The question of what specific data get tabulated hangs over the conversation about virality. In 2016, the young Mississippi hip-hop duo Rae Sremmurd, who first broke through with singles like "No Flex Zone" and "No Type," scored a number one chart hit with "Black Beatles," a track that served as the background music for many "mannequin challenge" videos. (It exploded around the same time as dance-based mid '10s viral hits like "Juju On That Beat (TZ Anthem)" by Zay Hilfigerrr and Zayion McCall and "Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)" by Silentó.) As the song played in the background, the camera would glide around goofy tableaus of groups frozen in motion. Like with "Old Town Road," the approval, endorsement, and participation of other celebrities aided the song's longevity, with artists like Taylor Swift and Paul McCartney staging their own "Black Beatles" scored versions of the challenge.
Rae Sremmurd were an already established act in 2016, but "Black Beatles" pushed the pair into a new stratosphere. Over the course of the decade, riding the wave of a meme became an often required, potentially awkward part of a release roll-out for many major label artists. Think of the pre-packaged viral fodder of Drake's 2015 "Hotline Bling" video or the "one taught me love" meme format that accompanied Ariana Grande's "thank u next" in 2018. For powerful artists, virality is another tactic to be weaponized; for newcomers, it can be more perilous. As writer David Turner recently described in his essential Penny Fractions newsletter, "sudden, unplanned, viral success is a danger to one's career and is framed to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience."
In 2019, describing a popular song as "viral" is a little redundant. If a track from a previously unknown or obscure artist reaches a certain level of ubiquity, it was likely launched into the public consciousness through the ever-evolving technological means of a viral hit. (Earlier this year, Lizzo's "Truth Hurts" exploded after soundtracking a dance scene in the Netflix romantic comedy Someone Great and subsequently inspiring the "#DNA Test Challenge" on TikTok.) The Lil Nas X phenomenon is unique for the way his narrative blended together so many elements of the previous viral decade: the gradual breakthrough, the ensuing debate, and the corporate coronation, played out across social media and award show stages, all took on a super-charged, self-consciously hypernormal quality.
Entering the 2020s, the utopian optimism of the viral hit, which presents tech companies as the financial savior of the music industry, will hopefully fade, allowing individual artists to play a more significant role in determining their futures. At the same time, the viral hits that do occur will likely become even more world-swallowing, signs of a pop music landscape caught in a state of unceasing war with itself. The digital attention economy -- one run on views, clicks, likes, and engagement -- will not simply collapse under its own weight one day. What does that leave the listener?
Music discovery doesn't have to be driven by a streaming algorithm, an Instagram post, a stray tweet, the recommendation of a website, or the pages of a magazine. In the 2016 book Uproot: Travels in 21st Century Music and Digital Culture, artist Jace Clayton, who creates music under the name DJ /rupture, writes at length about the search for new sounds. After stating that the music business has always been nonsense, an arena where bestsellers "subsidize the operations of everybody else," he writes that those conditions give the curious listener a "license to keep listening further afield, to chase the sound around the corner, to understand that the spotlight follows the money but our ears are free to go elsewhere." That freedom to go elsewhere is perhaps one path forward, an old road out of a new town that grows harder to escape by the day.