Pop Culture & Music: The Power of Imagery & The Responsibility behind it….
March 30, 2021
In 1983, a young artist was getting ready to put out his second major album as a solo artist. He had storyboards and created this visual-which at the time was groundbreaking. He knew this song was going to be major and wanted a music video to accompany the vastness of this record. This artist knew that once the world watched the video it was going to create a conversation. What that conversation would be, would help define his music career.
However, due to his religious ideologies and personal attitudes, he wanted to lay a disclaimer:
“Due to my strong personal convictions, I wish to stress that this film in no way endorses a belief in the occult”
This message was displayed before the video and the rest was history. The artist… Michael Jackson, the video Thriller….
Now before you cut my head off and scream at me by saying…” How dare you compare Michael Jackson and Lil Nas X…” just hear me out… I am not comparing the artistry per se…(we will get into the former’s artistic representation) But what I am comparing is the difference in approach to visual content that was for sure going to cause an immediate reaction and the marriage of pop culture and music.
By the time this blog is disbursed to the world…a rapper/songwriter (notice I did not say Hip Hop artist…) by the name of Lil Nas X dropped a video-visual to his song “Montero (Call Me By Your Name) that has caused a large portion of Christendom to reel in disgust. Now as in all matters social and public discourse this will all fade away in about two-weeks…in fact I highly doubt that people will still be as ‘upset’ about this latest publicity rush…our viewing attention doesn’t allow for such sustained interest. But before we go back and no longer care about this latest celebrity sugar rush….let us go back two (2) years to who Lil Nas X is, and how he came to fame…
Truthfully, he never started out as a musical artist…but he was a child of the internet. More specifically, he was an internet personality running a Nicki Minaj fan account. He was searching for relevancy, he was searching for fame, he was searching for a way to grow his presence. He found it by recording a song on a $30 dollar beat and pushing this song by way of memes and a burgeoning social media app called Tik Tok. Well the song (Old Town Road) caught fire and as they say…the rest is history….. But when you break down the song…it’s essentially a parody of country music westerns. One would almost think that it’s poking at the genre by incorporating rap into the cadence and lyrical construct. It is catchy…but it’s almost the perfect song for the current taste for society, it’s a sarcastic, petulant middle finger to convention. How can this song not be successful when we are literally coming off of four (4) years of a reality television star as president. Our society has quickly become one of irreverence, Old Town Road speaks to that. Lil Nas X understood that, at least he has come to know this overtime, one can hardly tell. His hit song spent 19 weeks atop the billboard and would go over to gross 3 billion total in streams. However, with that fame comes a certain level of responsibility & awareness. Yes, I agree Lil Nas X never marketed himself as a child artist. But he would have to be naive or stupid if he thinks that all 3 billion of those streams came from only adults, for my money I do not think he is either. No one would ever in their right mind consider Lil Nas X a ‘serious’ artist, his nature and introduction into the business is and was gimmicky. So no one should be surprised that upon his reintroduction into the music world, he seeks to create a conversation around him that is gimmicky and controversial.
The Price of Fame:
There is a famous line often used in showbiz that was accredited towards a showman by the name of P.T. Barnum, he once said:
“There’s no such thing as bad publicity…”
Irish poet Oscar Wilde once wrote:
“There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about…”
And finally, political icon Winston Churchill famously stated:
“Never let a good crisis go to waste…”
This line of thought has been used ad nausea by many in the business, entertainment and even politics. It is something that even Madonna utilized during her heyday. It is anecdotal that she would readily do something, say something or feed the media/tabloids something controversial weekly so that she could remain talked about and famous.
Lil Nas X, ever the showman himself…has taken on this mantra in spades. A company that should recognize this flair for the dramatic and never allowing a controversy to slip by without capitalizing is NIKE. You see in 1984-85 a young prodigious athlete was forbidden from wearing a certain shoe because it went against NBA guidelines. Should he wear the shoe, it would cost him $5000.00 dollars a game. The athlete Michael Jordan, the shoe Air Jordans 1 (Black/ Red). The shoe went on to become a legend in sneaker wear and the athlete a modern Greek God commercial icon. Nike benefited greatly for the exposure of the forbidden shoe. Nike CEO Phil Knight would go on to say that this fine was the cheapest form of advertisement money could buy. This is all ironic because Lil Nas X teamed up with MSCHF to remodel an AirMax 97 with Satanic undertones. Usually 3rd party shoe companies design a sneaker/shoe without much consternation from the original company. However, in an attempt to raise awareness of his record, Lil Nas X & MSCHF heavily promoted the shoe collaboration and brought awareness to the brand and artist. It should be noted this same company did a ‘heaven shoe’ without much fan fair but heavy pricing ( off market retail $1400). The image of the footwear was so jarring, that along with the controversy surrounding the music record, NIKE was forced to issue a statement separating itself clearly from the product re-design and offering a civil action against the company and artist for trademark infringement and dilution, as well as unfair competition. Of course this funny, because one has to wonder if NIKE is really upset about the shoe or the fact that they didn’t think of it first and put it to retail. So why am I bringing this up? Easy.. Lil Nas X knew that when you attach yourself to an influential brand, people will notice, no matter how controversial it maybe. This exactly what he did with Christianity. He wanted to attach himself to something that would bring about a reaction, nothing is more reactionary than Christendom during its most important week, Holy Week (Easter).
