PHOTO: Mike Coppola / Staff
The Incomparable Creative Vision Of Lil Nas X: 'Montero' Collaborators Detail How "We're All Just An Extension Of Him & His Ideas"
Lil Nas X stretches the bounds of his identity and artistry at every turn, expertly spinning his debut LP 'MONTERO' into a multi-layered promotional spectacle. GRAMMY.com spoke with Nas' visual collaborators about the star's unflinching genius.
In the music video for "MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)," Lil Nas X opens the gates of his visual empire. "In life, we hide the parts of ourselves we don’t want the world to see," he says in the introduction. "But here, we don’t. Welcome to Montero." What follows is a brazen voyage into the depths of hell.
Co-directed by Lil Nas X and Tanu Muino, the video is a theatrical extravaganza that stars the rapper in nearly every role: a devious snake, a banished Adam, a crowd of stone spectators. Lil Nas X pole dances his way to the throne and secures his spot, displacing the devil with a spicy lap dance and a swift decapitation.
It was unabashedly sexual and provocative, a pertinent introduction to MONTERO, his eponymous debut album (the musician was born Montero Lamar Hill). The video spectacle sparked conversation far beyond its comment section and was boosted, in part, by backlash from people weighing in on his queer identity. More importantly, MONTERO received an outpouring of encouragement from the communities who encounter the same adversity.
Lil Nas X stretched the bounds of both his identity and his artistry at every turn, expertly spinning the backlash to "MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)" into a multi-layered promotional spectacle. "MONTERO" has been nominated for both Record and Song of the Year, and the LP is up for Album of the Year.
That’s the thing about Lil Nas X: The over-the-top music videos and quick-witted Twitter clapbacks are all gasoline poured onto the already blazing fire of his mere existence. To have an artist not only exist, but excel, at the intersection of Blackness and queerness, as both a rapper and a pop star, is nothing short of revolutionary. When the CGI stripper pole burst through the clouds in "MONTERO (Call Me By Your Name)," it shattered the glass ceiling on its way down — and he was just getting started.
After unveiling an unauthorized limited edition pair of Nike Air Max 97s — made with a drop of real human blood — he flipped the Nike lawsuit that followed into an elaborate courtroom skit announcing "Industry Baby," his collaboration with Jack Harlow that’s nominated for Best Melodic Rap Performance.
More frenzy followed the "Industry Baby" music video, particularly in response to a scene where Lil Nas X dances naked in a bright pink prison shower with half a dozen male dancers. Recreating the scene on the MTV Video Music Awards stage, Nas reinforced his commitment to performance as an art and bold representation.
Speaking with GRAMMY.com, Lil Nas X’s visual collaborators — choreographer Sean Bankhead, "Industry Baby" music video director Christian Breslauer, Roc Nation Creative Director of Live Performances Jed Skrzypczak and skit director Adrian Per — about the visually distinct MONTERO, creating career-defining performances on stage and online, and celebrating Lil Nas X as an unflinching Black, gay pop-rap star.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Lil Nas X Writes His Own Music Video Treatments
Sean Bankhead (Choreographer): I am very inspired by how creative he is. Because I don't think people really understand that Nas writes his own treatments for every single music video. So these aren't directors coming to him with ideas. I've seen him sit in the corner of rehearsal. And I'm like, What are you doing? He's like, "I'm just getting ideas for a music video." And then it turns out to be "Industry Baby." And it's so refreshing to see an artist who actually has creative vision and actually cares about all those details — from the rollout to all the skits that he does, to now mix it with dance and choreography and a big stage performance.
Christian Breslauer ("Industry Baby" Director): Nas’ original idea was generally close to the music video you saw, except if you watch the whole music video as it exists now, where our video ends is where the middle of the section right before Jack Harlow's verse [would have been]. His verse was basically originally set up in Nas’ treatment as like: they burst out of jail and then they rob a bank. And then Nas is surfing on top of a bus. It was very grand. So [Lil Nas X’s video commissioner] asked me, "Do you have a way to take the general idea of what he's trying to do and make it doable?"
The Iconic "Industry Baby" Shower Scene Almost Didn’t Happen
Christian Breslauer: Nas originally had a lunch room performance scene, but I was like, I don't really feel it’s grand enough, like it sells enough. I pitched him the idea [of tackling] the prison shower scene.
He initially was like, "I don't know if I want to do it." And then after sitting with it, he all of a sudden switched up in the middle of our meeting, and he was just like, "You know, actually yeah, let's do it." He had already been practicing the choreo with Sean. And he had a whole thing for that moment.
Sean Bankhead: Me and [Breslauer], were like, it would be dope if they would be dancing in the shower. And they were like, "Well, if you're dancing in the shower, you got to be butt naked." But it’s those moments that Nas is like, "Yeah, f<em></em>* it, let's do it."
He’s The Mastermind Behind The Elaborate Rollout Skits, Including Giving Birth To Montero
Adrian Per (MONTERO Skit Director): Here’s the thing about Nas. Not to discredit myself or anybody else on the team, we all give our own flavor to things, but ultimately, almost 99 percent of everything was his inception. He is such a visionary, such a creative, that it almost feels like we're all just an extension of him and his ideas.
Christian Breslauer: He's a marketing genius when it comes to that. All that stuff is him, the whole shoe scandal and leading it into the court date into "Industry Baby," that's all his marketing. The kid gets it, he’s smart as s<em></em>*. And that’s where I think for this generation, he's going to be a superstar because of that. He just gets it.
