Music

The Music Club, 2019

Entry 6: This year showed the wonders and perils of overnight fame.

Lil Nas X holding his hand up, palm facing him, as if to show off his rings.
Lil Nas X attends the 2019 MTV Video Music Awards at Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, on Aug. 26.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for MTV.

The 2019 Music Club features critics Carl Wilson, Lindsay Zoladz, and Ann Powers, with additional entries from Jack Hamilton, Julianne Escobedo-ShepherdJewly Hight, and Chris Molanphy.

Music Club stans,

Phew, a lot to chew on here. First of all, Carl, thanks for setting me up to second your recommendation of the Better Oblivion Community Center record. “Dylan Thomas” is a jam, but my favorite track is probably the opener, “Didn’t Know What I Was in For,” which also articulates some of the distinctly modern anxiety and “overwhelm” I wrote about in my first post. “I didn’t know what I was in for when I signed up for that run,” Conor Oberst and Phoebe Bridgers’ gorgeously paired voices sing in unison. “There’s no way I’m curing cancer, but I’ll sweat it out, I feel so proud now for all the good I’ve done.” The 24/7 relentlessness of the news cycle has made it feel more than ever that we’re jumping from tragedy to tragedy, barely catching our breath before the next mass shooting or ecological catastrophe. It’s easy to feel small and futile in the face of so much mass trauma, but it’s also a time when some of the stigmas that prevented people from talking about and bonding over their mental health struggles are finally dissolving. And I think that has something to do with why I find this record, and the blending of Oberst’s and Bridgers’ voices, so moving. Although they’re speaking from the perspectives of different genders and generations—she’s a 25-year-old highlighter-haired songwriter/Twitter genius; he’s a poetically curmudgeonly recovering emo poster boy about to turn 40—but within these songs they’re able to find common ground.

And Ann, I also wanted to underscore your mention of the Australian singer-songwriter Julia Jacklin’s great Crushing; she was one of my favorite discoveries this year. Much of Crushing is about the slow and sometimes clumsy process of rebuilding one’s individual identity after the demise of a long-term relationship, but Jacklin’s songs are also uniquely focused on the taken-for-granted strangeness of living in a (specifically female) body. Like so many of us, her tone ranges from defiant autonomy to exhausted ambivalence. “I’ll say it till he understands/ You can love somebody without using your hands,” she sings on the rollicking “Head Alone.” (Naturally, she has to say it a few times, with increasing intensity.) The song of hers that haunts me most, though, is called, simply, “Body.” It’s a masterpiece of concise, lyrical storytelling, a wryly funny retelling of a fight that put the final nail in the coffin of an ailing relationship. The last verse, though, takes a turn: She remembers a time long ago when her ex took a picture of her in a private moment, “23, naked on your bed, looking straight at you.” Suddenly, she finds her imagination wandering to the all-too-common fear of revenge porn. “Do you still have that photograph? Would you use it to hurt me?” she sings in a chillingly detached voice. “Well, I guess it’s just my life, and it’s just my body.”

Much of what we’ve been talking about this year has centered on the darker side of social media—its tendency to eradicate context, to ignore the humans behind the avatars, to flatten and commodify so many lives and bodies. So-called stan culture at its worst makes a sport of all this and draws needlessly stark lines where you’re seen as either “for” or “against” any major cultural phenomenon, with little space for independent thought in between. But I think this is all also related to a conversation the music industry is just beginning to have—too late, of course—about the mental toll of sudden, viral fame. Like a lot of listeners and critics, I’ve been thinking a lot in the past week about the late melodic rapper Juice Wrld, the most recent fallen idol of the SoundCloud generation, who died on Dec. 8, just six days after his 21st birthday. Everything has become so accelerated in the digital world, from package delivery to attention spans, that it can be difficult to slow down and think about the human cost of all this change. People used to talk about music’s doomed “27 Club”; Juice and the departed Lil Peep were six years away from even living to see that age.

So sad how often this is happening lately to young talented rising artists,” Lil Nas X tweeted when news broke of Juice Wrld’s passing. “I usually deal with my sad times in private because i don’t like for my fans or family to feel sorry for me. this year had a lot of very high ups and extremely low downs. when u get to that hotel room and it’s just you, you do a lot of thinking. small things become so BIG.”

