In this op-ed, writer Marissa R. Moss explains that Lil Nas X wasn’t the first gay person to win an award from the Country Music Association, but that his win in spite of refusing to play by country radio’s rules opens up a discussion about where the genre is going, and what it’s already accomplished under the media’s radar.
There were a lot of interesting headlines that came from Wednesday night's CMA Awards: the mass disappointment that Garth Brooks took Entertainer of the Year, when most were hoping for Carrie Underwood, or the general discontent felt that a show focused on "honoring women" did little to address the problem facing women on country radio. But one particular takeaway, reported far and wide, actually wasn't true: that Lil Nas X was the first out gay man to win a CMA Award.
What Lil Nas X did was no doubt revolutionary, especially as a visible queer artist on the internet: winning Musical Event of the Year for his remix of "Old Town Road" with Billy Ray Cyrus over the likes of Brooks and Blake Shelton. And, mind you, he accomplished that feat without much acceptance from country radio whatsoever or even the country community itself; Lil Nas X didn't perform at the CMAs, nor has Nashville exactly embraced him with the same open arms that the rest of the musical community has extended. But in addition to his sexuality, perhaps a large reason for that exclusion is because in Music Row's eyes, he’s an interloper, not something birthed organically from the country music capital. He never paid his dues on a radio tour, wooing program directors. He just … appeared.
Make no mistake, though, the triumph of Lil Nas X at the CMAs — where he showed up in a perfectly yeehaw black fringe outfit — is an encouraging step. He is the first openly gay black male artist to win, even though he’s not the first out person: Shane McAnally and Brandy Clark both won in 2014 for co-writing Kacey Musgraves' "Follow Your Arrow," the same year Clark was also nominated as a New Artist of the Year. The fact that it took until 2014 for this to happen is, for certain, far too recent history. Country is slow to progress, and that's the truth. And country — with an emphasis on country radio — absolutely can be, and is, exclusionary. It has written out the story of gay people, and people of color, since the early origins of the genre, something artists like Rhiannon Giddens are dead-set on correcting. That kind of erasure is erasure with sinister intentions. Celebrating Lil Nas X as the first out gay CMA winner is erasure with good intentions, but erasure nonetheless.
The eagerness to tout progressive success in country music, even when it's inaccurate, is telling. Country music is far more dynamic than most make it out to be, but that diversity isn’t represented on the radio: women, queer artists, people of color (specifically women of color) and those with more vocal liberal opinions (see: the Dixie Chicks) have not always found success on the airwaves — the primary vehicle for marketshare for a country artist. Music fans that feel outside of the "country bubble" but enjoy the songs themselves gravitate towards someone like Lil Nas X as a gateway to a genre that always felt like a closed door, or a secret passion, one laughed about or stereotyped as "redneck" in coastal cities.
Some fans want to celebrate country music when it feels a bit like resistance, and that's quite reasonable given the genre's history, or even its current non-embrace of women beyond ceremonial "celebrations" like the CMAs. Kacey Musgraves, Margo Price, Sturgill Simpson, and now Lil Nas X are all understandably beloved not just for their talent, but because they go against the assumption that country music is often nothing more than a pro-NRA, Republican bastion that makes no room for women.
And it's not. But corporate country radio, with very little exception, is. You won't hear Musgraves, Price, Simpson, many women in general, or queer voices, and you certainly will not hear Lil Nas X. On this week's Billboard Country Airplay chart, you'll find one solo female artist in the top 20: Miranda Lambert, an absolute superstar of the genre who probably won't even make it to number one. Painting the genre as some sort of regressive, backwoods place where there simply could not have been any queer people let in before Lil Nas X is antithetical to the progress that has been made, and the incredible country voices that exist everywhere from rural Appalachia to deep in Canada (countryqueer.com is a great place to find out about those). But the painting of country radio as regressive and exclusionary? Right on target. And as long as country radio keeps it up, country's white, straight men will continue to dominate most of the energy, from festival stages to award shows.
Only covering country music when there's a "resist" narrative, or a subversive singer or a false "first" isn’t productive to the community that now includes Lil Nas X and beyond — it makes it look like country music is more closed off than it should be, so why bother even trying to fit in? And that mindset continues to squeeze out queer voices by discounting those who have worked tirelessly in the past, against extremely difficult odds.
It's also OK, however, to challenge country music, and particularly the white male decision-makers who lord over country radio, to do more to open the genre, to be louder and be more inclusive. Remember, the CMA voters awarded McAnally and Clark a trophy for "Follow Your Arrow." It was country radio who simply refused to play it.
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Originally Appeared on Teen Vogue