America may be split over the meaning of its national anthem, but there was no argument about the anthem that ruled this summer: Everywhere you went, wherever you looked, we were all riding til we couldn’t no more. The song’s twangy, earworming jubilation crossed generations and genres, infecting kids on TikTok and grandparents on Facebook, sparking elementary school gym sing-a-longs and enough hilarious memes to break the internet.
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Then there’s the song’s creator, Lil Nas X, the cowboy-hat-loving, meme-flipping, gay 20-year-old who has handled his sudden success just as smoothly as he handled his horses in the “bacc” — with glee, warmth, and such an earnest openness that I’m almost tempted to call him a hero for an age otherwise lacking in moral pillars.
You might pooh-pooh that idea: Farhad, it’s just a two-minute pop song, let’s not beat this horse dead. To which I counter: Can’t nobody tell me nothing.
But if I were to put on my op-ed columnist bow tie and force myself to have a few big thoughts about “Old Town Road,” I’d say there’s something quietly profound here. The unlikely story of the song’s creation and culture-spanning success suggests some reason for optimism about the power of digital culture to forge a shared perspective in the years ahead.
For as long as the internet has been around, the story of media has been one of fragmentation and atomization. Thanks to all these new formats, new business models, and new distribution technologies, we’ve been drowning in an unprecedented level of choice in movies, music, TV shows, books and, especially, sources of news. As a result, everything is personalized and polarized — we’re all split into social-media-selected tribes, where our consumption of news and culture feels constantly shaped by a privacy-invading algorithmic determination of one’s innermost sense and sensibility.
And yet, in the last few years, something counterintuitive has been happening with mass media: It’s been getting more mass. It’s not just “Old Town Road.” Across the cultural industries, blockbusters are getting blockbustier: Despite the barrage of choice, more of us are enjoying more of the same songs, movies and TV shows. We are not nearly as siloed as we tend to think we are.
Just as Lil Nas X was breaking records in music, Disney was smashing them in movies. Last month, “Avengers: Endgame” crushed the record held by “Avatar” for the highest grossing movie of all time, and it’s just one of several billion-dollar hits Disney is releasing this year.
Even television, where the streaming war has inundated viewers with choice — a record 495 scripted shows were made in 2018 — has a lot of blockbusters. An average of 44 million people across the world watched each episode of the final season of “Game of Thrones” this year. And NBC’s “The Office” was streamed for 52 billion minutes on Netflix in 2018, according to Nielsen — that’s about 15 hours of “The Office” for each of Netflix’s 60 million subscribers, a hit so phenomenal that NBCUniversal paid a reported $500 million to license the show for its own upcoming streaming service.
Why are hits getting bigger? In movies, the story is all about the growing size of the international box office. David A. Gross, who runs the consulting firm Franchise Entertainment Research, told me that with its animated hits and superhero flicks, Disney has been especially good at making movies that tap into a global shared consciousness. “These are universal stories,” he said.
In music and TV, it’s the streaming business that’s changing everything. Chris Molanphy, who writes a brilliant music chart-watching column for Slate, told me that streaming has led to quirkier hits that seem to come out of nowhere, and that stick around for longer — cuts like Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used To Know” from 2012, or 2017’s “Despacito,” by Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee and Justin Bieber, which spent a then record-tying 16 weeks at #1.
“In the 1980s, the whole music industry was more top-down regulated — retail managers at record stores and program directors on radio had their own agendas, and they had a much bigger hand in what got popular,” Mr. Molanphy said. “Old Town Road,” by contrast, got its start on TikTok, where it became a viral phenomenon as part of something called the “Yeehaw Challenge.”
The song did face moments of top-down strangulation, like when Billboard removed the song from its country-music chart for not being country enough. But rather than get caught up in the culture war, Lil Nas X just glided over it, releasing a remix with Billy Ray Cyrus that crushed all would-be chart competitors.
There’s a cynical way to regard the rise of big hits like “Old Town Road” — that we are all amusing ourselves to death, as the scholar Neil Postman once warned.
I don’t think that’s right, though. While the internet has made a mess of our politics, it’s starting to do something remarkable for our culture businesses. Marty Kaplan, who studies entertainment at the U.S.C. Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, argued that we’re getting bigger blockbusters at the same time as we’re expanding the “long tail” of media choice. We’re getting riffs on the familiar — like Disney’s many sequels and luxurious reboots of old hits — but we also keep getting new formats, new artists, and novel business models. There’s little to complain about: Until everything blows up, digital entertainment is leading to greater innovation, artistic freedom, growing diversity, and a rising sense of widely shared cultural experiences.
Oh, and “Old Town Road”? As they say on Twitter, even after 18 weeks at the top, it still slaps.
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