Lil Nas X has proven that he’s much more than a one-hit wonder. The 22-year-old artist has propelled himself into virality time and time again, not only through strong songwriting and production, but also by using a communication style that is distinctly meme-driven and keyed into the way that popular music moves on the internet. In my work for music organizations and my doctoral research at Annenberg about the relationship between popular music and internet memes, Lil Nas X continually comes to the forefront.
After the success of “Old Town Road” had run its course, Lil Nas X admitted that he felt he had a lot to prove with his debut album, Montero. Any doubts about whether or not he was capable of capturing the attention of pop listeners were shattered with the release of his single “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” in March 2021. The track marked the beginning of a new era for him to expand the definition of what it looks like to be a queer rapper and chart-topping pop star, increasingly putting his sexuality at the forefront of his artistic identity. When he received backlash for the sexually explicit nature of his new music videos, he was quick to point out that he was simply following in the footsteps of other pop stars before him.
Lil Nas X also understands that high-production music videos are only a part of what it currently takes to release a single in a pop music industry that is decidedly driven by TikTok. With each single, he introduces clips to TikTok months before their official release, so that in many cases, his songs have their own life as memes long before they debut on streaming platforms. Before releasing his debut album, he broke records and won numerous awards largely because he has been so successful at sustaining public attention through social media. For “Old Town Road” that meant 19 weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100, bolstered by constant remixing and meme-ing of the song across social media platforms.
One of the most interesting things about Lil Nas X is his understanding of not only what will surprise audiences, but what will circulate amongst internet users. There is a distinct difference here, and it often involves focusing on creating material that internet users can use for their own personal expressions, whether that means leaking the horn intro to his single “Industry Baby” early so TikTok users could start playing with it or creating catchphrases like “nah, he tweakin’” that then become part of the internet vernacular.
Lil Nas X speaks with all the wit, chaos, and transparency that defines how many members of Gen Z communicate online. From the get-go, he demonstrated an understanding of how music circulates differently in an internet age, no longer confined to genre lines and amenable to quick remixing and adaptations. He is free to play with different labels and change as needed — whether that meant calling his work country-trap while making a run for the country charts, performing a virtual concert on Roblox because “children are his core audience,” or providing a disclaimer before releasing the video for “Industry Baby” saying it’s distinctively “not for kids.”
With every new iteration, Lil Nas X never comes across as an artist desperate to reinvent his brand for relevance, but instead, he is growing in confidence and working to reveal more of himself. He has become one of the best examples of what a Gen Z pop star can look like, and he is giving the music industry a masterclass in PR and marketing in the process.