He was like a professional troll <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r7qovpFAGrQ">on Twitter before "[Old Town Road"], he knows how to stir the pot. I’m just a creative mind and can come up with ideas that give the moment. And then him just knowing how to take that little piece of content that I create, and blow it up and stretch it 8,000 ways…. I don't think there's anybody who does that.
Adrian Per: He basically came to me with this concept, [saying]: "I want to give birth to my album. We’ve got to make it funny. It's got to be in a hospital or something." We did that entire skit with no script. Everything was on the fly. But Nas is so good at what he does — acting, being a troll, all of that — it was easy. We did everything I believe in six hours when something like that would probably be a 12 hour day.
Everything has been done before to a certain capacity, but this idea of his producers [Take A Daytrip] rolling him into a delivery room, then we pull the vinyl record out and it’s shining rainbow colors to represent his sexuality [hadn’t been done before]. Having a good song is barely half the battle, getting people to listen to it, getting people’s attention, the life after the song drops — everything he comes up with supports all of those different facets.
Lil Nas X’s Cementing His Pop Star Status As An Explosive Performer
Sean Bankhead: Performance is a huge part of being a pop star: how you perform, your dancers, what your dancers look like, how your stage moves, how you walk, how you talk. You can have hit music, but we want the VMA performances. We want the BET-winning, the VMA-winning music video. We want the ones that are nominated for GRAMMYs. We want to keep being invited back to the GRAMMY stage because the last time we came…we shut it down.
Jed Skrzypczak (Roc Nation Creative Director): Now, a lot of people just scale down. They just do small performances versus [asking]: What would Britney do in the 2000s? Or all of those crazy Missy Elliott performances? That’s always the energy and craziness we try to bring on a stage. We always compare [Lil Nas X] to who the best live female performers are, because they [set] this standard of live performance. And that's what we try to achieve with that as well.
Sean Bankhead: There are no Black male rappers who are doing that at all. And so take the gay part out of it and he's still breaking another mold, where he has dope visuals, dope choreography, dope dancers, and really takes risks. He rehearses really hard and is learning how to be a better artist in that regard, with the rapping and dancing at the same time.
His “SNL” Debut Was A Bold Statement In More Ways Than One
Jed Skrzypczak: "Call Me By Your Name" was such a big song everywhere and there was already a visual aspect of it that people were already connected to from the music video. But ["Saturday Night Live"] was our moment to introduce him to a bigger audience.
Sean Bankhead: I think it was the first time that he really trusted a choreographer who was young, Black and gay as well – who understood the pop space and who also has pushed a lot of envelopes, if you will, when it comes to the risky stage performances or the provocative music videos.
I was like, "So do you really want to be that be that n<em></em><em></em>? Do you want to represent and be provocative? And do things that you haven’t done?" He was like, "Absolutely." I said, do you want to swing on a pole? He said, absolutely. I said, Do you want to kiss a boy? He's like, "Absolutely."
Jed Skrzypczak: We had a whole conversation about celebrating queerness, and giving a platform to and also celebrating people of color and Blackness. He just wants to give a platform to the dancers and performers, who usually are overlooked or not included and don't have as many opportunities.
Sean Bankhead: I feel very special, because I've been able to bring a lot of young, gay, cool, Black and people of color dancers around him so that he has some culture, he has a hand in the pot. This industry can be very whitewashed, and he's in the pop space; he's not really dealing with the ratchet stuff that a lot of the Black artists have to deal with. He has — excuse my French — a white following, a white team, he gets that treatment. So it's important that him being an openly gay Black male, he still has that surrounding him, which comes with his dancers.
The BET Awards Kiss Was A Close-Kept Secret
Jed Skrzypczak: With the BET Awards performance, we were like: we have to show people that Nas is becoming a king of pop music. That’s how we connected it to the "Remember The Time" Michael Jackson references. We wanted to pay homage to the music video and connect it to the already existing aesthetic that we’re tying into the performances of the song.
The funny thing about the kiss is that almost nobody knew about it. There was only a really small group of people, even on Nas’ team — even BET didn't know about it. So that was even more pressure on everyone, because we really didn’t know how people were gonna react. And it turned out to be such an amazing and big and important moment. After that performance, so many people reached out to the whole team, to Nas, even to me, saying how important it was for them to see representation like this on TV because when they grew up, they never had a moment like this.
Sean Bankhead: I love to shake the table because that's what I grew up on in pop culture. I grew up watching Madonna and Britney doing their thing. And I’m so bored with performances and pop culture; with shock value for a cause and not just, let’s just do it just because. We knew people were going to talk about it as soon as they started humping and jiving on each other. But two performances prior to that, I believe, was Roddy Ricch — the girls were rubbing up and down each other and no one said anything about it.
Jed Skrzypczak: At the beginning, when Nas performs, you can see how he acts — he's slightly nervous about it, because it's so much pressure on him. He’s so young and already so experienced, but there's still so much pressure on this stage [in front of] all those people who sometimes have completely different views than him.
Sean Bankhead: We want to keep challenging those those norms and keep pushing the boundaries, but still making sure that it’s not stupid. It’s actually: If we're going to do this, let's make sure it's the best performance. Let's make sure that there are iconic dance moments and there are iconic sound bites or other things that can go with a Britney-esque, "I'm a Slave 4 U" type performance.
