I heard an interesting idea on the radio this morning which runs counter to the cult of Big Data, which has overrun the thinking of corporate America and its marketing divisions: “The fatal flaw of Big Data is that it is a measurement of the past.” We know from decades of being told so that “the greatest predictor of future performance is past performance,” and while this is theoretically true, it is also true that the greatest business disasters have developed when organizations depended too heavily on old ways. Then the flaming meteor of change came and wiped out these dinosaurs, all of which bemoaned that they were following the template of what the data were telling them.
Trends shift. You can be too religious about your particular favorite.
I am reminded of this when confronted by the stunning success of the song “Old Town Road” by L’il Nas X, later adding a feature hook from Billy Ray Cyrus. The song originated on the short-form video sharing app TikTok. There is nothing one can say about the song other than the multitude of ways it gets things “wrong.” L’il Nas X has commandeered the names of three, possibly four, of the most influential rappers from hip hop’s history: Lil Wayne, L’il Jon, Nas, and DMX, yet he doesn’t have the skill to ever wind up alongside them in music hall of fame. His rap flow is shockingly flat. His original song was only one minute and fifty-three seconds long. Cyrus himself is relegated to history’s punchlines, known more in recent years for latching hard onto daughter Miley’s successes. Nothing about this track should work, and indeed, after 2019 has gone, it will likely wind up in the dustbin containing “Macarena,” “The Tomato Song,” “Mambo No. 5,” “Who Let The Dogs Out,” you get the idea.
But for all the sins it commits, the song does one thing right: it completely rejects Big Data. When you think about how cookie-cutter, repetitive, and soulless pop music has become lately, it is apparent that what producer/songwriters have really mastered was not songcraft, but analytics: how long should the track be, how many times is the hook employed, how few words are required to do it, do people respond more to fingersnaps for a rhythm versus a traditional drum sound, are the lyrics vaguely inspirational or sexual. With metrics in hand producers have seen what dog whistles the audience respond to and have, in turn, whistled some more.
On paper, there is nothing about “Old Town Road” that a sane industry professional would call the right thing to do, yet by doing all these things, it has succeeded far beyond anyone’s wildest imaginings. Let’s be clear: that doesn’t make the song good. It certainly makes it more interesting than the dozen other songs on radio that are so slavishly beholden to the analyses and benchmarks that they all just blend together into a writhing mush.
I’d love to see the song do so well that it causes the league of megaproducers out there to rethink their formulas, but that’s likely giving a fluke – and this is a fluke – more credit than it deserves. Nonetheless, it provides a contrast. “Old Town Road” may win by falling face-first over itself, but for now, that stumble is an honest one; not gerrymandered by the Big Data committees.
And Now On To This Week’s New Indie Singles – New Jersey’s The Successful Failures return with a new single, prefacing the late August release of their next album, Saratoga. “Disgruntled Bankers” follows up “Love You So,” which bowed in May. Their version of twangy roots rock is worth checking out, and you can do so over at Amazon and Bandcamp.
Washington D.C. power-poppers Vegas With Randolph have a new track out, their first since last year’s Legs and Luggage album. “Give In To Love” is now up at Bandcamp.
A Look at Billboard’s Top 10 Tracks – If you’re looking for something remotely within the “rock” idiom, about the best you’re getting this week is the big Jonas Brothers reunion hit, “Sucker.” Sorry, folks. No revolution here.
The previously mentioned Old Town Road by Lil Nas X Featuring Billy Ray Cyrus is #1 this week.
2. Billie Eilish – Bad Guy
3. Khalid – Talk
4. Jonas Brothers – Sucker
5. Ed Sheeran & Justin Bieber – I Don’t Care Further in the “wishful thinking department,” Justin Bieber remains relevant, tied in here with the folk-pop juggernaut Ed Sheeran. As a coda to what I mentioned earlier about the formulization of pop, “I Don’t Care” tends to suffer from being little more than a combination of Sheeran’s hit “Shape of You” and Bieber’s “Love Yourself,” not surprisingly written by Sheeran. It’s a perfect combination for anyone that’s interested in not being surprised or challenged.
6. Post Malone – Wow. This is the first of two tracks for the face-tattooed hip-pop star Post Malone this week.
7. Post Malone & Swae Lee (of Rae Sremmurd) – Sunflower (Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse)
8. DaBaby – Suge
9. Chris Brown Featuring Drake – No Guidance For all of the disgust people feel over Chris Brown’s actions in the past, none of it is reflected in the response he continues to get on the charts, as witnessed here in partnership with rap’s biggest current star, Drake.
10. Sam Smith & Normani – Dancing With A Stranger