Queer voices have risen to prominence over the past decade.
Championed by cultural thought leaders as diverse as Alan Joyce, Cynthia Nixon and Queer Eye’s Fab Five, the unprecedented spotlight on LGBTQIA+ stories has contributed to a more authentic profile and nuanced representation of the queer community in media.
Yet, increasing visibility has not been universal and is still to break persistent queer stereotypes.
There remains a side of pop culture continuing to champion a heteronormative at best - and homophobic at worst - view on sexuality. The chief offender, the $2.2 billion dollar rap industry. An industry that exerts its influence across not only music but categories as diverse as fashion, automotive, alcohol and even politics.
Lil Nas X is something of a cultural coup. His radical queerness jarring with the hyper masculine expectations of his genre. And herein lies his power.
His rejection of heteronormative representation in favour of high-art, camp and often homoerotic depictions has not just resonated - it’s infiltrated culture en masse.
Catapulted to the #1 spot on the Billboard Top 100 in 2019, Lil Nas X stayed there for a record breaking 19 weeks. He came out around the same time. In doing so, he dragged queer representation to the very centre of the cultural spotlight. However, it’s not only his coming out that’s the focus here.
Whereas queer conversations and stories have so often sat on the periphery or been brief blips in the news cycle, Lil Nas X’s work and ensuing popularity has made queer identity and representation an ongoing cultural focus.
As Jazmine Hughes of the New York Times writes, ‘we have so many gay pop stars but so few openly gay pop stars and even fewer gay pop stars who are explicitly sexual… what Lil Nas X does is he makes gay sex just as (much a) part of his entire persona as literally any straight pop star ever.’
At this juncture, you may well ask how is this any different from say Britney and Madonna’s kiss at the VMAs in 2003. Couldn’t it be argued that Lil Nas X is engaging in a similarly performative display of sexuality? Sure. The difference is authenticity and his genuine commitment to the amplification of queer discourses.
As August Brown of the LA Times writes, ‘Hip-hop artists like Young Thug sometimes toyed with wearing dresses to illustrate their free spirits, but Lil Nas X made a not-obvious choice to put gay love and desire at the center of his craft’.
Beyond recreating the iconic same-sex kiss moment at the 2021 VMAs, Lil Nas X has also continued to prominently feature queer themes in his work, extending from lyrics and music videos to the very aesthetic he has pursued in the public eye.
Recent hit videos have included memorable vignettes such as Lil Nas X descending through the layers of hell on a pole to give Satan a lap dance and a locker room sex scene in That’s What I Want - a reimagining of the traditional high school love story trope.
Is it titillating, paparazzi fodder? Certainly. More importantly though, it normalises queer identity and relationships for a truly mass audience who may not typically be exposed to these representations.
Beyond this, Lil Nas X’s depiction of queer themes subverts stereotypical representations of the gay man in media, the most common of which is a clean cut white man. Instead, he introduces an alternative vision for the ‘gay man’ in culture that powerfully embodies elements of gay identity that have sat in diametric opposition to one another.
He blends the stereotypically camp and the stereotypically masculine. He subscribes to some components of more feminine identity while also being sexually raw and powerful. Ultimately, this contributes to a more nuanced depiction of queerness in the public sphere, one that subverts the characteristics that have featured heavily in historic representations of the LGBTQIA+ community.
There is a lot we as marketers can take away from this.
In the past, there has been a reticence to shift away from stereotypical representation of gender and sexuality for fear that it will alienate core consumer bases. This applies to advertising created for both heterosexual and queer audiences alike.
There’s been a pervasive fear that too much individualism wouldn’t resonate with mass audiences and therefore, we steered clear of it.
What the rising popularity of Lil Nas X - and the emerging alternative tropes of masculinity - tells us though is quite the opposite. There is appetite for these identities, for these stories and that appetite is nothing if not broad..
There is an audience out there - it’s on us to connect with them by thinking beyond the stereotype.
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