal moment, he not only said “Yeah, I did it, so what?”, but did so without taking himself seriously. It was queer trolling in the pre-internet age.

The difference, of course, is that Michael was forced out by an unfortunate incident (and possible entrapment), and took control of the narrative to save himself. Lil Nas X has been in control of this narrative from the very beginning. He is choosing to do this for himself.

In a sense, this does point to how much things have changed, but it also forces me to remember my own closeted teen years. The cliché is that our gay icons are cut from a particular cloth; the Madonnas, the Britneys, the Judys, the Dianas, the Chers. Yes, I do love them all – now. But at one point, even this was too much for me to fathom in a tough part of town where I was made to feel like it was fundamentally wrong to be gay. What has become apparent in retrospect is that, whilst hiding my own sexuality, I was drawn to figures who potentially could have been hiding theirs.

That isn’t to say they all were. They were ostensibly straight presenting, but they nearly all uniformly possessed some level of queerness that you were unlikely to detect unless you knew what you were looking for.

Some were more obvious than others; Prince and Michael Jackson, for example, have been endless fascinations for me with both possessing an almost genderless quality. Even Prince’s iconic symbol – an amalgamation of the male and female symbols – could easily have been used for non-conformist genders. I would argue that a figure like Alice Cooper is even one of the evident illustrations. Though enough of a cultural icon to bypass it now, a man with a girl’s name wearing make-up was gender bending to the extreme in the context of late 60s America, and the addition of horror imagery (always disproportionately popular with queer audiences) adds icing to this particularly obvious cake.

But there are others that are more surprising, with audiences that were potentially less open-minded, and yet I still found comfort in their strange otherness that maybe couldn’t be so easily explained.

One that I cite often is David Lee Roth, lead singer of hard rock band Van Halen. It is strange that I even felt connected to him. I was born in 1988, four years after Roth left Van Halen. By the time I reached double figures, he was a has-been, murdered by grunge and alt rock and a relic from a by-gone, hedonistic era.

Roth’s public image is one of a womaniser. He would flirt with women on stage. His first solo video was for a cover of The Beach Boys’ California Girls, in which he paraded around and literally put bikinied women on display for tourists to ogle. But look beyond the classic 80s sexism and a few interesting intertextual signs come poking through, not least in its presentation.

Diamond Dave quite clearly has a profound love of the camp, and this is a thread that goes throughout his work. Van Halen’s first proper music video was for Pretty Woman and was directed by Roth himself. It featured the band dressed Village People-style as a cowboy, a samurai and Tarzan to rescue a girl from the clutches of evil. Roth then appears as an admiral and the girl they were summoned to protect turns out to be a transvestite. I don’t think I need to analyse that further to get my point across.

There is an old time Hollywood pizzazz to much of his work, and it stands at odds with the alpha male hard rock of his band. But then Roth’s contribution to Van Halen was the visual aspect of their act and that he made their music danceable.

Both he and guitarist Eddie Van Halen have said that Roth’s musical muses were not rock bands. He was into dance music. Listen to those early Van Halen records, songs like Dance The Night Away, Panama, Jamie’s Cryin’, Everybody Wants Some!! and of course Jump. Roth calls them “girl friendly”, but they are also queer friendly.

They are all between 125 and 130 beats per minute – that’s a dance beat. The lyrics are often as outrageous as one would expect. Take away the distorted guitar and add some Hi-NRG synths and you could hear this stuff blaring out of any gay club in the world.

What is striking is that much of Van Halen’s audience don’t seem to get the campiness of it all. In the past, I have engaged with the David Lee Roth fan community (yes, believe it or not, such a thing does exist). I can confirm that a good chunk of them are the cliché, terminally adolescent, red blooded all-American bozos you would expect them to be. And yet, here they are worshipping at the altar of a guy who wears sequins, a sparkling jacket and, at one point in the 80s, arseless pants.

There are some who possessed no obvious level of camp at all. Take Bruce Springsteen, a buff, all-American Rambo of a man. Though known for his leftist advocacy, could I look you in the eye and tell you he is a true queer icon?

As an ally, his advocacy goes back to 1988, when his music video for Tougher Than The Rest was one of, if not the first to explicitly feature same sex couples among the male-and-female combinations. He went on to make strong statements in support of equal marriage rights, and when North Carolina attempted to introduce the highly controversial Bathroom Bill, stripping away rights from transgender people, Springsteen cancelled his shows in the state, losing millions of dollars and receiving fan backlash, but ultimately opening the doors for other major stars to make the same protest. Springsteen said simply, “Some things are more important than a rock show”.

But there have been many implicit examples within his art that acted as a great, subconscious comfort.

Famously, the front cover of 1984’s Born In The USA shows The Boss’ rear end in a tight pair of blue jeans against the backdrop of the American flag. In his back pocket on the right side is a red baseball cap.

For most of America, this baseball cap was merely a symbol of his working class roots. For queer Americans, this evoked a completely different kind of imagery.

As far back as the mid-19th century, queer people had engaged in what was known as the “handkerchief code”, a system of colour coded bandanas to indicate particular sexual interests without being detected. The colour and position of the handkerchief or bandana identifies the wearer’s preferred role. In case you were wondering, Springsteen would be indicating that he is a bottom who enjoys f*****g. In addition, Springsteen himself asserts in his autobiography that he looked somewhat queer at the time, perhaps adding to the mystique of the image in the minds of queer fans.

There are songs too. In 1975’s Backstreets, he and his friend Terry – a name with no specific gender connotations – were forced to conceal their true love for each other. Springsteen laments that they’re “hiding on the backstreets”, and he how he hated the man who stole Terry from him, and hated Terry for leaving.

Although extended live versions of the song have suggested that Terry is, in fact, female, this isn’t clear on the recorded version. Surely even in 1975 the connotations of two people being forced to hide their love on the backstreets would not have been lost on an artist known for the nuance in his storytelling.  

My young, closeted self enjoyed dozens of these figures in multiple art forms because it was safe to do so, whether it was Laurel and Hardy sharing a bed, or the New York Dolls in drag, or Jafar’s obvious crush on Aladdin. We were attuned to seek them out, looking for subtle hints.

Of course, there have been more open figures over time, from Boy George’s sexless pantomime dame act, to the more explicit shock tactic of Frankie Goes To Hollywood. But in each instance, there was a different game being played. Frankie’s Holly Johnson would claim in interviews that the lyrics in their seminal hit Relax had nothing to do with gay sex – an obvious lie to which he has since admitted.

Lil Nas X is playing no games in that regard. He is trolling the right people, and allowing others to feel comfort. I look at my own confused salad days, and the people I chose to look up to. I still love many of them. After all, nothing sounds as good to you as the music you listened to when you were 13. But I wonder how my teen years could have transpired had I heroes in my own generation like Nas to look up to, and whether I would have become more at ease with myself or gained in confidence that little bit earlier.

So, God bless you, Lil Nas X. You’re making the world a better place.

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