Tuesday, October 26News That Matters

Lil Nas X, Clapback Champ

One after another, they came with venom for Lil Nas X. The basketball star Nick Young. The governor of South Dakota, Kristi Noem. The rapper Joyner Lucas. Candace Owens and various right-wing Twitter personalities. Greg Locke, a Tennessee pastor. Fox News. Nike.

They were clueless. Blissful, almost — lambs blind to the slaughter they were hurtling toward.

Lil Nas X was waiting for them all, barbs at his fingertips. For the last four days — since the release of his new single, “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” its masterfully absurdist erotica video and then limited-edition sneakers called Satan Shoes — the 21-year-old rapper and digital prodigy has been using his Twitter account as a fly swatter, flattening one irritant after the next in a loud and uproarious display of internet-speed celebrity, executing a series of flawless pirouette dunks on the heads of his willing but bumbling antagonists.

After Noem tweeted about his Satan Shoes, he groaned, “ur a whole governor and u on here tweeting about some damn shoes. do ur job!” Lucas suggested that the “Montero” video might not be appropriate for children, and Lil Nas X eye-rolled back, “i literally sing about lean & adultery in old town road. u decided to let your child listen. blame yourself.”

In between target practice, Lil Nas X was reflective, too. “i spent my entire teenage years hating myself,” because of what Christianity taught about homosexuality, he wrote. “so i hope u are mad, stay mad, feel the same anger you teach us to have towards ourselves.”

What “Montero” has caused — or rather, what Lil Nas X has engineered — is a good old-fashioned moral panic (or at least the performance of one), the sort of thing that had largely been left behind in the 1980s, but is tragically well-suited to the country’s current cultural discourse polarization. The song, the video, the shoes — they are bait.

And “Montero” anticipates the kerfuffles it would cause. The true art here isn’t the music (that said, it’s one of Lil Nas X’s better songs) or the video (more on that below): it’s the effortlessness, the ease, the joy of his reactions to the reactions. It’s the sense that he is playing chess to everyone else’s lame checkers moves — he is simply faster, funnier and on firmer, more principled ground than his adversaries, who are at best, comically flimsy.

No famous person is as adept as Lil Nas X at casually but thoroughly smacking down the ream of Twitter churls inevitably awakened by something like this — maybe Cardi B, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. He is a grade-A internet manipulator and, provided all the tools and resources typically reserved for long-established pop superstars, he is perfectly suited to dominate the moment. “Montero” may or may not top the Billboard Hot 100 next week, but it will be unrivaled in conversations started.

“Montero” is a frisky song about lust; Lil Nas X has said it was inspired by a man he met and fell for. The video, which pivots from pastel pastoral to CGI gothic, is a wild, kaleidoscope romp of sexual self-acceptance, in which Lil Nas X pole dances his way down to hell, where he gives Satan a lap dance before killing him, stealing his horns and claiming them for himself.

It is knowing and camp, and knowing about its campiness, meshing the testing-the-format provocations of the late-1980s video era with the big-budget pop-machine clips of the early 2000s. That it has awakened culture warriors uncomfortable with displays of gay male desire, or with playful representations of sin, means the video has done what it was meant to do.

The same is true of the Satan Shoes he released in partnership with the company MSCHF — a Nike Air Max 97 customized with some lightly provocative references to Satan, priced at $1,018 a pair in a nod to Luke 10:18, a Bible passage about the fall of Satan from heaven. The shoes include, allegedly, a drop of human blood in the liquid that fills the soles.

Satanic iconography is perhaps the lowest hanging fruit of transgression, especially in a consumer product. But here, again, this was chum in the water — the discourse started by the shoes has been far more important than the shoes themselves. Nike disavowed them, and sued MSCHF for trademark infringement (but notably not Lil Nas X, a celebrity it might end up one day actually wanting to collaborate with). A sneaker YouTuber who was provided a pair of the shoes filmed himself throwing them down the trash chute in his apartment building. Lil Nas X, meanwhile, was posting uproarious memes about pleading for Nike’s forgiveness.

Twitter is a performance space like any other, with an almost limitless audience: stans, enthusiasts, haters, trolls, skeptics, newbies. Lil Nas X has something for all of them. In his pre-“Old Town Road” life, he was an active Nicki Minaj stan, which meant he was a maestro of steering online conversation.

And though he is now one of the most successful new pop stars of the past few years, that fundamental skill set remains. In recent days, he’s taunted the fast food chain Chick-fil-A (which is owned by religious conservatives); poked fun at the campaign Justin Bieber attempted to boost streams of his single “Yummy”; posted endless memes about his flirtations with the dark side, mock apologies for his transgressions and even headfake statements of anxiety that end as reminders to stream “Montero.”

All of it is memorable — not simply because of the expert skill on display, but because it’s clear that Lil Nas X is not simply the performer of “Montero,” nor simply the star of its video, nor simply the inspiration for a sneaker. He’s the conductor of a symphony of thousands, maybe even millions. It’s Lil Nas X’s conversation, we’re all just talking in it.