Hot sauce

Lil Nas X is the greatest show in the world right now

On Pop

This article is taken from the June 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Sad news from one of my friends: she tried to get tickets for Lil Nas X at the Eventim Apollo, but the whole lot had gone within seconds. Apparently we’re not the only ones willing to pay out the big bucks for the chance to see him turn out his signature mix of rap, camp and raw pop joy. So we consoled ourselves by swapping favourite posts from his social media.

High up in the list of favourites, there’s the Instagram post where he coyly posed with a highly convincing fake baby bump. “INSENSITIVE AND TRANSPHOBIC”, railed one Disgusted of the Internet, who later walked their take back after the privilege accountants determined they (white trans man) were in fact punching down on Lil Nas X (black gay man).

Pop music is, at its greatest, ludicrous. Without some mischief, it’s dead

Not that Lil Nas X cares about such pinhead calculations when he’s having this much fun being a pop star. Another favourite: a TikTok video of the rapper on a yellow background under the caption “me trying to make my lyrics deep on genius”. (Genius is a website where song lyrics can be annotated by anyone, and performers and songwriters often add comments on their own work.)

“When I said ‘niggas wanna pipe me like they Mario’,” he says, waving his finger in a teacherly way, “I was referring to the social and economic state of the world.” (Think of what the French mean when they say “une pipe”.) It’s even funnier when you find out it’s actually a piss-take of a video made for Genius by Jaden Smith, son of Will and Jada, in which he doles out heavyweight explanations of his flimsy lines.

“I’m trying to preach a message that is cleaner and different but still real,” Jaden says. OK then, kiddo. But have you ever considered that pop music could be — just sometimes — a vehicle for having a really good time?

Actually, a good time is kind of a dirty concept in the 2020s. Artists are more preoccupied with declaring their moral bona fides than with making songs that encourage listeners to shake it like a lunatic.

You can’t really blame them. One social media misstep or “problematic” lyric and you’re thrown into a cycle of denunciation and genuflection. So you end up with a culture of caution, where the worst thing you could possibly be is interesting. Keep it clean. Keep it “real”, whatever that means. Better to attract no attention than the wrong kind.

All this is, of course, terrible. Fame brings an agonising level of scrutiny, but we seem to be stuck now with a cohort of stars who are no less interested in famous, but very keen that you should feel sorry for them when they get there. Above all, they want to be taken seriously. But pop music is, at its greatest, ludicrous. Without some mischief, it’s dead.

Lil Nas X does mischief by the cartload. There was the time, for example, that he launched a range of customised Nike trainers called Satan Soles containing “a single drop of human blood”. A deeply unimpressed Nike sued to stop the limited edition of (wait for it) 666 pairs from going on sale, leading Lil Nas X to tweet: “I feel like it’s fucked up they have so much power they can get shoes cancelled. Freedom of expression gone out the window.”

Pulling off this kind of sauce is easier when you’re as handsome as Lil Nas X. His lyrics allude to the fact that he hasn’t always felt that way: “Since ten, I’ve been feelin’ lonely … Always thinkin’, ‘Why my lips so big?’/ Was I too dark?” he sings on “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)”, which also references feeling haunted by his “gay thoughts”.

Judging from his videos, and his relentless commitment to getting as naked as possible with as many hot young men as possible, he’s well past both self-esteem problems and sexual guilt. For “What I Want”, a sweet, horny song about needing a boyfriend, he plays an American football player having a steamy locker-room romance with a teammate. For “Industry Baby”, he has a whole prison yard full of fine boys twerking in pink uniforms.

The most modest garment from his three costume changes at April’s Grammys was a bejewelled silver cape. I’m so used to male performers turning out like they were going to the pub (remember Ed Sheeran duetting with Beyoncé, her in a magenta gown that looked like she was being eaten by an enormous rose, him in jeans and tee?), I didn’t realise how parched I was for this kind of glamour.

The main thing he leaves you wondering is — why would anyone want to do things any other way? This is how to be a popstar. No apologies, no embarrassment, no pleading for the dignified status of “activist”. Just a full-throttle commitment to living your very best life in as many sequins as possible. No wonder me and my friend can’t get tickets: Lil Nas X is the greatest show in the world right now.

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