Pop

Five Burning Questions: Lil Nas X’s ‘Montero’ Debuts Atop the Hot 100

Lil Nas X
David Crotty/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

Lil Nas X attends the Tom Ford AW/20 Fashion Show at Milk Studios on February 7, 2020 in Los Angeles.

Nearly two years after his Hot 100 takeover with “Old Town Road” kicked off, Lil Nas X has returned to the top of the chart this week with “Montero (Call Me By Your Name).” The new single, which was boosted in part by a must-see music video, debuts at No. 1 on the Hot 100 with 46.9 million U.S. streams, according to MRC Data, and earns Lil Nas X another chart-topper after “Old Town Road” spent a record 19 weeks at No. 1 in 2019.

How surprising is Lil Nas X’s latest chart achievement? And is the controversy “Montero” has caused since its release replicable by other pop stars? Billboard staffers discuss these questions and more below.

1. “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” is now Lil Nas X’s second career No. 1 single after debuting atop the Hot 100. On a scale of 1-10, how surprised are you that “Montero” was the song to return Nas to the chart penthouse?

Andrew Unterberger: If you had asked me two Fridays ago when I heard the song for the first time, I would've said a 9 at least -- it didn't sound like an obvious hit to me, and obviously Lil Nas X's chart track record since "Old Town Road" has been respectable, but not automatic-number-one respectable. But after a couple days of Internet-wide back-and-forth over the song and its video, that number would've dropped to a 4 or 5, and then by mid-last week, I would've been surprised if it didn't go to No. 1. Lil Nas X is simply prodigious at turning controversy into chart success.

Heran Mamo: 0, because I was expecting it. Even with “Old Town Road” being the longest-running No. 1 song in the Hot 100’s history, Lil Nas X didn't give me the impression that he’d be a one-hit wonder. He’s constantly innovating his sound, his visuals and his marketing strategies. But the latter was pretty much done for him this time around (more on that later).

Jason Lipshutz: Let’s say a 6. While I didn’t doubt Lil Nas X’s ability to score more pop hits following the monster run of “Old Town Road” in 2019, the fact that he’s done so with a song that sounds nothing like his chart-busting debut, while trading in cowboy-cosplay lyrics for an earnest outpouring of queer love, is both an unexpected and wholly impressive commercial feat. Obviously the marketing of the song and the chatter surrounding its presentation helped heighten interest during its release week, but as a pure pop song, “Montero” packs in plenty of personality and immediate hooks in the span of two minutes and change, so no one should be shocked that it’s quickly become a smash.

Katie Bain: "Montero" is a really solid song with a compelling sense of pep and as solid a melody as anything Lil Nas X has previously released. I'm not surprised that it's at No. 1, but certainly that position is largely a function of its satanically raunchy video. That said though, the song is strong enough to stand on its own -- no stripper pole necessary.

Stephen Daw: Unequivocally, it's a 1 for me. The moment the song and video were released, I felt very strongly that Lil Nas X had yet another hit on his hands. Especially after his record-breaking run with "Old Town Road," it was clear to myself and many others that Nas wasn't going anywhere anytime soon. Between the hype he built around the release date itself, the incredible melody, the clever lyrics, and yes, that insane music video, there was no chance that this song wasn't going to be huge.

2. How much credit for the No. 1 debut do you give the song’s music video, specifically the controversy caused by its lapdance-in-Hell sequence?

Andrew Unterberger: Most. The song is fine -- and certainly will prove impactful, if not downright historic, as the first song this explicit about gay sex to have commercial success so wide and immediate -- but on its own, I don't think it could've moved the needle nearly this much, and certainly not this quickly. The video, combined with the Satan sneaks, and Lil Nas X's generally peerless social media activity are what made "Montero" an unavoidable part of pop culture the past week and a half, and it's why we're talking about this song as a major 2021 moment, rather than simply one of the biggest new songs of the week.