Lil Nas X Was Ready To Go Even Bigger For The 2021 MTV VMAs
Jed Skrzypczak: Until that moment, the BET Awards and the VMAs, I think he felt like he had to keep proving to people who he is. With this performance, we had this idea to recreate the iconic music video because it was already so big.
Nas really wanted to have the marching band, you know, open big. It’s slightly a homage to Spongebob because he’s obsessed with SpongeBob. We managed to get the band. And then the whole thing goes: How we can translate to the music video and make it cool, from the video music aspect to aspects of the stage.
Sean Bankhead: When we shot the music video, everyone was busting their ass. No matter what the floor, dancing barefoot with water [while] doing choreography is tricky. And Nas was so nervous. He was like, "I do not want to fall. I don't know if I'm gonna fall on a live VMA performance." We had to keep, throughout rehearsals, testing different floors, testing with water.
There were a lot of limitations with the stage, the screen going up and revealing the stage behind — that was a special build that we had to get from MTV. Then, we found out that once we got in the wet shower, we couldn't come back to the mainstage. So we had to finish the performance in the shower. I got in trouble because we weren't supposed to have the orgy at the end. And it was a decision that I told the dancers to do 20 minutes before they went live.
The MONTERO Era Shows That Lil Nas X Is Just Getting Started
Christian Breslauer: If you look at the '80s, or even '90s or '70s, some of the most talented musicians were gay and they weren't able to be these icons until after the fact. All these guys who kind of stayed closeted, or they ended up coming out after the fact, but they were shunned for it to a degree. But Nas has kind of created this new narrative. I've seen him grow just as an artist and now he's moved and this last album was definitely his true coming out [saying]: "This is who I want to be as an artist."
Adrian Per: There isn't a single person for artists who's doing it at that level, with that many eyes looking at them. Whether it makes people hate him or disagree with him, or they like it, he knows how to create a tension around something that he's about to drop. It's so calculated in his brain so far ahead of time, before anything drops. I just don't know anybody else who's doing that to that level.
Sean Bankhead: I'm gonna stay hard on him. I see the potential, I see the future, but I also see what he represents. And if I was growing up, and I had a representational figure like him on TV being great — and not just because he's gay, but actually puts in work and does phenomenal music videos, and makes incredible music. He's still young, and he still has a long way to go. So I want to make sure that I stay on him to keep growing and to stay focused, and to push harder, and keep being free. Because people are watching. People are rooting for him. No matter what the headlines may say.
Photo: Steve Granitz/WireImage
Black Sounds Beautiful: How Lil Nas X Turned The Industry On Its Head With "Old Town Road" And Beyond
In this episode of Black Sounds Beautiful, relive Lil Nas X's massive debut, "Old Town Road," and learn how he's since been an advocate for Black and LGBTQIA+ communities through his music and his platform.
Lil Nas X became a global sensation practically overnight, but it wasn't an accident.
The American singer and rapper — born Montero Lamar Hill — became fluent in music and pop culture at an early age, becoming a meme aficionado. His love for internet culture cultivated the perfect recipe for his debut single, "Old Town Road," to become one of the most viral hits in music history; the song also prompted a necessary conversation about the bounds of genre.
"Old Town Road" rose to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and still holds the record for most time spent at No. 1 at 19 weeks. The single later helped Lil Nas X snag two GRAMMY Awards for Best Pop/Duo Group Performance and Best Music Video. (To date, he's won 2 GRAMMYs and has received 11 nominations overall.)
Aside from his immense musical talent, Lil Nas X — who came out as gay on social media during his Hot 100 reign — has been a fierce champion for LGBTQIA+ and Black communities.
At just 24 years old, Lil Nas X has plenty more history-making and game-changing moves in store. As he revealed during his March 2023 campaign with Coach, "My next big chapter is coming."
Photo: Monica Schipper/Getty Images for iHeartRadio
9 Artists Who Advocate For The LGBTQIA+ Community: Troye Sivan, Taylor Swift, Madonna & More
From Big Freedia to Beyoncé, artists who identify as queer and allies alike celebrate love in all its forms.
"GAY RIGHTS!!!!!" Betty Who captioned a cheeky photo earlier this month. Yes, it was a well-known inside joke among the LGBTQIA+ community, but the all-caps message held some serious meaning. The queer pop star's photo was from the White House's 2023 Pride Celebration, where President Biden formally announced the New Actions to Protect the LGBTQIA+ Community plan — and Betty Who was the star performer.
Music has always been a safe haven for gay and trans people of all kinds — from the closeted kids in Middle America finding sanctuary in the songs of their favorite pop stars, to the out-and-proud artists forming the soundtrack for the next generation of LGBTQIA+ fans. And Pride has always been a special time of the year to celebrate visibility and inclusion in the music industry — a place where everyone deserves to show up and be seen (and heard!) as their authentic self, and where every proverbial note, melody and harmony make up a beautiful and unique soundtrack that can only be yours.
Recently, queer musicians and allies who use their platforms to stand up for the LGBTQIA+ community has felt more important than ever. A rash of anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation has swept through state legislatures across the country, from so-called "Don't Say Gay" bills to blatant legal attacks on drag queens, trans kids and LGBTQIA+ history as a whole — but those who stand for the community are fighting even harder.
As Pride month carries on, GRAMMY.com has rounded up a list of nine LGBTQIA+ artists, allies and bonafide gay icons who've made advocating for the community a central tenet of their music, their words and their actions. Of course, there are dozens to highlight, but take a look at how queer artists like Kim Petras and Troye Sivan and allies like Taylor Swift and Madonna have helped fans shine as their authentic selves.
