Lil Nas X's Grammy nomination is proof that algorithms are running the show
Lil Nas X is a fitting avatar for the shifts in pop culture that have taken place over the past decade. The 20-year-old musician's ascent to viral stardom occurred with the efficiency of a tech startup. His single "Old Town Road" first crept, and then marched — and eventually stomped, with the help of Billy Ray Cyrus — to the top of the charts, where it stayed for a record number of weeks. Today, Lil Nas X was nominated for the Grammy for album of the year for his EP 7.
As these things go in 2019, "Old Town Road" came packaged with a story of resistance. The song flips a Nine Inch Nails sample for a decidedly honky-tonk effect, but was initially rejected from the Country Music charts, causing many to point out the obvious racial inequity at play. It didn't matter much, since anyone reading this knows what happened next: The track, and its subsequent remix, became inescapable.
And it would seem that becoming inescapable is the end goal of most creative output these days. Lil Nas X is a prolific tweeter, and theories abound about the myriad ways he utilized social media to ensure his song's sustained viral appeal. There were Reddit posts and TikTok memes all before the general public caught wind of the earworm of a single. Then came talk show appearances, quippy tweets and more TikToks. Even a performance for Jeff Bezos. When it comes to the actual music, everything after "Old Town Road" points to a young person less interested in being a musician than in being a celebrity, which makes Lil Nas X's Grammy nomination confounding, concerning, and even a little scary.
Alongside similarly viral acts like Billie Eilish and Lizzo, Lil Nas X's debut EP, 7 was nominated ostensibly on the strength of a viral hit. 7 was almost universally panned, and even on streaming platforms — where the majority of people have resigned to be ushered musically by functionally unfeeling algorithms — 7 has paltry numbers, especially when you don't count streams for "Old Town Road."
The eight-track EP hardly qualifies as an album in the traditional sense, and when you consider most debut albums, grand introductory statements of a creative vision, 7 isn't much more than a failed meme testing ground. Without looking, try naming a song from the album that isn't "Old Town Road."
And yet it could very well be dubbed the album of the year by what was once considered the de facto body on handing out such declarations. Things these days do seem more fragmented, confounding, and nonsensical than ever, so it's hard to take it all that seriously. Whereas previous generations' gripes with Grammy snubs seemed like something was at stake, now it seems more like a product feature for music that is increasingly devoid of any humanity. But at least the memes are funny, right!?