Heran Mamo: The music video did a devilishly good job getting the song to No. 1, and with nearly 100 million YouTube views in less than two weeks, I’m giving it significant credit. The controversy behind the “Satan Shoes” also helped the song take off – even if the sneakers are legally not allowed to fly off the shelves. There is quite possibly no such thing as bad publicity for Lil Nas X in the case of “Montero,” since religious and conservative critics unintentionally made his song even more popular. The devil works hard, but Lil Nas X for sure works harder.

Jason Lipshutz: Without the music video, “Montero” would still likely be a hit for Lil Nas X... but it’s hard to imagine the song streaking to No. 1 without its visual causing so much discussion (both positive and negative) and bulking up its overall streaming numbers. To me, the performance of “Montero” demonstrates just how crucial the music video remains as a medium in the post-MTV viewing era: if you capture the public’s attention with a smart, must-see concept, enormous dividends could be in store.

Katie Bain: Righteous indignation is definitely a valuable commodity, and I think it's reasonable to say that a lot of people watched this video after hearing about it as a source of moral outrage. I think a lot of those people then immediately rewatched it, because it's just a really delicious three minutes of biblically inspired glitz.

Stephen Daw: I would like to think that the song would have performed well regardless of the video. That being said, you cannot look at the success of this song and not immediately point to the media storm Nas caused over the last two weeks thanks to a pole, a pair of Calvin Klein underwear and some expert-level grinding on Lucifer. Attention is attention, and there is simply no one currently working in the industry as good at garnering everyone's attention than Lil Nas X.

3. Much like with Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s “WAP” last year, the controversy surrounding “Montero” this week yielded heightened interest in the song/video, and a No. 1 debut on the Hot 100. Do you think more artists will try to purposely morph outrage into big streaming numbers in the near future?

Andrew Unterberger: They very well might -- Cardi/Megan and Lil Nas X have certainly proven that getting debated on Fox News is a much more reliable path to viral success than exploding on TikTok has ever been -- but I doubt they'll be as good at it. The reason why "WAP" and "Montero" were able to shoot right to the forefront of the discourse are because Cardi and LNX are very possibly the two smartest current pop stars when it comes to knowing what the Internet really feeds on, and how best to deliver it. They were able to simultaneously stoke their respective outrages while also rolling their eyes at them, in a way that made them look in complete control of the situation, but not manipulative or thirsty. That's a tougher high dive than you might think, and a lesser artist (or a lesser provocateur) would bellyflop attempting it.

Heran Mamo: I don’t think artists like Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion and Lil Nas X need to purposefully wield the outrage their songs and videos have provoked to have splashy No. 1 debuts. With “WAP,” religious and conservative critics proved how much they hate to see Black women rap about sex and perform about their own pleasure; with “Montero,” they didn’t want to see Black queer men rap about sex and lap dance on the devil. All three rappers clapped back at the very racist and homophobic systems that oppress them, and not only do fans in the Black and LGBTQ+ communities find solidarity in their responses -- which can lead to major streaming gains -- but the songs’ successes prove those societal institutions wrong. Plus, natural curiosity from any observer trying to make sense of all the hubbub will have to look up the song in question and eventually go down the rabbit hole to its viral music video component, with or without realizing they’re contributing to a hit.

Jason Lipshutz: The modern blueprint has clearly been set by “WAP” and now “Montero”: make a piece of pop that will conjure politicized fury, which will then provoke a backlash to that fury in defense of the art, and all the while watch people on both sides of the issue consume that piece of art. Leaning into shock value is nothing new, but in these hyper-partisan times, outrage seems easier to exploit than ever. With these two songs and their accompanying videos, that outrage has existed on the conservative side -- which makes me wonder if we’re too far away from a hit single that squarely aims to provoke liberal anger on its way to millions of streams.

Katie Bain: Probably, but while anybody can make a controversial song and video, an artist really needs to have the acumen and attitude to ride, control and expand the spotlight created by that controversy, particularly on social media. Megan, Cardi and Lil Nas X are all really good at Twitter, Instagram and all the other platforms where a hit can become a mega-hit. Without those comebacks, clapbacks, pieces of bonus content and the other digital detritus that raise the profile of a song -- and help relay a sense of authenticity from the artist who made it -- trying to stoke controversy and boost streaming numbers simply by being controversial can not only fall flat, but also come off as reductive.

