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Essay: On the Lil Nas X Debate
THE LIL NAS X DEBATE IS NOW A DUCK: A MODEST PROPOSAL OF ADVERTISING AND CONTENT CREATION
By Christopher Sloce
Let’s ring the necessary bells before we get started talking about Lil Nas X, Wrangler, culture wars, and avian waterfowl. Because of the nature of this article is a curious one, we need to lay out a few things before it gets possibly confusing.
Everything you need to know is Lil Nas X is a teen with a knack for social media who recorded an absurdist rap-country song that grew popular through TikTok and memes. Just as the song was about to break through into a country music moment, it was ruled to not be country enough for the charts by Billboard. That’s when Billy Ray Cyrus saw an opportunity for relevance, recorded the remix, and created the jam of the summer. So in order to begin, let’s start with the question, which is simpler than anybody has made it. Is “Old Town Road” a country song?
“Old Town Road” is a country song that features rapping, which is a musical technique, and any genre too small to feature a musical technique is not a genre with a long life cycle ahead of it. The fear that Lil Nas X is somehow interloping into the Grand Ole Opry has everything to do with how he looks and almost nothing to do with the song itself, a loving goof on both common rap and country music tropes made by a musician who seems to have a decent enough handle on both. If Florida Georgia Line, the Justified theme song, and Ludacris doing a guest verse for Jason Aldean didn’t start a culture war, neither should an actually good song. Thus: the exclusion of “Old Town Road” from the country charts is done by people who barely understand their genre, let alone music, let alone basic logic, and largely done in the interest of preserving a certain level of hegemony on their portion of the dial. Furthermore, those who had the interest of excluding Lil Nas X were fed a large portion of crow when the song dominated the Hot 100 charts, as they well should have been, and it’s been nice to see a viral superstar as likable as Lil Nas X get a win, even if he had to collaborate with Billy Ray Cyrus in the process, who has always bit ass, no matter how much the art student in cut-off faded Levis and Blunnies (or whoever DJs it) running your local honky tonky night claims “Achy Breaky Heart” slaps. In fact, in another essay, I’d go as far to argue his inclusion on “Old Town Road” is actually a detriment, but this is not that essay, though I will say when he mentioned a Maserati I wanted to shave his entire body, strip him naked, and drop him on a country ride miles from Rodeo Drive.
Reading that paragraph I would imagine may bring about a few responses, but the two most primal are these: “Hell yeah! Christopher Sloce is on my side!” or, “Who is this soyboy, telling me what a country song is? Let me yell at him in the driver’s seat of my Yukon”. And of those two responses, the one I’d most like to speak to is the second and ask him the most immortal question of internet discourse: “you mad?”
I ask as much as a taunt as I do a real question: does it actually make you mad if Lil Nas X wrote a country song? Does it continue to make you mad if now Lil Nas X does a Wrangler collection that sells like hot cakes? What is this all about, here, then?
This now brings me to my most cryptic assertion: the Lil Nas X debate is a duck.
WHAT, PRECISELY, IS A DUCK? WHERE DOES IT COME FROM?
To define what a duck is, let me tell you a story.
I am currently in a group chat that I use pretty frequently that for one reason or another was dead and not delivering any entertainment. If you know of these kind of group chats, you probably know some topics bring with them a certain immediate divisiveness, usually pertaining to food. Seeing as things were very quiet, I decided to foist upon my friends a shower thought I had not too long ago, put forth in typical meme style:
you, a fool: a hot dog is a sandwich
me, an intellectual: ducks are seafood
What I thought would be ignored turned out to be a fount for heated discussion. After a moment of debate, one participant (we’ll call him X) stood alone as someone who thought that claiming ducks were seafood was an abject insanity. X’s points were well considered whereas mine consisted of the following: you can’t rule out ducks as being seafood because they’re in freshwater, because when you order catfish, they still call it seafood. If frogs, which spend time on the land, are still considered seafood, you can’t disqualify them for that. There’s no category for what waterfowl would be other than ‘poultry’, but there’s nothing that declares seafood as not being able to fly. With these reasonings in place, thus it has to be considered ducks may very well be seafood.
This was not enough for X. I eventually decided to go to the modern day Library of Alexandria, Wikipedia, to prove my point. Once I did a ctrl+f for ducks, lo and behold, I learned that ducks were listed as seafood on the ‘Seafood’ wiki, which I will now excerpt a screenshot of to prove that I’m not a total nut.
This point in the argument served as a lynchpin in my original position. I am just a foul beast, but when Wikipedia agrees with me, I become something more divine. I considered this my win and wondered if X would be able to work his way out of this jam.
But something curious happened: a later participant (Y, we’ll call them) did a ctrl+f search on the Wikipedia page for “ducks” and it was gone. I thought that maybe somewhere in the world there could be some sort of hot debate on whether ducks were seafood, as Wikipedia editors are their own odd breed. Then I thought for ten seconds about who would be on Wikipedia, annoyed enough at the assertion that ducks were seafood, and willing to deface history?
It could only be X. A cursory look at the page history saw his IP address and a simple comment. “Ducks aren’t seafood.”
No matter the merits of X’s own debate, could anyone take the “ducks aren’t seafood” side seriously because of the depths ventured upon to win an argument of no consequence.