If the correlation between success and happiness were as direct as we’re often led to believe, no one in 2019 should have been happier than Lil Nas X: Last year the 20-year-old born Montero Lamar Hill was unknown to all but his modest Twitter following. Twelve months later, he is a diamond-selling, Grammy-nominated musician who is responsible for the longest-running Billboard No. 1 song of all time, the inescapable global smash “Old Town Road.” So it feels refreshing—and also indicative of a generation more open to talking about anxiety and depression—for him to admit that, in his words, “feeling like u have the world and knowing it can all go away at any time is scary.”

A bit like Cardi B a few years before him, Lil Nas X is a new kind of celebrity, adept at using social media to perform and comment upon the act of becoming famous before our very eyes. On his Instagram and especially his deadpan, constitutionally lowercase Twitter feed (display name: “nope”), he seemed to be just as bemused by the surreal rise of “Old Town Road” as the rest of us were. We were all agog when Billy Ray Cyrus first tweeted at him, sending a message of solidarity when he got kicked off Billboard’s country charts; shortly afterward, when they released a remix together, it felt like a meme had come to life. Though it would take a while, reading all of Lil Nas X’s 2019 tweets in chronological order would give you a pretty comprehensive snapshot of exactly how quickly viral fame moves at this moment in time. He went from celebrating his song hitting No. 1 to, 16 weeks later, his song setting an all-time Hot 100 record. He met Oprah. He adopted a dog, and then another dog, because he couldn’t choose between them. He came out, in gloriously shrugging fashion (“deadass thought i made it obvious,” he tweeted, pointing to some rainbows on his album art; your brand’s carefully rolled-out corporate #Pride marketing strategy wept). When he was nominated for six Grammys including Album of the Year (for his 19-minute EP 7), he reacted—how else?—with a very weird meme.

This is still all strange and new. When I was first trying to make sense of “Old Town Road” back in April, I wrote that I suspected it to be “some kind of cosmic litmus test to determine whether we can still enjoy things or whether the jaded pessimism of the internet age has completely eroded our capacity to experience simple and unproblematic joy.” I type this now just over one year since Nas first posted “Old Town Road” to his SoundCloud, and it feels like a minor miracle that the fun of it all has still not been spoiled, or that he has not been milkshake-ducked. The worst I can say is that I certainly don’t think his EP deserved an Album of the Year Grammy nomination, which feels like a rather dramatic overcorrection for years of overlooking both hip-hop and internet-native music for major awards. Still, the wild and improbable rise of Lil Nas X in 2019 proves that the infrastructure is in place for this level of overnight success to happen once again, and for plenty of people—not just the artist himself but labels, streaming platforms, and whoever else is savvy enough to jump on the remix at the right moment—to make an absurd amount of money off it very quickly. What I’m not sure is yet in place is a system of support for the artists who have trouble dealing with these rapid and staggering changes in their lives. (And honestly, who among us wouldn’t?!) Maybe Juice Wrld’s and Lil Peep’s legacies will be to have started these conversations. But to keep the cycle from repeating, we will need to keep having them, over and over, and in public.

Jewly, when your turn comes, I’m very curious to hear your perspective on “Old Town Road.” I’ve dug into the internet of it all, but I’d love to hear from you about what you think it means from a genre perspective and what its impact might be on country music’s immediate future. And Ann, as I hand things back over to you, I’d also love to hear what you observed this year in how the music industry is (or isn’t) dealing with the aftermath of the #MeToo movement. Not that that work is in the rearview at all. In February the New York Times published a number of disturbing allegations against Ryan Adams; among the brave women who spoke out against him were the aforementioned Phoebe Bridgers and his ex-wife, Mandy Moore. The year, of course, also brought new attention to the allegations against R. Kelly and Michael Jackson, resurfacing plenty of uncomfortable questions and inconvenient truths. Did your personal relationship as a listener change with these or any other artists this year? Was there anyone you found yourself “canceling,” or do you not find that a particularly productive solution?

Hat down, cross town, livin’ like a rock star,
Lindsay

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