Petras cemented her place as a rising star in the pop music echelon in February, when she became the first trans woman to win the GRAMMY for Best Pop Duo/Group collaboration with Sam Smith for their subversive collaboration "Unholy." (Smith, who identifies as non-binary, also made history with the win, though they graciously ceded the floor for Petras to give her awestruck acceptance speech on the GRAMMYs stage.)
As the cover star of Out's 2023 Pride issue, the German pop princess spoke out about the rash of anti-trans rhetoric taking root in legislatures across the country and harming vulnerable trans youth. "I literally was very suicidal as a kid, and I just wouldn't still be here had my parents not believed me," she told the magazine. "I hate that another generation is going through this, and I hate that young kids are going through the same s–t I was going through, and that apparently just isn't changing. I think it's sad. I just never understood why people were so obsessed with what people do to be happy. Just focus on what you can do to be happy."
Lil Nas X
Lil Nas X has never been shy when it comes to sticking up for the queer community — and he usually does so with a healthy dose of snarky humor on social media. He's cheerfully clapped back about everything from the explicit queerness of his music videos to his place in the modern pantheon of hip-hop; mostly recently, he hopped on Twitter to hilariously take down conservative outrage over Pride-themed merchandise at Target.
"Can't believe target is supporting this nonsense, im never shopping there again, my son is not 'too cool for school' these shirts are ridiculous. He is going to school and he WILL learn," the GRAMMY winner wrote in a since-deleted tweet, mockingly referencing the anti-LGBTQIA+ crusaders upset with inclusive and trans-friendly apparel being sold at the popular retailer.
In another instance from late April, Montero made his stance hysterically clear when he tweeted, "I want to clear all the straight rumors. i have many straight friends and i support their community, but that is NOT me!"
Years before releasing his debut album Blue Neighborhood in 2015, Troye Sivan came out publicly via YouTube. Since then, he's been consistently outspoken about his experiences as a gay artist in the music industry.
The Australia native, who announced his long-awaited follow-up to 2018's Bloom earlier this month, has made a consistent point in his career to turn his visuals into unapologetic examples of queer art — from the lusty defiance of 2018's "My My My!" to the "gushy juicy doting adoring power b^tt^m gay ballad" perfection that was 2021's "Angel Baby."
Perhaps most powerful of all, though, was his video for early single "Heaven" featuring Betty Who, which depicted historic moments in the LGBTQIA+ rights movement including some of the earliest Pride parades on record. "We have always been here. we will always be here. this video is dedicated to all those who've come before me and fought for our cause and those who now continue the fight," he wrote in the video's description. "in dark and light times, let's love forever. love, troye x."
Speaking of Betty Who, the indie pop star received an invitation directly from President Biden to perform at the White House's official 2023 Pride Celebration, where the commander in chief formally announced his administration's plan titled New Actions to Protect the LGBTQIA+ Community. The three-point roll-out promises to focus on "Strengthening Physical Safety," "Addressing Civil Rights Violations" and "Strengthening Mental Health and other Support Resources."
"Today was the biggest pride celebration ever held at the white house and i got to be a part of it!!!!!!!!" Betty, who identifies as both queer and bisexual, wrote afterwards on social media. "So many things i want to say! What an honour it is, how proud i am to be part of the lgbtqia+ [community], how special today's event was and how grateful i am to @potus, @drbiden and the amazing white house staff for hosting us. queer joy spouting everywhere!!! very grateful for this incredible experience."
Earlier this year, Big Freedia was honored by PFLAG — the nation's longest-running LGBTQIA+ organization — with its first-ever National Breaking Barriers Award. The new honor, which she received at PGFLAG's 50th anniversary gala in March, is meant to shine the spotlight on "an individual who uses their platform to help remove obstacles to LGBTQIA+ and intersectional equality in pursuit of a more just, equitable and inclusive world."
Upon receiving the award, the bounce music trailblazer (and 2023 GRAMMY winner) took to Instagram with a determined message, writing, "There's still so much work to do to fight discrimination and I will continue to work on behalf of our whole community to spread love, acceptance, inclusion and everyone's right TO BE FREE."
While she'd slyly referenced her support for the LGBTQIA+ community in the past on songs like "Welcome to New York," Taylor Swift took a public stand in 2019 with her Lover era single "You Need to Calm Down." The gay anthem's celebratory music video issued a call to action for her fans to support the as-yet-unpassed Equality Act with her very own Change.org petition.
During her Eras Tour stop in Chicago earlier this month, the superstar spoke specifically to her LGBTQIA+ fans, promising them that her concerts would always be a "safe space" for them to celebrate who they are.
"I wish that every place was safe and beautiful for people in the LGBTQ community, I really wish that. We can't talk about Pride Month without talking about pain," she told the sold-out crowd of Swifties at Soldier Field. "There have been so many harmful pieces of legislation that have put people in the LGBTQ and queer community at risk. It's painful for everyone — every ally, every loved one, every person in these communities. And that's why I'm always posting, 'This is when the midterms are. This is when these important, key primaries are.'
"'Cause we can support as much as we want during Pride Month," the 12-time GRAMMY winner continued. "But if we're not doing our research on these elected officials — Are they advocates? Are they allies? Are they protectors of equality? Do I want to vote for them? — I love you guys so much and happy Pride Month."
What hasn't Madonna done in her iconic career to lift up the LGBTQIA+ community? In fact, there's an entire Wikipedia page dedicated solely to her status as a living gay icon.