Stephen Daw: The short answer is yes. Burgeoning artists will look at the success of these songs, and absolutely go out of their way to create something intentionally provocative to try and stoke public interest. But I'll point out an important factor here — both "Montero" and "WAP" are catchy, fun, irresistibly infectious songs. Yes, both songs are purposefully and intentionally controversial, but controversy alone cannot make a hit. The content, from production to melody to lyrics, has to be refined and done right in order for a "scandalous" song like “Montero” to work.

4. After bursting through with “Old Town Road” two years ago, Lil Nas X has evolved his sound and visual aesthetic in some compelling ways, from “Panini” to “Holiday” to “Montero.” What do you think of his artistic evolution, and what would you like to see more of from his future music?

Andrew Unterberger: I’m not really sure, to be honest. While I have the utmost respect for Lil Nas X as a content creator and as a discussion advancer, as a songwriter I think his hits since "Old Town Road" have been pretty messy and sort of undefined. He might need new collaborators, or he might need practice to better figure out how to filter his personality into his songs -- or he might just need to ignore me entirely, since he's clearly doing fine without my help. But I still think we're an era away from Lil Nas X making the pop music that really backs up his pop stardom.

Heran Mamo: I think after coming out, Lil Nas X has grown more comfortable embracing himself more with his artistic vision. He’s not afraid to express himself through dress or message, especially with “Montero” normalizing queer storylines in popular music. In the future, I want to keep seeing him make 14-year-old Montero not only seen and heard but also proud.

Jason Lipshutz: Considering how huge “Old Town Road” was -- and how impossible it would be to ever try to top its chart performance -- Lil Nas X’s next few acts have played out as a best-case scenario for an artist who wanted to desperately avoid one-hit wonder status. He’s had a handful of memorable collaborations post-“Old Town Road” with artists like Cardi B and Nas, kept his cheekier side intact on “Holiday,” and now has another No. 1 hit with his most personally revealing single to date. Good for Lil Nas X; also, justice for “Holiday,” an absolute banger that should have been bigger last year.

Katie Bain: The cotton candy robo-future aesthetic Lil Nas X been working with more or less since "Panini" is not just visually stimulating, but one he's really made his own -- and one which I think speaks to him becoming increasingly more comfortable with himself, his artistry and with pushing boundaries. He should just keep doing that until he can't no more.

Stephen Daw: I have loved watching Lil Nas X grow from "Old Town Road." It's so clear that he saw his success and realized that he could push the limits, and it's been a blast watching him play with more eccentric fashion and weave in wildly different genres into his sound. As for the future, I hope he continues the work he's started with "Montero" — unapologetically giving the middle finger to anyone that has a problem with a Black queer superstar succeeding.

5. Finish the sentence: two years after it first hit No. 1 on the Hot 100, “Old Town Road”...

Andrew Unterberger: ...is still one of the best pop songs of the 21st century. I really wish we could fast forward past the stage where everyone's dismissing it as a juiced-up novelty hit, or music for kids, or just a meme song with no actual listenability, and get to the point where we realize how lucky we were to get a genre-mashing song that fresh, that inspired and that unexpectedly coherent as the biggest song in the country for 19 weeks. It's coming, eventually.

Heran Mamo: ...is one of the greatest success stories by an artist who has constantly been told he couldn’t do something and constantly broken out of genre- and gender-based boxes people tried to confine him in.

Jason Lipshutz: ...rules! I’ve somehow never gotten sick of “Old Town Road,” and will be happy to hear it at every major gathering for the rest of my days. Blast it at every wedding reception, karaoke night, summer festival. The best single of 2019 still bangs in 2021, and will bang long after it.

Katie Bain: ...is still stuck in my head.

Stephen Daw: ...is. Still. A. Bop. Don't @ me.

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