The problem is when you poke your hand in the eye of those who believe in something so controversial, the subject of your morality becomes fodder. Whether that is right or wrong is beside the point. It is easy for Lil Nas X to separate himself from his art and say…. “I didn’t make music for Kids…” but when you seek the type of fame he openly wanted, you do not get to say “I accept none of the responsibility, but all the exposure that comes with it…” That is the irresponsibility that chokes the core of people’s ire. He may not want the responsibility, but in the same way we expect artists to be social justice advocates due to their platform, we expect the same amount of responsibility when it comes to the acknowledgment of their influence whether its attached to children or adults alike.
Yes, I completely agree parents are responsible for their children’s upbringing and child rearing. How a child turns out is more than not a direct representative of their environment and parental curation. However, we must also acknowledge that social media and the internet has caused more of a complicated view point this nature vs nurture argument. There are literally studies showing how social media and content from YouTube has dramatically shifted the brain patterns, motivations and interest of our youth. To act like kids nowadays do not have a higher propensity to see to things from their media devices and be heavily influenced is both disingenuous and willfully obtuse. Lil Nas X may not want to (or need to) accept responsibility, but him being a child of the internet and understands its power to connect must know that you cannot control how your message will connect or even arrive. This may not be his responsibility or burden, but with this fame is his cross to bear, pun intended. Lastly, I highly doubt a child will be registered in eternal damnation for watching (liking) the video and song. The stuff I listened to as a youth easily checked off a few sins on the 10 commandments. But to that point, the unhealthy misogyny that I picked up from those songs, had to go unlearned. True growth is recognizing the honesty that music has on our ideals.
Keeping with the theme of religion, faith and secular music. I started this blog off with a commentary on Michael Jackson. In an effort to land this plane, please indulge me. The comparisons between the two musical artists stop and start on two (2) fronts. They were both releasing their second (2nd) solo album, and they were unifying that release with an occult video visual. The difference between the two (besides the glaring talent chasm) is the fact that while Michael Jackson was not turned away from his faith-at the time (a devout Jehovah Witness). Lil Nas X has openly stated his walk within Christianity has led to so much pain, doubt, self-uncertainty. That he has stepped away from the faith entirely. His pain is not only evident in his tweets and message concerning “The Church” but also his video suggests someone who deeply (at least he portrays this) as angry at Christianity. Now there is an argument that one should not turn away from Christ because one particular church or a member of that church hurt or disappointed you. But that is easy for me to say when I am not the one dealing with the trauma of that experience. As a Christian we must continue to tackle the subject of homophobia in the church as well as other trauma inducing experiences. However, as humans we must be careful in not throwing the faith out with the bath water because the experience of people has soured us on the call for salvation. My God is bigger than any one church, person or doctrine. My God is a relationship builder and a wound healer. Sadly enough, the world has bastardized what that God’s love looks like. As far as Lil Nas X is concerned, he seems like a person who undoubtedly went through a harrowing experience. So just like anyone who has gone through any toxic ordeal, I would suggest therapy-assuming he has not done so already. In therapy there is a place of peace you gain from your past, your path, and your placement. If Lil Nas X sole purpose is to be irreverent and sow anger and discord in a religion that has hurt him, then I am not sure he has taken the steps to heal, because whole people do not want to hurt other people with the same weapon used upon them. A healed person is not looking to hurt any one period. It goes to that old adage that hurt people, hurt people. This is exactly what appears to be taken place here. I am not sure what message Lil Nas X was seeking when he delivered this controversy, but I am sure it was received loud and clear, and he didn’t have to put a disclaimer up at the beginning for us to understand his point. Which is to be poke the eye of the greatest imagery in history – Jesus Christ himself.