Famously, Her Madgesty's love for the gay community started with her early mentor and dance teacher Christopher Flynn. Early in her career, she became one of the first artists to speak out about the HIV/AIDS crisis and decry the stigmatization of gay people at the time.
She's been recognized by the GLAAD Media Awards multiple times, including in 1991 with the Raising Gay Awareness award and in 2019 with the Advocate for Change award. (At the latter ceremony, GLAAD president Sarah Kate Ellis stated, "Madonna always has and always will be the LGBTQ community's greatest ally.")
More recently, Madge added multiple dates to her upcoming Celebration Tour, including a special stop in Nashville to stand in solidarity with the state's queer, trans and drag communities as they've been bombarded by a string of anti-LGBTQIA+ legislation from the state's Capitol.
"The oppression of the LGBTQIA+ is not only unacceptable and inhumane; it's creating an unsafe environment; making America a dangerous place for our most vulnerable citizens, especially trans women of color," she wrote on Instagram alongside the announcement. "Also, these so-called laws to protect our children are unfounded and pathetic. Anyone with half a brain knows not to f— with a drag queen. Bob and I will see you from the stage in Nashville where we will celebrate the beauty that is the queer community!"
Long considered a gay icon in her own right, Beyoncé paid reverential honor to the LGBTQIA+ community and her late uncle Johnny with 2022's Renaissance, an undulating magnum opus inspired by the underground ballroom scene sparked by Black, trans and gay pioneers of the 1970s, '80s, '90s, and beyond.
Queen Bey also holds space for queer artists throughout Renaissance's sprawling, hour-long track list, collaborating with TS Madison and Big Freedia, sampling Kevin Aviance and late drag star Moi Renee, working with Honey Dijon behind the boards and more. "Thank you to all of the pioneers who originate culture, to all of the fallen angels whose contributions have gone unrecognized for far too long," the living legend wrote in a note posted to her personal website upon the album's release. "This is a celebration for you."
Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons
Imagine Dragons frontman Dan Reynolds has emerged as a powerful advocate for the LGBTQIA+ community through his nonprofit organization Loveloud and its popular Utah festival, which he launched in 2017 to support LGBTQIA+ teens in the state's overwhelmingly conservative (and outspokenly anti-LGBTQIA+) Mormon community.
This year, though, Reynolds and the Loveloud board — which includes out and proud musicians like Tyler Glenn of Neon Trees, Vincint, Wrabel and Parson James — have expanded Loveloud's mission beyond the Mormonism of the Wasatch front. In early March, Loveloud announced it would be transforming into a traveling festival for its sixth year with stops in Austin, Texas, where dozens of anti-LGBTQIA+ laws have been pursued by the state legislature and Gov. Greg Abbott, and Washington D.C.
Photo: Pooneh Ghana for Bonnaroo 2023
10 Amazing Sets From Bonnaroo 2023: Paramore, Kendrick Lamar, Rina Sawayama & More
The four-day festival in Manchester, Tennessee was completely sold out this year, drawing more than 80,000 people. Relive the excitement with these 10 incredible sets from Bonnaroo 2023.
Following a few rocky years, Bonnaroo 2023 made a triumphant comeback to Great Stage Park (affectionately dubbed "The Farm") under glorious skies. The Manchester, Tennessee festival was completely sold out this year, drawing more than 80,000 people for four days of music, laughter, food, and plenty of sun.
From the Midnight and their showstopping saxophonist, to Amber Mark’s masterful lyricism and Three 6 Mafia's guests (which included a surprise cameo by country star Jelly Roll), to young musician Ben Goldsmith’s country-inspired tunes and Hayley Williams joining Foo Fighters to perform "My Hero." And if all-day music wasn’t enough, Bonnaroo 2023 featured numerous food vendors and relaxing areas, and even a place to get married.
While at times the lines were long, the sun was hot, and getting from one remote area to another proved difficult, rousing sets by headliners and larger-than-life moments at the smaller tents made everything worth it. Here are 10 of the most exciting sets from Bonnaroo 2023.
Suki Waterhouse Shines Despite Difficulties
Suki Waterhouse ⎹ Dusana Risovic for Bonnaroo 2023
After a severely delayed set due to technical difficulties, Thursday’s performance at That Tent saw English actress-turned-singer Suki Waterhouse playing through much of her debut album, I Can’t Let Go.
Drenched in pink light with an enveloping fog, Waterhouse’s cinematic performance and comforting vocals could draw anyone into the tent. She flitted through "Moves," "Bulls— on the Internet," "My Mind" and TikTok favorite "Good Looking" with a robust collection of layered drums and guitar for support.
Big Freedia Fires Everybody Up
Big Freedia ⎹ Charles Reagan for Bonnaroo 2023
Across the park, Big Freedia treated audiences to an extra-special taste of New Orleans bounce. The 1:45 a.m. set time after a sweltering day did not deter the amped-up audience, many of whom likely attended Thursday’s Pride Parade — also helmed by Big Freedia.
"I just want to wish everyone happy Pride," Big Freedia, donning an outfit made of rainbow feathers, said to momentous cheers. "We about to turn up, we about to celebrate!"
Folks from the audience jumped on stage for a 2 a.m. twerk contest, dancing along with Big Freedia as she performed "Azz Everywhere" and "Rock Around the Clock." It was a lot of energy to be had for the wee morning hours, but if there’s anything the Bonnaroo crowd does better than others, it’s the late nights.