So allow us to define a duck. A duck is as follows:
So that’s why the Lil Nas X debate is at this point a duck. The point made (Old Town Road is a country song) was contentious. Whether or not “Old Town Road” is a country song is of little or no consequence (does it actually matter if it is or not? I’ve established it is what it is and that if the argument hinges on the fact it has rapping and 808s, then it’s a weak argument). We have reached the settling period, which is that Lil Nas X, having been kicked off of the country charts, took over TikTok and the Hot 100 ,made it back to the country charts, and now any resistance brings to mind axioms about doing the same thing and expecting a different result. You can’t make a duck not seafood and you can’t make “Old Town Road” not a country song, but you can lather yourself to feel something and continue screaming your point until your voice is but a whimper.
So what’s the Wrangler campaign? It’s the final frontier of the duck: where the bucks are made and the duck produces beyond its status as a schadenfreude machine.
A DUCKER IS BORN EVERY MINUTE
Everything you need to know about capitalism can be summed up by two phrases, one born out of the aether of con men and mountebanks, and the other more specifically applicable to the gambler Canada Bill Jones. They are as follows.
That’s pretty much what you need to know: it would be immoral to let the suckers that are born every minute keep their money. At least Canada Bill Jones didn’t get paid in government subsidies and tax cuts. But there’s money beyond money, and that’s partially where the duck comes into play.
We’ve established above that the thing that makes the duck so powerful is that the amount of energy supplied to it far outweighs its meaningfulness as a discussion. Without its doubling down it is no longer a duck, but rather an unpopular opinion. To go back to gambling terms: it’s one thing to get outplayed or hit a bad beat, but another thing entirely to become a sucker. To quote a third of that class of ne’er do wells, Amarillo Slim, “You can shear a sheep many times but you can only skin him once.” A person who falls prey to the duck is, by that measure, a sucker: they hand the greedy shepherd the shears and baas ‘it’s about ethics in country music journalism’ as they’re trimmed.
Animal metaphors aside, I promised this section would be about how the duck produces something: money, finite resources, etc.
In a way, it’s a take-off of the old sociopath’s bromide that “there’s no such thing as bad publicity”, or, rather, there’s no bad way to go viral. Rest assured, if we found out Steakumms was made of raccoon meat, they’d throw a raccoon in their twitter handle and tweet out twaddle like, “When the trash panda is fire!” But it’s less complicated than that, really, and has everything to do with driving engagement. The duck can be used to those ends because in its own inconsequentiality, it becomes a question that probably truly can’t be answered and can only be intimated towards, which creates fertile ground for debate.
The original debate sparked due to Billboard sending away Lil Nas X for not being sufficiently country, which then resulted in a level of controversy that rocketed it to becoming the biggest song in the country, as we’ve established. Until that point, we were witnessing a yanny/laurel debate with the great stakes of identity and culture leaking in. Now, there was but one victor, Lil Nas X, bull-riding away into the hearts of America. While there is no country music Supreme Court to establish country music bonafides, it was taken quite personally.
Now, the suckers have married to a brand (Wrangler) a series of values. Lil Nas X is a circumvention of those values, and now they feel chagrined. However, following that not only did Lil Nas X make a country song, they have continued digging themselves into the duck-hole. And as they claw further and further, their protestations become public, all of a sudden there’s resources and oil struck. Vox sees this and goes, “Well, we have to explain the controversy,” and lines their coffers with advertising money while the freelance workers who are paid to dig up the nuggets of content are not even guaranteed the right to bargain as a collective. Bluechecks on twitter find ample opportunity to dunk on the boob who is tweeting themselves halfway to China, and then when the blow-up goes viral, they link their Cashapp or Soundcloud. And all the while, Wrangler smiles, knowing that for the first time in years, Wrangler is on the tongues of the social mediaed.
Not every duck takes this path, but the spirit of the duck is in every half-assed boycott or every CHUD who has their name put as Deus Volt on a Starbucks coffee cup. Now that content is something you can buy, sell, and create, anything that creates an extemporaneous source of renewable content has to be of more value. And now that it exists, in our spectacle driven capitalist society, it can only become commodified, sold, and exploited.
I can’t speak to the future of the duck. I don’t know what the duck holds. Maybe tomorrow it won’t be Lil Nas X, but it’ll be ‘what noise do sharks make’. And I’m not asking people to never know if it’s yanny or laurel, have no opinion on what color the dress is, or if a hot dog is a sandwich (it is). Or to never post about it.
But what I will posit is this: somewhere, somebody said that everyday the internet picks a protagonist and you hope it isn’t you. This is that theory as applied to advertising. I won’t tell you to go outside, but I do need to say this.
Even if Adbusters or Banksy are cringy or flat out bad art, they have within the germs of something very true. Their failure has launched into new modes of advertising, which is an affront we need to stand up against. It’s one thing to laugh at an ad, but it exists to sell you something, and that’s what needs to be ruthlessly examined, as rudimentary as that sounds.
I’ve written in the past about brands using mental illness as a marketing tactic. I buy things because I live in a world where I have to survive, but what I refuse to do is label Nestle chocolate or Nike ‘woke’. As an Irish barman said, trust your mother but cut the cards. And when you dig in your heels to argue about something largely innocuous, open your ears and see if a quacking comes for you.
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