When Well-Managed Controversy is a Plus: The Rise of Lil Nas X

Some brands and public figures gain success from likability. They stay in the lane of what is deemed acceptable to the masses and rarely, if ever, veer past popular opinion. Others thrive on controversy. They rise to it despite mixed opinion about their public persona, business practices or political stance. Using controversy to gain media coverage is nothing new, but is all publicity good publicity?

Lil Nas X, rapper and pop star, earned five 2022 Grammy nominations, including album of the year and song and record of the year. Despite many accolades, Lil Nas X’s career is steeped in controversy. From the unabashed display of his queerness to heavily debated music videos, Lil Nas X has received homophobic rants and been accused of pushing adult imagery onto children. He's Satanic, according to some. How has he succeeded despite heavy criticism?

The Act of Being Unapologetic

Rachel Ezekiel-Fishbein, owner of Making Headlines, believes Lil Nas X succeeds, in part, because he promotes an outrageous, decadent brand.

“Lil Nas X is the master of making you open your eyes,” Ezekiel-Fishbein says. “Usually, when there is a controversy an apology follows." Instead, "he moves the conversation forward by making controversy on purpose. He’s a pretty smart guy and very intentional."

For example, in the music video for "Montero (Call Me By Your Name)," the pop star slides down a stripper pole to hell and gives Satan a lap dance. At first glance, the imagery seems pure shock. Critics consider it blasphemous and an example of society's moral degradation.

Lil Nas X retorted those claims in a series of tweets. He asserted the imagery reflects religious teaching that claims queer people are condemned to hell.

“Y’all love saying we going to hell but get upset when I actually go there lmao”, Lil Nas X tweeted.

Toeing the Line

Is controversy part of the bargain when you're a public figure or a brand?

It's not "mandatory for success,” says Gabrielle Gambrell, chief communications officer, Gift of Gabrielle, and an NYU professor. Some public figures and brands try their best to remain neutral. For others, though, going up to the edge feels authentic.

“Take Beyoncé," says Gambrell, "who is immensely successful and does not pay attention to drama." Conversely, Lil Nas X is an artist who "utilizes [controversy] to further" his brand. "It's based on personality, talent and...audience. People expect certain things from certain" celebrities.

To Gambrell, Lil Nas X appeals to some Gen Z-ers because he operates with a dynamic, fearless mentality. He does a great job capitalizing on the moment.

She alludes to the controversy surrounding the launch of Lil Nas X’s Satan sneakers. Those kicks  accompanied the “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)” music video. The sneaker design faced claims of trademark infringement because it piggybacked on Nike Air Max 97's. 

Cleverly, Lil Nas X used the trademark claims as a promotion for his next album. In a viral Tik Tok, he used the caption, “When you have court on Monday over Satan shoes and you might go to jail but your label is telling you to make Tik Toks.”

Later, it was revealed that the hysteria created around Lil Nas X possibly going to prison was in sync with the concept of his next music video, “Industry Baby.” In it, Lil Nas X is in prison and stages a breakout.

@lilnasx♬ industry baby by lil nas x - lil nas x

Says Gambrell, “The idea to create viral content to start conversation is what leads marketing right now.”

Advice on Making Controversy Beneficial

While Ezekiel-Fishbein and Gambrell say Lil Nas X's way of stirring controversy works well for him, they prefer owning an issue and then taking steps to remedy it.

For example, Ezekiel-Fishbein advised a CEO who asked his team to evaluate him. He received very negative results. Instead of ignoring the comments, he sought a coach to help him improve. Eventually Ezekiel-Fishbein pitched this story to several media outlets about how leaning into a controversy helped improve the CEO as a leader.

“A lot of people questioned" the wisdom of pitching a story that included material about the staff's negative evaluation, she says. “But the point of the article was to emphasize that someone was brave enough to acknowledge their faults and change.”

Andrew Byrd is a media associate at PRNEWS