The trends and aesthetic obsessions of a decade usually reach a fever pitch of nonsense right before it ends. 1999 saw a cyberpunk martial arts epic and churlish rap/metal fusion acts like Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock vie for pop culture dominance, while 2009's Jersey Shore featured a bunch of drunk hooligans running rampant across New Jersey, transfixing the world in the process. We'll likely remember 2019 as the year that a three-hour-long comic book movie—the final chapter of a decade-long, twenty-film-deep saga—Thanos-snapped every other work of visual media away to become the highest-grossing film of all-time. It’ll also be remembered as the year that a queer black teenager from the suburbs of Atlanta donned a cowboy hat and, on a lark, released a brief country-rap trifle that reigned at the top of the charts longer than any song in history. Avengers: Endgame and Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” are both not only 2019’s biggest success stories but among the biggest hits ever. Their paths to success can tell us a lot about the future of entertainment.
Last week, “Old Town Road” became the longest-running number-one single on Billboard’s Hot 100 after spending 17 weeks at the top thanks to a slew of separate remixes that all contributed to the song’s streaming numbers. Last month, Endgame stole the title of highest-grossing film from Avatar—which held the record for a decade—with the help of a theatrical re-release that included a single deleted scene and other tidbits for the MCU’s many adoring fans. Neither of these entities exploited the rules; they just followed them to their limits to unprecedented success. But for all the organic attention these works received, their numbers—a $2.794 billion worldwide gross for Endgame and streaming numbers of well over one billion for “Old Town Road”—are also the result of aggressive, blatantly opportunistic re-release campaigns meant to extend their natural lifespans. Avatar did also benefit from the same strategy of theatrical re-releases, so this might seem like nothing new.
What is new, however, is the idea that just selling well isn’t enough. There’s a prestige afforded to record-breakers, a status that argues for the importance of work that’s otherwise calculated and/or frivolous (not that these are bad qualities). The goal is to go for broke; to create the so-called “most ambitious crossover event in history” with as many works as possible. Marvel fans have been touting Endgame’s gross as proof that their preferred franchise reigns supreme, while the devotees of pop stars and rappers regularly rally each other on social media to download and stream their artist’s new singles, sometimes in competition with other fan communities.
It’s stranger still, and at least a little concerning, that the gaps between these record-breakers keep getting smaller. Consider that one of the songs that “Old Town Road” replaced as longest-running Billboard No. 1 is “Despacito,” which is only two years old. Another artist could conceivably come along and replicate Lil Nas X's strategy and break his record in the near future. Meanwhile, Endgame joins many other Marvel and Disney tentpole pictures like the Star Wars sequel trilogy and the remake of The Lion King in crossing the billion-dollar earnings mark. The numbers are nuts, but the goalposts keep moving as far as what constitutes a "hit."
Disney's Star Wars side story Solo made about $393 million worldwide last year, a figure most productions would kill for, but it was regarded as a flop so colossal that Lucasfilm decided to revise their years-in-the-making rollout. 2017’s Blade Runner 2049, another sci-fi/fantasy epic on the same scale as the previously mentioned films, did a respectable $259 million that nevertheless underperformed against the $400 million global gross that Warner Bros. executives expected. In a Forbes piece about the upcoming cinematic Dune adaptation (also directed by 2049 auteur Denis Villeneuve), writer Scott Mendelsohn points out that many of these movies are very pricey when they don’t need to be, using last year’s Jumanji spinoff as an example of a blockbuster that was “cheap enough to not have to break records” and thus a hit. These rising budgets are definitely a factor in why there’s a push for more extreme box office numbers this decade that the recent slate of blockbusters just isn’t hitting.
It’s more complicated in music. Taylor Swift’s comeback/heel-turn Reputation was 2017’s second-highest-selling album with 1.2 million copies but it lost cultural steam quickly outside of the dedicated Swiftie fan community. Its singles didn’t catch hold in the public consciousness, and that seems to be the problem with Lover’s promo cuts as well, none of which have been able to dethrone “Old Town Road” from its peak. Swift is successful by all traditional metrics, but she no longer has the kind of success that Lil Nas X has: omnipresent, tapped into the cultural zeitgeist, and smashing the established order by breaking records. “Old Town Road” asks to be more than a novelty hit; it is demanding to be a movement through exposure and sheer numbers, which is quickly becoming the only valid kind of success in media.
The end result of these demands is an arms race of who can have the most superlative hit, the one that will etch itself into history and surpass the naturally ephemeral quality of a mass-marketed product. Maybe there is some indefinable magic to anything that can still achieve that in a time when many other hits feel like they’re trying way too hard. But it’s not so much that these works are being unwillingly shoved onto an audience (catchy hip-hop singles and superhero epics are pretty agreeable forms of media), it’s this strange idea that their existing success has to be beaten into the ground through forced ubiquity. Fandom culture teaches consumers that high sales numbers can be seen as a sign of quality, and it looks like studios are taking note, trying to convince any fence-sitters that their product is the best because, well, look at all these records it broke.
If this means anything for pop media going forward, it’s that the pursuit of moments that cut through the noise of social media and unite increasingly deep niches of interest will continue to be key. A cultural moment is already bigger than a garden-variety hit, so the obvious next step is to push it beyond that and into the record books. Avengers: Endgame and “Old Town Road” are, in reality, both just fleeting moments that were willed into becoming longer-lasting institutions by brute corporate force.