Do the most absurd of stories prove the existence of a higher power or are they proof that life is unplanned chaos? The current state of affairs is enough to get you to tweet “this is the worst timeline (frown emoji)” at least once a day, and that’s just dealing with hard news. But that’s not where the silliness of this year ends. If you’re a music fan, the first half of the year has been odd, to say the least.
And it’s not just the stories concerning musicians, whether it’s Moby making up a story about dating Natalie Portman or that cringe-worthy press release Meghan Trainor’s team put out that basically amounted to “Meghan has sex.” You can find a whole world of little things that seem just a little off by browsing the Billboard singles charts. For example:
*Chvrches finally got a single on the Billboard Hot 100 with a largely unremarkable collaboration with Marshmello. Then they spoke about their disappointment that Marsh worked with Chris Brown on a song. Then they started getting death threats because, as we all know, Chris Brown fans are reasonable people.
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*Halsey added another top 10 single to her catalog by… just sort of randomly making noises on the most recent BTS single. It’s wild, but a pretty genius move if you can get on the hook for a song from the biggest band in the world.
*And then there’s Lil Dicky’s “Earth” which is just shy of “We Are The World” in terms of star power. We’re talking Bieber, Grande, Kevin Hart, Shawn Mendes and a whole bunch of people who probably should have known better than to sign up for this dud. The kicker to this truly odd track of famous people saying dumb things comes from Lil Dicky himself, who takes the time to forgive Germany for the Holocaust, which I’m not sure has ever happened in a pop song before.
But the true thing that is going to keep pop scholars talking about this year, in particular, is what’s going on at the top of the chart. Is the top song in the country the powerhouse duo of Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber? Is it yet another song that has made the masses fall in love with Shawn Mendes? No. It’s a remix to a very silly but utterly catchy rap song called “Old Town Road” that features Billy Ray Cyrus.
If you had to pick a Cyrus to top the charts in the year of our Lord 2019, you know you didn’t have your money on Billy Ray at the start of the year.
By now the original controversy surrounding “Old Town Road” getting kicked off the country charts is pretty well known, because as we all know it’s fine for white guys to rip off black culture in the pursuit of keeping their genre relevant but against the rules for black artists to beat them at their own game. Lil Nas X gets the laugh last because there are a whole host of country acts who’ve been chasing down this kind of crossover success for years with no luck.
But the real miracle of “Old Town Road” is what it prevented. Imagine trying to make sense of this sentence six months ago:
Taylor Swift is going to release the worst single of her career, and the only reason it’s not the biggest song in the United States is because of a song that prominently features Billy Ray Cyrus.
It’s bonkers that it’s our reality, but rather this one than one with a song as generic and banal as “Me!” is the peak of music consumption. “Me!” is so bad it feels almost like some sort of 3D chess level flex by an artist trying to prove they can do anything and still hit the top of the chart.
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But the real winner here is not Lil Nas X, who will be invited to festivals for the rest of his life, or Billy Ray Cyrus, who found himself some not-Miley spotlight long after everyone had given up on him. No, the real winner is Nine Inch Nails, who are quietly having the best year in music.
First, there was the prominent NIN placement in a billion dollar movie that lead to an official NIN x Marvel shirt collaboration. Then Trent Reznor got to induct The Cure into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, an institute he’s gone out of his way to be apathetic toward in the past. And now they’ve gotten their highest charted single ever, because without NIN’s “34 Ghosts IV” “Old Town Road” wouldn’t exist. The use of a sample from - and here’s a fun bit of obscure NIN trivia - the Grammy-nominated track got Reznor and Atticus Ross songwriting and production credit on the track.
And here we all thought the weirdest thing that would happen in Reznor’s career would be winning a Grammy for an EP that had the word “fistfuck" on it.