I'm not going to pretend I was one of the early adopters of the insanely catchy, life-affirming, world-conquering record-breaking Old Town Road by Lil Nax X, now the longest-running number one hip-hop song of all time in the Billboard Hot 100. By the time I heard it, it was already a sensation.
In fact, my first time was upon watching the now famous video of an auditorium of little children going absolutely wild for it during a surprise performance from the man himself. Watching that, before I was even able to really hear the song clearly, I couldn’t help laughing with happiness at the sight of all those kids filled with raucous, physical energy derived from pure enjoyment provided by the man- goofy but slick, sweet but swaggering- singing to them.
Before long, I, like the kids, was addicted to the song, finding myself brought to tears of sheer pleasure listening to it on otherwise mundane train journeys. It’s not just the song itself- undeniably great as it is- but Lil Nas X, his story, his humour, the vibe. His fans aren’t just enjoying a catchy summer song, they’re moved and energised by him as a person, a guy who isn’t appealing just because of his God-given charisma, but whose self-creation and natural defiance of pre-existing categories feels important, necessary and very 2019.
It may be perceived that Montero Lamar Hill became famous overnight, jumping as he did from a semi-viral twitter presence crashing on his sister’s couch to international star through not much more than self-promotion and astute use of social media in a matter of weeks. It’s still less than a year, after all, since he first produced any music at all. Though that may be true, he had been creating himself and his strategy for much longer; this was no accidental virality, this was the result of a person born into the fully fledged internet era and naturally aware of how to utilise it. Even now, a bonafide celebrity, his register on Twitter is a million times more likeable and funny than most of his famous peers. He probably understands intuitively, without having to break it down, how to avoid sounding all plastic-PR-speak, how to incorporate your social media presence with your real self without giving away too much.
Aside from his painfully pure personality, the smashing of pointless formal structures has made him feel like something of a folk hero. Billboard 100 initially removed Old Town Road from the country charts, deciding it not authentically country enough, until Lil Nas X made good on an ambition he had prophesied on Twitter and got Billy Ray Cyrus to add verses to a remix.
The song then went on to conquer the country, rock and hip-hop charts. Representatives of Billboard denied vehemently that their decisions had anything to do with race, but it was hard not to feel some ambivalent satisfaction at seeing him get his dues only once an established white man was involved. Old Town Road seizes the standard American cowboy mythology and repurposes it. Billboard’s reactions raise the question: who is allowed to access the hallmarks of Americana, the myth of America? Why not him?
Just before the end of Pride month, he came out, tweeting:
some of y'all already know, some of y’all don’t care, some of y’all not gone fwm no more. but before this month ends i want y’all to listen closely to c7osure. 🌈🤩✨ pic.twitter.com/O9krBLllqQ— nope (@LilNasX) June 30, 2019
(His song c7osure has lyrics about pushing through fear to live as yourself).
Another joyful moment in this strange, surreal career of his. To be manufactured as an artist is supposed to be negative, but when someone like Lil Nas X essentially manufactures himself, creates himself, creates a playful presentation of his inner world, it feels thrilling. It feels like affirmation that you can be who you are and let the world fall in line, rather than the other way around, especially if who you are is as badass as a gay black cowboy.