Lil Nas X and the Musician as Provocateur

words Al Woods

Recently, there have been Christian fundamentalists raising a stink about Lil Nas X, the rapper/country singer whose ostentatious fashion sense and infectious beats have made him a household name over the past couple of years.

Some televangelists have labeled him this week’s Antichrist, partially because of a music video where the performer gives the devil a lap dance before killing him and taking his place as Hell’s ruler.

Let’s take a moment to talk about whether the outrage is justified. We’ll also get into the musician’s place as a provocateur, a longstanding tradition in America and elsewhere.

Lil Nas X

Artist Manipulation

The first thing worth mentioning is that music is part of a cultural landscape or the modern zeitgeist. You can go so far as to say that music as an artform could not exist without being a reflection of what’s happening in the world.  

It’s difficult to separate music from religion, or politics, or any hot button issue you’d care to name. For instance, hologram musicians exist now. You can have a long-dead rapper like Tupac appearing alongside living performers like Lil Nas X, or just about anyone else you want, assuming you have the money for the technology and the marketing rights.

You could even have holograms endorsing political candidates if you wanted to. In a sense, that seems to be way more offensive than anything Lil Nas X did. At least he made the video voluntarily. There’s no way to know whether any dead musician, or politician, for that matter, would have wanted to endorse someone’s senatorial or gubernatorial run.

Is What Lil Nas X Did So Bad?

Let’s set the issue aside for the moment, though, and return to the Lil Nas X music video and accompanying song. The typical artist who wants to generate as much controversy as they can often tries to be as intentionally provocative as possible. In addition to Lil Nas X’s infamous video, he collaborated with a sneaker company to put out a limited number of shoes (666 pairs, to be exact) that each supposedly has a drop of human blood in them.

You might find this distasteful, or you may not like Lil Nas X’s music, or both. That’s almost beside the point, though. It seems clear that this young man, who also recently came out as gay and has been rather outspoken about it, wants to use a tried-and-true formula to propel himself to superstardom.

What he’s doing is deliberately pushing people’s buttons to try and get his name noticed, and it’s working like a charm. It’s reminiscent of Madonna’s antics in the 1980s, or any of the so-called Satanic rock bands from the same era. Madonna came out with a book that she titled “Sex” because she wanted to flaunt her sexuality and thumb her nose at the conservative establishment.

Musical History

Some people remember when Congress called Twisted Sister’s Dee Snyder to make a statement about what rock music was doing to children and young adults. Snyder showed up looking as outlandish as he usually does, but he said measured, thoughtful things.

That’s hardly surprising since, behind the wild hair, makeup, and costumes, many rock stars (and country stars, and rap stars) are highly intelligent. They act as they do because they know that the more over-the-top their behavior is, the more people they’ll offend, and the more albums they’ll sell.

It goes back further than the 1980s. Remember the countercultural music of the 1960s, such as the Grateful Dead, the Doors, and the Alman Brothers? Consider what parents thought the first time they saw Little Richard perform or the first time they saw Elvis Presly swivel his hips.

You can go back even further to the Jazz era, when preachers railed against honkytonks and gin joints, claiming that anyone who stepped foot inside one would damn their immortal soul to the fiery pits.

The Formula Works

The simple truth is that one way to become successful as a musician and an artist is to make transcendent music, but another way is to irritate a particular societal segment. Religious people, especially hardcore fundamentalists, make a tempting target.

Lil Nas X, by using the imagery in this latest video and debuting his so-called “Satan shoes,” seems to be engaging in a straightforward yet effective strategy. If he can act as brazen as possible, razzing a very particular group of individuals who he feels are easily offended, then they’ll give him free publicity, and he’ll gain the success that he probably wouldn’t be able to otherwise.

It has worked perfectly for him. His song “Montero,” with the now infamous Devil lap-dancing music video, has hit number one on the charts, and they’re talking about him on Fox News and other major networks.

If any fundamentalist Christian parents didn’t want their children listening to him, they could forbid them from buying his music. They’re adults, and they’re responsible for what their kids listen to, watch on TV, what clothes they wear, and so forth. If they wanted Lil Nas X to fail as an artist, though, they could do the one thing of which they seem to be incapable: they could ignore him.

Sadly, there seem to be some people, regardless of the era, who will gasp and clutch their pearls any time a new artist comes out who tries to succeed through provocation. It has happened plenty of times, and this is the latest example of it.

How will all this end up? History tells us that answer as well. Boycotting provocative artists doesn’t work. Instead, it’s time’s inexorable passage that will defang Lil Nas X, the latest musical Antichrist.

He’s young now, and it’s that youthful, rebellious spirit that adults fear more than anything else. In time, history will relegate him to the Oldies or the Classic Rock station, just like it did to Elvis, the Doors, Madonna, and all the others who seemed like the worst thing imaginable back in their heyday.    

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