Lil Nas X performs at JMBLYA at Fair Park in Dallas in May. (Rick Kern / WireImage)
San Marino High School

Opinion: Lil Nas X’s success marks the era of music ‘meme-ism’ and nothing more

After making history with “Old Town Road” as the longest-running No. 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100, Lil Nas X has been covered by news outlets, magazines, and blogs alike such as CNN, the New Yorker, Pitchfork, and Highsnobiety. You name the publication, and its site probably has at least one article on the track’s prior controversy and overnight success.

Therein lies the problem… or just society’s stagnant paradigm?

In 2004, the New York Times’ Kelefa Sanneh had penned of the change in the winds with his article “The Rap Against Rockism,” criticizing the then-prevalent ideology that rock — specifically its facets of the so-called “authentic old legend” and “growling performer” — was superior to other genres. Little did he know (or maybe he did…) that these words would spark a decade-spanning debate and the false dilemma of rockism versus poptimism — which was the same as its progenitor, but just think Taylor Swift and Britney Spears and not Led Zeppelin and Pavement as the canon from which everything else must be compared.

Criticism abounded and platforms imploded with these polarizing perspectives, claiming either to disregard the spectrum entirely,  according to PopMatters or to return to the way music journalism used to be.

The latter purists were even found in the New York Times itself as Saul Austerlitz refuted Sanneh’s article 10 years later in “The Pernicious Rise of Poptimism.” The pendulum, Austerlitz explained, had swung too far to the left, analogizing the mainstream focal points of current music journalism to a food critic’s praise for “Wendy’s Spicy Chipotle Jr. Cheeseburger.”

What then do we make of the stardom of Lil Nas X? Is he truly, as the L.A. Times have labeled him, a trailblazer for a “wave of gay/bisexual rappers?” Or is he merely an extension of poptimism that now seeps into the soundtracks of trending memes, the extremist rejection of what Austerlitz yearned for?

If listening is “gendered” as Gina Arnold claims it is in her contribution to the “33 1⁄3” series on Liz Phair’s “Exile on Guyville,” then perhaps it also has the potential to be not just racially-charged, but also preconceived to notions of sexuality.

This perspective is best seen from the outside looking in as detractors of rockism have likened the ideology to the tried-and-true subversion of the Billboard Hot 100 in the 1970s. The Disco-Sucks! Movement, for example, was framed with the pulses of racism and the cishetero-patriarchy, an obsession specifically with “who should be making [music],” Sanneh points out

The same forces can be determining factors of Lil Nas X’s success, but in terms of progressive inclusivity rather than retrogressive exclusivity.

That “Old Town Road” charted (and continues to chart) due to a more accepting society that now actively seeks out (as opposed to shutting out) queer/intersectional talent is a possibility, one that has been proven by the critical consensus of Frank Ocean’s “Blonde” or Tyler, the Creator’s “Flower Boy.” At the same time however, this thought process would neglect the facts that: 

1) Lil Nas X never came out until the tailend of Pride Month, thus not accounting for the months of April and May, and that 

2) The audience who had initially contributed to the virality of “Old Town Road” in TikToks had probably, like the participants of Disco Demolition Night themselves,  “view[ed] the event as mere horseplay” (no pun intended).

The latter answer is, therefore, the only valid possibility, and one that isn’t unlikely in a world where Billie Eilish’s music (I, and probably you, can’t even count the number of “Bad Guy” memes we’ve seen) has been combed through for its ASMR facets by Pitchfork. Perhaps poptimism has reached its pinnacle of inclusivity to further encompass the music behind your favorite TikToks, though that is not to say memes alone are enough to warrant coverage.

After all, the true reason why “Old Town Road” hasn’t been labeled “awesomely bad” by rockists like every other #1 single is because of its cultural context — how it threw genre to the wind with its hodgepodge of instrumentation and lyricism, simultaneously country, rap, and now undoubtedly commercial pop. 

But as we do take one step closer to poptimism with its subcategory of (for lack of better words) music meme-ism, it’s time we start paving a path for a world where the LA Times’ words can finally ring with at least some truth, where “a win for the gays” isn’t some passing fad or the exception to the rule.

Because with the uncanny timing of Lil Nas X’s coming out, almost like an afterthought to the celebrity status he had already amassed, a sense of impropriety starts to permeate the headlines that “Lil Nas X has forever changed hip-hop as an out queer artist.”

Would he have made history if he had come out any earlier? Is his success, akin to Bledsoe’s in Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man,” the byproduct of convenient conformity — an “I had to play the [straight man]” — before queer was thrown into the mix as the buzzword for almost all publications to now blow out of proportion considering its lack of obvious influence on “Old Town Road” itself?

Maybe you’re saying that I’m too picky, that I’m yet another hater hiding behind a screen now dismissing Lil Nas X as “not gay (early) enough,” but that’s not the case. The music of queer artists can, of course, amount to more than their sexual orientation, such as how Cuco’s music is “catered to everbody” and not “Latin-exclusive,” but we can’t get caught in the hype of specious change when it doesn’t actually challenge the correlated status quo.

The modernity of genre and the commercial feasibility of music meme-ism were the only aspects of the music industry that were actually tested with “Old Town Road.” Lil Nas X now has the platform to enact change, but until we embrace the truly queer-centric on the charts à la “Saturday Night Fever,” have acceptance exist in a form more than name, the hip-hop community’s stride towards disco-era inclusivity is still as gradual as it was before with Lil Nas X’s progenitors, and nothing more.

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