Black Midi Brings The Noise
Translating a distinctively chaotic discography into a sensical live set isn’t an easy task. Compound that with a fickle festival audience in the hot sun, and sometimes it can be downright impossible. Yet, Black Midi's experimental arrangements seemed to delight the audience relatively quickly on Saturday.
With songs that took a slower cadence ("Still") and others that were characterized by sharp tonal shifts and dramatic tempo changes ("Eat Men Eat!", "953"), the bulk of the excitement came in not knowing what to expect next. It was the kind of organized mayhem that invited people to start chucking inflatable dinosaurs, rubber chickens, bananas, toilet paper, anything they had in hand.
The charm in Black Midi’s music, at least on that stage, was that it didn’t take itself too seriously. In translating their mind-melting, seemingly random studio style to the Bonnaroo stage, Black Midi taught us, song after song, that some shows just have to be some degree of chaos.
Rina Sawayama Cycles Through Every Genre
Rina Sawayama ⎹ Cora Wagoner for Bonnaroo 2023
To see Rina Sawayama live is a gift. The rising pop (and rock, and country) artist shined on Friday at the Which Stage, moving with elegance through choreographed dance routines. Her performances included a two-dancer ensemble and various spur-of-the moment outfit and character changes.
There’s a transporting magic wrought by Rina’s one hour set; every song she performed felt like an individual production with a story to tell, beginning with the fearlessly reflective "Hold The Girl" and ending with the rousing "This Hell" (featuring a surprise cameo by MUNA, who had just finished playing the What Stage).
For a set that started with hard rock, cycled through bubblegum pop, and ended with country, it felt every bit as extraordinary and arresting as she is. Rina Sawayama doesn’t demand your attention — she’s not begging for it. She simply acquires it whether you like it or not.
Paris Jackson Conjures Pixies And Nirvana
Paris Jackson ⎹ Gary Miller/WireImage
Paris Jackson may have just one album under her belt, but that didn’t stop the 25-year-old singer/songwriter from packing sets on Saturday and Sunday at two different stages. The crowd clearly couldn’t get enough of their Nirvana-inspired music as they overflowed the Toyota Music Den on Saturday to listen to acoustic versions of her new tracks, and then This Tent on Sunday for the full-instrumental versions of those songs.
Highlights of both sets included her lighthearted guitar tuning interlude — a seemingly out-of-place folk song her bandmate plays as she tunes her guitar in her earpiece — and "bandaid," the title track off of her forthcoming new album.
"Most of my songs are about heartbreak," Jackson told GRAMMY.com during a backstage chat. "This is the most raw and vulnerable I’ve ever been in my lyrics, but it’s still vague enough for people to make it about what they want it to be about."
Though a departure from her old sound— which leaned more towards indie folk, watching her perform "bandaid" and her other two singles "Just You" and "Lighthouse" felt like we were watching her come into her own. The depth of the songwriting felt right at home amongst the covers of Blind Melon’s "No Rain" and Pearl Jam’s "Even Flow."
Kendrick Lamar Performs On His Birthday
Kendrick Lamar ⎹ Roger Ho for Bonnaroo 2023
The first of the weekend’s headliners to perform, Kendrick Lamar, spent his 36th birthday eve putting on a theatrical performance that blended cuts from last year’s Mr. Morale and the Big Steppers ("Count Me Out") with back catalog material ("A.D.H.D.", "Backseat Freestyle").
After a modest, humble response to the audience singing him "Happy Birthday" at the stroke of midnight, Lamar leaned into the melodrama, as he rapped alongside a group of suit-wearing doppelgängers dancing with uncanny, uniform movements. For his second-to-last act, Lamar brought out his cousin Baby Keem, who brought vigorous rhymes to the stage for "family ties". And even though Kendrick’s set ended 20 minutes early with "Savior," its high energy and dramatic visuals were the cherry on top to an already exhilarating Friday evening.
The Band Camino Brings Their Music Back Home
The Band Camino ⎹ Nathan Zucker for Bonnaroo 2023
Tennessee’s own The Band Camino were slated to appear at two canceled Bonnaroos in a row, and by this year's festival the Memphis band were visibly happy to be there. They revived their song "California" just for Bonnaroo, and played the ever-popular "2/14" alongside some of their newer singles, "What Am I Missing" and "Last Man in the World" — the latter of which was a huge hit with the crowd.
Speaking to GRAMMY.com backstage, vocalists Spencer Stewart and Jeffery Jordan discussed the song’s provenance: "We were trying to write something that was verbally heavy-hitting, that paints a really good picture about what it feels like to be with this very special person. It feels like everyone else is gone and you’re just left with this one person left; you’re the last people in the world."
Lil Nas X Rides ’Til He Can’t No More
Lil Nas X ⎹ Pooneh Ghana for Bonnaroo 2023
The main stage at Bonnaroo is always a grand marvel, and Lil Nas X gave the Bonnaroo audience nothing short of that, drawing an enormous crowd on Saturday just after nightfall. Bobbing and weaving across a stage he shared with giant costumed animals, a six-person dance ensemble, and swirling rock formations, it’s obvious the rapper has an insatiable desire to entertain and magnetize.
As expected, songs like "Old Town Road" and "What I Want" proved their staying power as fans from all walks of life sung along unabashedly, celebrating Nas X's Black queer joy.
