Two Simple Responses to Lil Nas X

Since his 2019 breakout hit, “Old Town Road,” Lil Nas X has been making his way from a gimmicky country-rap controversy to an established superstar. He is known as much for his flamboyant and controversial personality and publicity stunts as he is for his unique blend of pop, rock, and hip-hop. One of the things he is most well known for is coming out as gay soon after rocketing to stardom. Lill Nas X, whose given name is Montero Lamar Hill, released his debut album, Montero, this year; it offers a forceful assertion of his own sexuality with an emotional backstory that revolves around the confusion and pain he experienced growing up with same-sex attraction. It is aggressive and unapologetic, yet at the same time, vulnerable about growing up in a conservative environment
in which he was bullied, insecure, and isolated because of his sexuality.

 

Who is Lil Nas X?
Lil Nas X’s personal story takes shape through his music. In “Old Town Road,” Lil Nas is a rebellious partier living the high life (he sings “my life is a movie,” and repeats “can’t nobody tell me nothing” four times in the song’s bridge). After coming out in the summer of 2019, Lil Nas retained the bad-boy “can’t nobody tell me nothing” attitude, adding even more overt sexual and homosexual content to his music, particularly in his music videos. Released in March of 2021, the lead single for his album is titled “ Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” and is about enjoying being a sinner, rejecting the Judeo-Christian sexual ethic, and celebrating doing whatever you want. The video for the song has consistent satanic imagery and overt homosexual themes. Lil Nas’s videos have been called “evocative” and “racy” by those downplaying the graphic nature of his content, but the videos would more accurately be described as borderline pornographic. The sexually explicit content in Lil Nas’s videos is all the more concerning because he is not popular only in one niche of culture, but is one of the most popular and influential musicians of today.

With the release of his album Montero in September, Lil Nas did not diverge from his favorite themes or his portrayal of himself, but added layers to his public image. He depicts himself as a young man struggling with the pressures of fame and controversy (“Dead Right Now,” “Industry Baby,”) and tells his backstory of growing up struggling with same-sex attraction. On “Void,” he remembers being “trapped in a lonely loner life, looking for love where I’m denied.” On “Sun Goes Down” he remembers feelings as if he wanted to die in high school, and relates being bullied as a kid and being haunted by his same-sex attraction:

Since ten, I’ve been feelin’ lonely
Had friends but they was pickin’ on me
Always thinkin’, “Why my lips so big?”
Was I too dark? Can they sense my fears?
These gay thoughts would always haunt me
I prayed God would take it from me
It’s hard for you when you’re fightin’
And nobody knows it when you’re silent

Many of the songs on Montero draw out the sympathy of the listener, as he weaves a tale about a lonely, confused, hurt young man trying to find his place in the world. Particularly on “Sun Goes Down,” Lil Nas makes himself an object of sympathy so that his fans and critics alike see him as a real human, rather than just a symbol of rebellion and sexual promiscuity.

Why Care about Lil Nas X?
Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote in 1821 that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” What this indicates is that the people creating the art and entertainment of a culture have more power over the moral trajectory of that culture than do the people making the laws. In the spirit of Shelley’s claim, we might say that pop stars are the unacknowledged legislators of the world of today. That would mean that how people act and what they believe is shaped by these unacknowledged legislators—pop stars, screenwriters, producers, actors—more than by lawmakers or religious leaders. If this is the case, we should care about the story Lil Nas tells with his music.

Cultural commentator John Stonestreet gives an example of how this might take place: in 2015, five judges on the Supreme Court ruled to make gay marriage legal, but the real impetus for that decision did not come from the Supreme Court judges. The decision made by the Supreme Court was not the turning point in America’s view on gay marriage, rather, it was a result of the shift that had already taken place in culture through avenues like entertainment and the arts. As Stonestreet explains, “entertainment reshaped our collective imaginations. . .Hollywood spent years, and millions, portraying homosexuality as funny, normal, natural, and even wholesome.” It was entertainment, not a legal ruling, that changed many people’s views on homosexuality and gay marriage.

