In the fall of 2018, when Montero Lamar Hill stumbled across the beat he would turn into “Old Town Road,” the 19-year-old built the track as a meme as much as a song. Everything was devised for virality: the hick-hop lyrics, the exaggerated drawl on his vocal, even the timing of the knowingly hokey “I got the horses in the back”—he knew the beat should drop when it hit that line. When he posted it on SoundCloud under his nom de mixtape Lil Nas X, he added a parenthetical to its title, “Old Town Road (I Got the Horses in the Back),” to emphasize that memeworthy lyric. Sure enough, when “Road” took off on TikTok in late 2018 and early 2019, viral video-makers keyed into that beat-drop moment, leaping into their denim and cowboy hats right when Lil Nas X drawled about the horses in the back.
While the then-unemployed Atlantan sleeping on his sister’s couch couldn’t have known that he’d just produced the No. 1 song of 2019, it does seem he’d premeditated everything else. He even tweeted a wish that “Old Town Road” become a duet with Billy Ray Cyrus way back in December 2018, one day after he dropped the song and months before he met the country star. In short, Lil Nas X knew what he was doing from the jump. In the new era of interwebs-spawned hit-making, the young artist had concocted the ultimate viral hit, one destined to rewrite the Billboard record books when it spent an unprecedented 19 weeks at No. 1, smashing a nearly quarter-century-old chart record.
“A dime and a nine, it was mine every week,” Lil Nas X sings now, two years later, on his new No. 1 hit—the “dime” plus “nine” referencing the 19 weeks his last No. 1 hit spent atop the Hot 100. “What a time, an incline/ God was shinin’ on me.” Speaking of God, in case you haven’t heard, Lil Nas X now has some thoughts on what he’d like to do with, and to, God’s fallen angel Beelzebub.
“Montero (Call Me by Your Name)”—America’s new No. 1 song and, it seems safe to say, No. 1 meme—reinforces the idea that virality is Lil Nas X’s fastball. His new hit is as intentionally social media–courting as “Old Town Road” was, but it’s now supersized with a major label’s budget. That budget comes with perks: not only a glossy video co-starring Satan that has the whole country panting, riffing, and condemning, but a superstar-caliber chart launch. “Montero” one-ups “Old Town Road” by debuting atop the Hot 100. This now-common chart feat—recent achievers include such one-name über-stars as Ariana, Taylor, Drake, and Justin—is nonetheless a first for a rising star who turns 22 years old today. As if Lil Nas X didn’t already get the most luxe birthday gift possible, he asked well-wishers to celebrate today by going outside at 3 p.m. Eastern and twerking in unison to “Montero.”
Dude understands branding. Lil Nas X’s climactic twerk-cum–lap dance for the Prince of Darkness himself in the song’s music video has drawn the lion’s share of media coverage since it dropped two weeks ago. Lil Nas X is leaning hard into this symbolism, upping the ante with the release this week of, I kid you not, a “Twerk Hero” video game. (You can play it in your browser now!) As cheeky—literally—as twerking is as a metonym for Lil Nas X’s current hit, it has also emerged as a symbol of gay pride and even protest. And while he is definitely leaning into the LOLz, Montero also seriously sees “Montero,” his purposefully self-titled single—paired with a parenthetical allusion to Call Me by Your Name, the gay coming-of-age novel turned award-winning film—as an emblem of his uncloseted freedom. This comes less than two years after his momentous coming out on the last day of Pride Month 2019. Lil Nas X’s intent with this new single was made clear the day before the song and its trolling video arrived, when he posted a soul-baring, deeply moving letter to his younger, more fearful, deeply closeted self on Instagram.
It is therefore arguable that “Montero (Call Me by Your Name)” is the most openly gay song ever to top the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and it’s certainly the first such song to debut on top. There’s really no prior analogue. Among No. 1 hits, from “Dancing Queen” to “I Will Survive,” “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” to “Vogue,” “I’m Too Sexy” to “Believe,” the LGBTQ-adopted message was either accidental, implied with a wink, or made all-purpose for the straight world.* And most of the other, more “out” hits that typically make pride playlists, like “Y.M.C.A.,” “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” “It’s Raining Men,” “Relax,” and “Finally,” fell short of the No. 1 spot. Truthfully, the video and the marketing for “Montero” are more ostentatiously gay than the song, many of whose lyrics—“Romantic talkin’? You don’t even have to try/ You’re cute enough to fuck with me tonight”—are as all-purpose as, if more foulmouthed than, prior generations of hits. However, the mere fact that the song’s pre-chorus refrain, “Cocaine and drinkin’ with your friends/ You live in the dark, boy, I cannot pretend,” finds the male vocalist addressing a “boy” (one living “in the dark,” no less) makes the song more matter-of-fact queer than even “I’m Too Sexy” or “Vogue.” However kitschy the song seems, Lil Nas X says it was inspired by an actual, lustful relationship with another man, one with his own self-destructive tendencies, last year during the height of the pandemic.