"It's f—ing Pride month, y'all better make some noise for this gay ass s—!", Lil Nas X yelled, prompting applause from both the audience and his dancers, who were just as integral a part of the show as he was. The GRAMMY-winning performer gave each of his dancers gave the audience a chance to hype up the crowd, too, showcasing their dancing abilities to songs by J. Balvin, Lola Brooke, and Beyonce.
With dance arrangements full of vogueing, ass shaking, and straight-up boogie, the Nas X show was a spectacle to behold, and kept the crowd whipped up in a frenzy until the very last notes of GRAMMY nominated "Industry Baby."
Paramore Dabbles In Nostalgia
Hayley Williams and Zac Farrow of Paramore ⎹ Pooneh Ghana for Bonnaroo 2023
"Does anybody here tonight feel like cashing in on a little nostalgia? Anyone here feel like taking a trip down memory lane?" yelled Hayley Williams of Paramore. The four-piece formed just 70 miles north in Franklin, Tennessee in 2004, and led the audience right back to 2007’s Riot!, where a young Hayley Williams boldly sang "Once a whore you’re nothing more/I’m sorry that’ll never change" ("Misery Business").
She doesn’t sing that lyric live anymore because of its misogynist tone, but their setlist resembled something of a greatest hits record. The band powered through standouts for those who had been supporting "since day one" ("All I Wanted", "Last Hope"), and incredible renditions of their newer songs, like "Rose-Colored Boy", performed with samples of Whitney Houston’s "I Wanna Dance with Somebody" and Tom Tom Club's "Genius of Love" intermixed.
In a raw and potent performance before a thousands-strong audience — it was the band’s second appearance at the festival — Paramore proved that they will remaina treat to see live for years to come.
Pixies Prove They're Larger Than The That Tent
Being the gold-standard of alt rock is just what the Pixies are all about, and their Sunday evening performance at the That Tent seemed intent on showing everyone that.
The That Tent was spilling out from every corner, uncomfortably so, as the reclusive ‘80s stalwarts rocked and rolled through through favorites from albums past— including "Here Comes Your Man" and "Where is My Mind" — and songs from their newest project, Doggrel — "Who's More Sorry Now?" and "Get Simulated."
It was 23 songs in just an hour’s time. And in true Pixies fashion, they did this all without a setlist, coursing seamlessly from song to song without a plan, solely from the heart. As the band closed with a Neil Young cover ("Winterlong") to raucous applause, everyone was reminded that, much like the festival, you don’t always need a plan to have a good time.
Photo: Rich Fury/Getty Images for The Recording Academy
9 Times Queer Artists Made History At The GRAMMYs: From Elton John's Collab With BSB To Kim & Sam's "Unholy" Union
In celebration of Pride Month, GRAMMY.com has collected nine of the most meaningful and thrilling performances by queer artists from the ceremony’s history, which helped uplift the global LGBTIQA+ community.
The 60-plus years of the GRAMMY Awards encompasses some of the most awe-inspiring and breathtaking moments in music history — and it should be noted that queer performers have produced some of the most dazzling highlights. From Elton John’s 1999 GRAMMY Legend Award to Sam Smith and Kim Petras’ 2023 performance of "Unholy," there is no shortage of iconic queer moments in GRAMMY history.
But more than merely honoring and showcasing queer artists, the ceremony is also the only major award to have moved beyond the outdated gender binary in its categories, an important step in ensuring that every artist feels welcomed. And as queer stars continue to deliver stunning performances in addition to award wins on Music's Biggest Night, young artists have meaningful representation and inspiration.
In celebration of Pride Month, GRAMMY.com has collected nine of the most meaningful and thrilling performances by queer artists from the ceremony’s history. These moments commemorate some of the most impressive artists of the last few decades and helped uplift members of the LGBTIQA+ community around the world.
Elton John & The Backstreet Boys - "Philadelphia Freedom" (2000)
When one LGBTIQA+ icon writes a song that honors another queer trailblazer, it’s bound to make for a special moment on stage.
Performed at the 42nd GRAMMY Awards — the same night the Rocket Man was honored as MusiCares Person Of The Year, and a year after taking home the Legend Award — Elton John performed the bright and swinging "Philadelphia Freedom." With backing from the Backstreet Boys, the performance filled the room with sunshine.
The song was inspired by John’s close friend, tennis icon Billie Jean King. His piano flanked by the five Boys, John delivers a rollicking take on the number one hit, the mythic megastar in top form from every swaggery vocal growl to each thumping piano chord.
Melissa Etheridge & Joss Stone - "Piece Of My Heart" (2005)
Melissa Etheridge has always been an incredibly vulnerable artist, but when she walked onto the stage during the 47th GRAMMY Awards, her head bald due to chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer, her legend of raw strength reached a new level.
A loving grin plastered on her face and chopping out an explosive guitar riff, Etheridge didn’t waste a second, joining soul pop star Joss Stone for a tribute to queer icon Janis Joplin. Every syllable of "Piece of My Heart" coming out of Etheridge’s mouth shines sharply like a rough-cut gem, but her explosive howl as the song comes to its climax is the stuff of legend.
The fact that Etheridge made it through her cancer treatment and can still rock stages to this day is only further testament to just how powerful this moment of defiance turned out to be.
Lady Gaga - "Born This Way" (2011)
While the conversation surrounding Lady Gaga’s early ‘10s award ceremony run will always center on her extravagant and boundary-pushing attire and stagecraft, she made sure to put her queer advocacy at full volume during her take on "Born This Way."