It would be an understatement to say that the story Lil Nas tells with his music is sympathetic to homosexuality and encourages people to accept others how they are and to live however they want to. Lil Nas doesn’t stop at asking others to accept him as he is, he demands that others embrace every outrageous expression of his same-sex attraction, expressions of which are seen in many of his music videos but are too explicit to mention here specifically.

If that were Lil Nas’s whole story, it would be easy to label what he is advocating as sinful and wicked. A story that is nothing but sexual rebellion isn’t likely to reshape the imaginations of those who, like Christians, hold a high moral standard for sexuality. But his story doesn’t stop there. Lil Nas presents a more human and sympathetic side of himself when he tells the story about a gay kid, bullied and insecure about his sexuality, at the end of his rope and wanting to die. This part of his story has powerful potential to reshape the imaginations of his listeners. It’s hard to hate a ten-year-old who was bullied for having big lips and dark skin. Because of how Lil Nas tells his story, it becomes hard to condemn the homosexuality he was bullied for as a kid, and also feels1 harder to condemn his current homosexuality and promiscuity. Lil Nas’s narrative is brilliant, showing himself not primarily as an enemy of Christianity, but as a person who has been hurt by the standards that Christianity tried to impose on him. Rather than explicitly rejecting the salvation he grew up believing he needed, he rather recasts his coming out as gay as a “leap of faith” and a different sort of salvation. In relation to his decision to come out as gay, he sings:

And I’m happy by the way
That I made that jump, that leap of faith
I’m happy that it all worked out for me
I’ma make my fans so proud of me2

Lil Nas was “taught by his religious father that being gay was not okay,” and he sees this as the reason for the inner turmoil he experienced as a child. But Lil Nas’s father, the central religious figure in Lil Nas’s narrative, actually ends up fully supporting Lil Nas rather than holding a contrasting view on sexuality. Lil Nas has stated that since coming out as gay he’s gotten closer to his father, who now tells him, “Do life on your own terms.” His father is no longer the “religious bad guy,” but rather has let go of his convictions about homosexuality and become an ardent supporter of his son’s life choices. In the same way, for many people the sympathy Lil Nas evokes could overshadow the sin that he promotes.

Two Simple Responses to Lil Nas X (and One Difficult One)
For Christians, there are two simple responses to Lil Nas X’s story. The first is to double down on one’s convictions and condemn him for his sins. The other is to be overcome by sympathy for him and let convictions be overcome by “compassion,” letting go of convictions about sexuality because we don’t want to alienate others or be seen as judgmental. However, neither of these responses is right for Christians. It seems both of these responses reinforce Lil Nas’s narrative. If we condemn Lil Nas, we reinforce the story of a person hurt by those who have judged him for his sexuality. If we let go of our convictions for the sake of sympathy, we agree with him that his sexual attraction and his sexual actions are acceptable. Neither option is the Christian response. For Christians, the question becomes, how can we cultivate compassion without compromising convictions?

Stories like those told by Lil Nas in his music make it difficult to hold onto convictions and engage compassionately with those with whom we disagree. We are called to speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15-16), even when it would be easier to speak truth without love or to love without speaking truth. We must also be aware of how entertainment can shape our imaginations, for better or for worse. Whether we recognize it or not, the music of Lil Nas X (as well as TV shows, movies, and music in general) and the stories told in our culture have the power to reshape our imaginations and, over time, shift even our deepest convictions. Twenty years ago widespread acceptance of homosexuality or gay marriage would have been almost unimaginable, but today even many deeply religious people believe that there is nothing wrong with homosexuality.

There is no foolproof formula for how to cultivate compassion without compromising convictions, but there are ways we can make the effort to do both. First, we must rely on the Holy Spirit to work in and through us as we seek to be rooted in truth while loving others. We should also be aware that stories have the power to shape what we believe. We should remain aware of what it is that stories are encouraging us to believe, and resist the pull to accept non-Chrisitan values made palatable by the stories of our culture. Finally, we should be ready and eager to engage in difficult conversations with those with whom we disagree. Unless we engage with those whom we disagree with on a personal level, they will not know that we care for them. How we show love to people we disagree with will be the ultimate test of our ability to hold convictions and compassion together.

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