Now, you might ask: Is “Montero” as instantly memorable as “Old Town Road”? No, but it’s still really catchy, and anyway that kind of lightning in a bottle doesn’t strike twice. To his credit, Lil Nas X isn’t even trying to make that happen. Indeed, what is admirable, even brave, about Lil Nas X’s career is his sonic restlessness. He continues to willfully defy the idea of genre and create his own lane.
After all the kerfuffle in 2019 over the country bona fides of “Road,” Lil Nas X telegraphed almost immediately that he wasn’t interested in proving a point to Nashville. Critics including Slate’s Carl Wilson pointed out back in summer 2019 that 7, his debut EP, found Lil Nas X switching up genres on virtually every track. While its cover image did show him in cowboy gear, riding a horse, the mini-album only included one other country-adjacent track, the Cardi B–showcasing “Rodeo.” He then spent the next year and a half showing how far he could flex: approximating a digital-pop/alt-rock sound on the follow-up hit “Panini” (No. 5, 2019), which Montero didn’t realize borrowed its melody from a Nirvana song he’d probably never heard; performing “Rodeo” at the 2020 Grammys with his rap-veteran namesake “Big” Nas, a version that Lil Nas X later released as a spooky, “Thriller”-like remix; and issuing the stopgap single “Holiday” (No. 37, 2020), a loopy, thumping, Christmas-themed if not exactly sleigh-belling record, with Lil Nas X playing an E’d-out Santa in its music video. In the lyrics of that last mini-hit, Lil Nas X dropped a concise career statement of purpose: “Pop star, but the rappers still respect me.”
While his core radio format may just be pop—not country, not alt-rock, and I would argue not R&B or hip-hop either—with “Montero,” Lil Nas X affirms that his actual genre is internet. Written by Montero Hill with help from the seemingly omnipresent Omer Fedi, who just last year played the killer guitar hook on 24kGoldn and Iann Dior’s “Mood,” as well as producers Roy Lenzo and the New York duo known as Take a Daytrip, “Montero” is a pastiche of moods and TikTok-ready lines that somehow coheres into a percolating ditty.
The track kicks off with perhaps its subtlest in‑joke: a gently strummed guitar line that, if not exactly country, could qualify as Tex‑Mex, suggesting for just a few seconds that LNX has put his 10-gallon hat back on to troll the Saving Country Music crowd again. But that quickly shifts to a syncopated beat that is best described as Latin; Consequence of Sound’s Nina Corcoran rightly labels it “flamenco and reggaeton dipped in pop.” That dembow-style rhythm is the track’s throughline, tying together the twerky moments and the sweeter moments, including the oddly gentle “Cocaine and drinkin’ with your friends” refrain. Lil Nas X doesn’t stay in any mode for long. In the chorus, he’s a relentless Gary Numan–esque technopop metronome, dropping bars less like a rapper than like a crooning automaton: “Callmewhenyouwant/ Callmewhenyouneed/ Callmeinthemorning/ I’llbeontheway.” But by the second verse, he’s adopted the aching argot of a post-SoundCloud Zoomer. In the couplet “I wanna sell what you’re buyin’/ I wanna feel on your ass in Hawaii,” Lil Nas X sings with a Juice Wrld–meets–Iann Dior whine. Almost anything that signifies 2020s pop is baked into the song ’s devil’s pie.
But “Montero” hasn’t become a subject for Saturday Night Live satire and Fox News end-times coverage because of the song itself. Hell, that’s not even why it’s No. 1 on the Hot 100. It’s all thanks to the totally unhinged video—which, Billboard reports, amassed 105 million YouTube views in less than two weeks, likely providing the bulk of the track’s chart data. (Billboard blends video and on-demand audio streaming at places like Spotify to arrive at its Streaming Songs ranking; it does not break down the data by provider.) LNX’s visual feast was inspired by 15th century Dutch master Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights, according to the exuberant video director Tanu Muino (who’s having a pretty amazing year; she’s already directed the clips for two of 2021’s No. 1s, Cardi B’s equally lush “Up” and now “Montero”). Given that Earthly Delights has long been posited as either an endorsement or condemnation of sins of the flesh, including man-on-man sex, it’s a fine primary text for “Montero”—although for a few days after it dropped, it was more controversial for biting its stripper-pole-descending-from-the-heavens trope from FKA Twigs’ acclaimed 2019 video “Cellophane.” Proving he has the awesome ability to neutralize bad vibes, Lil Nas X reached out to Twigs and quashed the controversy instantly, even getting Twigs to attest on Instagram to LNX’s good intentions and “bravery in pushing culture forward for the queer community.”
