If there’s one thing Lil Nas X had plenty of over the last week and a half, it’s time.
This week, his new single “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” debuts at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, thanks (in part) to an unforgettable music video in which he dances with the devil, quite literally. The clip — in which Lil Nas X pole-dances to Hell, giving Satan a provocative performance upon arrival — has accumulated over 96 million YouTube views to date, taking the top spot on YouTube’s U.S. trending and top songs chart.
The reaction to the video was instant: countless TikTok and YouTube videos, tweets, Instagram posts and stories, sparking millions who were eager to join in on the conversation to search for “Montero.” While many responses were celebratory, others, predictably, were not. Naturally, Lil Nas X reclaimed the subsequent social media outrage as his greatest marketing tool, unsurprising for a social media star who often engages in discourse surrounding his viral releases.
“A powerful music video can spark a larger conversation and create a real moment,” Kevin Meenan, music charts manager at YouTube, tells Billboard. “[Lil Nas X] has been very explicit that this was his goal.”
Outside of the risqué music video, oozing with religious and historic symbolism, Lil Nas X’s team also uploaded a trio of supplementary videos to his channel, including a “Satan’s Extended Version,” “But Lil Nas X Is Silent the Entire Time” instrumental version and “bathroom of hell” version. Factoring in the accompanying content, “Montero” has garnered more than 100 million YouTube views and counting. Meenan says the additional videos created “touch points” to extend the life of the conversation and contribute to the single’s overall numbers on YouTube’s charts.
“He’s a genius,” Meenan says. “He really knows how to capitalize on the moment and keep it going.”
As the ongoing Twitter storm poured down, Lil Nas X threw out quick-witted comebacks, memes, GIFs and promotional content, entertaining unsuspecting Twitter users who had vehemently proclaimed their position on the video. With each response, he transformed basic tweets into lucrative marketing content, reaching an ever-widening audience by engaging with users critical of his “gay agenda.” From each tweet he sent out came thousands more in response, while on TikTok, viral trends were already multiplying by the second.
Conservative politicians and pundits introduced Lil Nas X to their massive Twitter followings as an “evil” musician set on “destroying society.” The Governor of South Dakota deemed him a threat to the nation, while retired NBA player Nick Young announced a boycott of the artist’s catalog to his half a million followers. The backlash bore similarities to the response to Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion‘s “WAP,” another No. 1 Hot 100 debut and target of conservative condemnation. Like what we saw with “Montero,” the mass hysteria surrounding “WAP” helped catapult the unabashedly sexual single to the top of the Hot 100 upon its release last August.
In the midst of the relentless outrage, Lil Nas X created a pole-dancing challenge on TikTok with a $10,000 reward, using the hashtag #PoleDanceToHell. He tweeted a threat to kiss anyone who made an offensive comment about him, retweeted religious leaders’ warnings of his demonic ways, including a sermon calling his video “a bunch of psychotic wickedness,” targeted the sexual longevity of conservative leaders and expressed his excitement to be berated during a Fox News television segment. All the while, Nas didn’t hesitate to juxtapose reactions to his video with actual tragedies like the Holocaust and slavery, calling the former more representative of the “end of times” rather than him “twerking on a cgi satan.”
With each incoming current, Lil Nas X rode the wave. When widespread fury followed the 666 pairs of Nike Air Max “Satan shoes” customized by MSCHF, Lil Nas X recorded a 46-second-long fake apology video that accumulated over 6 million views. On the day of the “Montero” release, he partnered with YouTuber Zach Campbell for a reaction video, reaching Campbell’s 598,000 subscribers.
In the first 48 hours of its release, “Montero’s” numbers shot up — sort of like a stripper pole leading to heaven — racking up over 8 million streams on Spotify alone and becoming the top-selling song on iTunes. And it endured over the course of its first week of release: “Montero” garnered 46.9 million U.S. streams and sold 21,000 downloads in the week ending April 1, according to MRC Data.
The TikTok numbers were similarly gaudy: “Since its release, ‘Montero’ has racked up over 180K creations and counting and has accumulated over 390M views,” says Isabel Quinteros, music partnerships and artist relations at TikTok. And “Montero” wasn’t the only Lil Nas X song to benefit from the swarming buzz on YouTube. Both “Panini” and “Holiday” saw gains in viewership, re-entering YouTube’s top songs chart and boosting Lil Nas X to No. 2 in the U.S. Top Artists chart, according to the platform.
While Lil Nas X is no stranger to frivolous trolling, his approach with “Montero” serves a greater purpose. Along with the video, the “Old Town Road” architect also shared a heartfelt letter to his 14-year-old self. “I know we promised to never be ‘that’ type of gay person, I know we promised to die with the secret,” he wrote. “But this will open doors for many other queer people to simply exist.” The song and video effectively pushed the celebration of queer love in mainstream music to an unprecedented level.
“It’s not him being provocative for the sake of being provocative,” says Meenan. “He wants to open a dialogue about repression within LGBTQ youth and really create an environment of acceptance and open mindedness.”
In a sense, Lil Nas X’s approach was a reach towards justice, in hopes of sparking the same anger among prejudiced people that he says they “teach us to have towards ourselves.” He repeatedly pointed out the hypocrisy of conservatives — that in a world filled with so much real-life evil, they choose to fixate on a pop artist giving fake Satan a lap dance. But it was also a marketing strategy worthy of a Stevie, a Webby and an Oscar.
Lil Nas X “had 9 months to plan this rollout,” as he tweeted in the middle of last week. “[Y]’all are not gonna win bro.” Indeed, with a No. 1 Hot 100 debut, he won.