When Lil Nas X debuted his latest music video for “Montero (Call Me By Your Name),” parents were appalled. How dare he—an artist celebrated by kindergarteners everywhere—use his influence to promote his sexuality and the devil? What is he thinking?
But here’s the thing: The artist, who rose to popularity in 2019 after breaking records on the Billboard Hot 100 and reaching diamond certification from RIAA in record time, never claimed to be a children’s artist. “Old Town Road” may be beloved in elementary schools around the country, but the lyrics tell a story that goes beyond riding a horse.
Far from the next beloved children’s artist à la Raffi or The Wiggles, Lil Nas X falls into a familiar category of musicians—those who embrace controversy rather than fight it, and use it to reclaim their image and agency.
Whether you’ve added yourself to the waitlist for Lil Nas X’s equally controversial, blood-infused “Satan shoes”, are still partying like it’s 1999 and humming along to “Goodbye Earl,” or relish in historical tales of Bach’s duel with a bassoonist, controversial musicians have a lot to teach us about the convergence of bad reputations and good branding. Here are the top takeaways.
Like Lil Nas X, speak to the audience you want
One could argue that artists don’t push the envelope of societal norms with the intent of offending; rather, they do it as a means of artistic and self-expression. However, this same line of thinking attracts people who may feel similarly outcast by society, who yearn to know they aren’t alone and who find comfort in listening to others who share their woes—from heartbreak to repression.
You can find this feeling, for instance, in N.W.A’s “Fuck tha Police”, released in the late 80s (a song that found new life during the George Floyd protests last year). The same is true even further back, when Billie Holiday sang “Strange Fruit” to protest the lynchings of Black people in the Jim Crow South. For these artists, the audiences they most wanted to reach were those who would be fueled by their words, who could find them cathartic, and who wouldn’t feel alone in their feelings—but that doesn’t mean everyone was a fan.
Modern artists face the same dilemma. While some people might see Cardi B’s “WAP” as vulgar at best and a medical problem at worst, others see it as an anthem of female empowerment, a response to decades of degrading music about women that stripped away agency. Despite the conservative backlash, WAP set a record number of first week streams—showing that fans just can’t resist a bop, and Ben Shapiro was not the audience Cardi B had in mind.
When musicians stir the pot, they do it to elicit a response. Sure, they get a lot of grief from moral-stricken parents and pastors (and sometimes even the Vatican), but the buzz generated launches them to the top of the charts.
Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” Pepsi commercial was pulled after the official video—which sandwiched footage of a children’s choir singing between burning crosses—was released the day after the commercial. The song later topped the Billboard Hot 100, and the video was nominated for an MTV Music Video Award.
For Madonna, who was well-accustomed to facing backlash after “Papa Don’t Preach” glamorized teen pregnancy with a catchy beat, the song was a way to share issues she was passionate about in a way that garnered attention.
“I am aware that the Vatican and certain communities are accusing my show of being sinful and blasphemous, that they are trying to keep people from seeing it,” Madonna said at the time. “I think I’m offending certain groups, but I think that people who really understand what I’m doing aren’t offended by it.”
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Lean in to what’s expected, while doing the unexpected
For some artists, being bad and breaking boundaries is par for the course. Think Miley Cyrus, who pole danced at the MTV Music Awards while still starring in a Disney show. And Pussy Riot, the colorful women group from Russia who are constantly protesting Vladimir Putin. Or Lady Gaga, as she cascaded down the staircase at the VMAs wearing a dress made out of red meat. (Her album that year was massively successful.)
These artists actively choose to disrupt what’s expected of society, and provoke audiences with dramatic self-expression—all while gaining control of their brand and image.
It makes one wonder: Are these artists successful because they push the limits, or are they able to do so because their talent surpasses negative hits to their reputation? Only time—and perhaps how some artists weather cancel culture—will tell.
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