This ability to make popular culture collectively root for him may be Montero Hill’s greatest skill. As I often say in both this Slate series and my Hit Parade podcast, a mix of art and commerce is what makes songs hits; it’s not just the content, but the meta-content. When it comes to Lil Nas X’s art, we are observing at least two, maybe three layers of meta. There’s the ancillary branding around his carefully planned single release, which in this case included a sneak preview in a Super Bowl ad, the aforementioned heartfelt Instagram letter, and Lil Nas X’s much-hyped 666 pairs of limited-edition, blood-infused “Satan shoes.” (The latter gambit led to a court fight over Nike’s I.P. against the rogue sneaker-maker MSCHF that was quickly settled this week; LNX was not a party to the dispute and seemed to float above the whole thing.) Then, another layer above that, there’s Montero’s own refereeing of the discourse—whether it’s clapping back at the Republican governor of South Dakota, trolling those who demanded remorse for the Satan shoes with a psych-out fake apology, or even playfully pretending to banish SNL to blazes.
As I’ve been doing deep research this year on Lil Nas X for a forthcoming book about “Old Town Road” (plug: coming in 2022 from Duke University Press; preorder links to come), I’ve been reminded that the meta-narrative is what boosted that now-legendary chart-topper to No. 1. Back in 2019, the moment “Road” went from a meme to a cause was what changed its commercial fate. Rarely does a semantic debate among critics or industry insiders cause a cultural product to go supernova. But as word of the country chart contretemps by Billboard and Nashville made headlines—and folks from radio morning show DJs to evening newscasters to TikTokers joined the debate over whether “Road” was country music—the public was clearly on Lil Nas X’s side. They were going to make him a success, no matter what the music biz bible or the Nashville Industrial Complex thought of his song.
Similarly, “Montero” blasted in at No. 1 because the video was eye-popping, sure—but in a larger sense, from the gay pride angle to the sneakers stunt to the daily social gawking, everybody wanted in on the discourse. “Some love the track and support the musician’s artistic vision,” wrote Forbes chart-watcher Hugh McIntyre, “while millions of others are decrying the visuals associated with the tune, calling them inappropriate, or worse. All that chatter, both good and bad, is working for the multi-genre musician.” Even the TikTok memes soundtracked by “Montero” are playing less with the song’s rhythmic qualities than with the snarky idea that the song is a one-way stripper pole slide down to hell.
The ability to inspire this depth of cultural involvement is why industry insiders now see Montero Hill as a marketing genius. “I feel like we’ve come to a time in music where everything is nice and nothing is really cutting edge or starting conversations anymore,” Lil Nas X told Time in an interview on “Montero” ’s release day. “I want to be part of a conversation that actually applies to my situation and so many people that I know.” This triumph of marketing alongside melody is exactly the sort of thing that’s liable to make music fans cynical if they perceive Lil Nas X as over-relying on it. “Old Town Road” may have succeeded thanks to its shitpost savvy, but it was also a sturdy tune that infused itself into millions of American lives. Assuming “Montero” plummets out of No. 1 next week, as so many chart-topping debuts have recently—Billboard reports that the song’s radio airplay so far is anemic, suggesting it will have an uphill battle to remain on casual listeners’ radar—will it come to seem less like a song than a stunt?
Here’s the thing: Pop stardom has long been a game wherein talent is measured by multiple yardsticks. A way with a tune, plus a skill for generating attention, can resemble a movement. And cultural critics are only beginning to reckon with the idea of Lil Nas X the artist. Both sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom and historian Charles Hughes recently compared Lil Nas X to no less an American treasure than Dolly Parton; Cottom says he “takes Dolly’s ambitions from subversive into the realm of revolutionary.” No one’s expecting Lil Nas X to turn into a Parton-level icon anytime soon. But for now, he’s already showing signs of the cultural sixth sense of a young Madonna—a material boy in a memeified world.
*Update, April 12: After this article went to press a few readers, including Billboard senior director of charts Keith Caulfield, asked me why I failed to include, in my rundown of prior gay-adjacent Hot 100 No. 1s, Lady Gaga’s out-and-proud 2011 smash “Born This Way.” This was mostly an oversight—I should have at least acknowledged it—but Gaga’s “Born” is a self-conscious, capital-a Anthem whose concerns are broad and encompass tolerance of all kinds, including not just for LGBTQ+ but also, for example, racial tolerance. Lil Nas X’s “Montero,” by contrast, is about a specific, lived gay experience, a slice of life. I regret the oversight, but the claim made in the article’s headline (“the Gayest No. 1 Single in Billboard History”) stands.