Sure, she entered the 53rd GRAMMY Awards in an egg and took time in her performance to play a snippet of Bach made famous in "The Phantom of the Opera" on a keyboard topped with mannequin heads. But in the very next moment, she ensured that the whole track slowed to a righteous halt to deliver a core message: "No matter gay, straight or bi/lesbian, transgender life/ I’m on the right track/ I was born to survive."
The white latex and space egg are important, but Lady Gaga wants to make sure you understand that the art is all in support of a message of inclusion, that stripped down to our strangest basics we’re all human.
Frank Ocean - "Forrest Gump" (2013)
Frank Ocean has proven to be one of the most mercurial stars in R&B, releasing just two studio albums since 2011 despite some of the most rabid anticipation in the music world. His changed plans, canceled performances, and vague updates only fuel that fire — but it’s performances like "Forrest Gump" that encapsulate that whole fandom experience.
The 55th Grammy Awards were a big night for Ocean, with six nominations and two golden gramophones coming his way, but his tender, raw love song was perhaps the most memorable of a night full of impressive tributes and star power. Homosexual love songs don’t get televised too often, and that’s what "Forrest Gump" is: pure, unabashed and straightforward; a young, mesmerizing vocalist and songwriter laid bare, playing a keyboard and backed by a video screen. There’s nothing to distract from his voice and his words: "You run my mind, boy/ Running on my mind, boy/ Forrest Gump."
Macklemore, Ryan Lewis, Mary Lambert, Madonna & Queen Latifah - "Same Love/Open Your Heart" (2014)
There may not be a bigger performance of queer love in awards history than Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ elaborate staging of "Same Love" from the 56th GRAMMYs. Their performance of the anthem included lesbian vocalist Mary Lambert and queer icon Madonna — oh, and Queen Latifah literally overseeing marriage ceremonies for 33 couples of varying sexual identities and orientations, when same-sex marriage hadn’t yet been federally recognized.
Macklemore and Lewis won big at the ceremony, thanks in large part to inescapable upbeat hip-hop like "Thrift Shop" and "Can't Hold Us." But instead of getting everyone in the room with some easy fun, the duo opted for "Same Love" — a track in support of marriage equality and a protest to a tendency towards homophobia in the genre. Together, they provided a powerful statement of acceptance and love that surely opened eyes for audiences around the world.
Kesha, Camilla Cabello, Cyndi Lauper, Julia Michaels, Andra Day, and Bebe Rexha - "Praying" (2018)
The whole world was changing for Kesha on the runup to the 60th GRAMMY Awards. After years of struggle against her alleged abuser and an attempt to fully reclaim her career and life, she had not only taken powerful steps in that direction — she was doing so on Music's Biggest Night.
Her new album, Rainbow, had netted two nominations, and she was asked to perform. She opted for "Praying" (co-written by Ryan Lewis), a paean to the power of change and hope, even in the darkest hours. Surrounded by a cadre of powerful women and clad in white and embroidery of blooming flowers, Kesha’s performance shows a moment of new life and transformation, an inspirational moment that continues to grow with promise of even more new music.
Janelle Monáe - "Make Me Feel" (2019)
Janelle Monáe’s performance at the 61st GRAMMY Awards felt like a celebration of her quest to share her truest self. During a performance of the sensual, stylized, sci-fi epic take on "Make Me Feel," Monáe incorporated snippets of other Dirty Computer highlights into the breakdown — including the line "let the vagina have a monologue" from "Pynk" (probably the first time that request had been made on the GRAMMYs stage).
Her black-and-white clad synchronized backup dancers gave shades of Robert Palmer, but Prince (another Black icon comfortable in gender-fluidity) was the true touchstone. But that’s in no way to say that Monáe is anything but an unparalleled icon of her own, whether on the guitar, in her dance steps, or on the mic.
Lil Nas X - "Dead Right Now"/"Montero (Call Me By Your Name)"/"Industry Baby" (2022)
After years of controversy and criticism (notably from talking heads and members of the public who had or would not listen to his music), Lil Nas X’s performance at the 65th GRAMMY Awards had a real sense of catharsis.
Not that the Georgia-born rapper necessarily needed it — he’s proven plenty capable of pushing back and insisting on his identity on the daily, in social media and interviews. Still, the wide range of styles (both musical and visual) and performance versatility on display that evening felt special. His interstellar take on "Dead Right Now" proved he was capable of rising above all the noise; the hip-swiveling dazzle of "Montero (Call Me By Your Name)" showed he was unafraid to show his sensual side; and the stomp-along "Industry Baby" (complete with an appearance from Jack Harlow) demonstrated that Lil Nas X is just flat-out one of the most exciting vocal talents in hip-hop.
Kim Petras and Sam Smith - "Unholy" (2023)
Trans representation on the GRAMMYs stage took a big step forward at the most recent ceremony, thanks to Kim Petras. Not only did the German-born pop star become the first openly trans woman to win a GRAMMY Award, but her blistering performance of "Unholy" with Sam Smith likely ignited more than a little bit of inspiration, intensity, and passion in the viewing audience.
Cast in a red glow, the duo embraced the fires of lust, Petras playing the fiery cage dancer to Smith’s devilish ringmaster. Every second of the performance dripped with sweat and sex, refusing to bow to any expectation or censure, Petras humping a corner of the cage as Smith gyrated around a cane. The smoking hot fever dream more than earned the FCC complaints and the zealous fans who went on to devour more of Smith and Petras’ music.