Lil Nas X is keeping his eye on the prize. The 20-year-old artist went from relative obscurity to global superstardom in a matter of weeks thanks to his smash hit “Old Town Road.” Thanks to some well-timed Tik Tok memes and a few solid remixes, the song, featuring Billy Ray Cyrus, is now spending its 15th straight week in the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100, and is now a mere two weeks away from potentially becoming the longest-running No. 1 hit all to itself in the chart’s history.
But even if Lil Nas X doesn’t manage to take the all-time crown, he still has another record he’s already toppled. As of this week, “Old Town Road” officially holds the title for the longest-running No. 1 hit by a queer artist, surpassing Sir Elton John’s 14-week streak with “Candle in the Wind 1997″/”Something About the Way You Look Tonight.”
Obviously, Lil Nas X is not the first openly queer star to earn a No. 1 single on the Hot 100 — he has joined a long lineage of LGBTQ artists with major staying power. But to see the new star earn the longest-running No. 1 hit in the Hot 100’s history means more to the modern gay community than meets the eye.
For starters, Lil Nas X is, like many LGBTQ artists of the past and present, resistant to being placed in a box — refusing to modify his image, or music, for the sake of an easy label. Part of the reason why “Old Town Road” has become such a monster hit is due to its blending of musical styles, which puts the song into a hard-to-qualify sonic territory and gives it a certain fluidity.
While the idea of genre-bending is present among several mainstream artists, the practice resonates particularly with young queer audiences who embrace that same fluidity over rigid labels. According to a recent study from the University of Connecticut, more queer youth than ever don’t identify with “traditional” labels, like gay, lesbian, and bisexual, but rather with more mercurial identifiers.
That indefinite quality certainly rings true for the way Lil Nas X came out to the public. In a series of posts released in the final hours of Pride month, the star revealed that he was gay without overtly using the word. Rather, he pointed to his lyrics and his album art telling his fans he “thought I made it obvious.”
Lil Nas X is well aware of the consequences that accompany coming out as a rap artist that has nodded to the country community. During an interview with BBC Breakfast, he said that “especially within the country and the hip-hop communities … it’s not really accepted in either,” adding that he’s “already getting” backlash for his decision to come out.
Indeed, some of Lil Nas X’s peers are afraid that his decision to be open about his sexuality will negatively affect his career. In a recent interview, Young Thug, who collaborated with the star on his latest “Old Town Road” remix, said that Lil Nas X “probably shouldn’t have told the world, because these days motherfuckers is just all judgement.”
The music industry is slowly making its way toward change: in recent years, the hip-hop world has seen a significant uptick in the number of queer artists (iLoveMakonnen, Tyler, the Creator, Kodie Shane, Syd, Taylor Bennett), while artists like Eminem and Offset have received louder criticism for using homophobic slurs in their lyrics. Country, similarly, has seen growth in the number of out artists (Brandi Carlile, Brandon Stansell, Chely Wright, Ty Herndon, Shane McAnally, etc.), while allies like Kacey Musgraves are paving a way forward for greater acceptance.
Progress is a slow march forward in any area, with missteps inevitably setting the culture back before it can continue on. Yet to see a young gay artist like Lil Nas X dominate the charts in the way that he has is a signal to queer youth everywhere that change isn’t just coming — it’s happening right now.
Lil Nas X may not match or surpass the current 16-week record held jointly by Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee and Justin Bieber with “Despacito” and Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men with “One Sweet Day.” Even if it doesn’t, though, there is a new longest-running No. 1 Hot 100 hit by a queer artist, and Lil Nas X has effectively broken down new barriers for LGBTQ artists everywhere.