“Notoriety, fame, celebrity may require individual ability, some competence, even cunning. Being a genius is helpful though not essential. What is fundamental is to be seen, noticed, discussed and to be the centre of attention, of debate, of controversies … The cardinal principle is to use and exploit all available communication systems.” –Daniel Sassoon, Becoming Mona Lisa
Historian Daniel Sassoon is referencing Da Vinci’s iconic portrait in the above quote from his book, Becoming Mona Lisa, but he might as well have been talking about the Lil Nas X single “Old Town Road.” Though Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa in 1503, the art didn’t become internationally renowned until the early 20th century, when scandal and technology plastered her image all over the globe. Allow me to explain.
In Becoming Mona Lisa, Sassoon argues that Da Vinci’s work held nowhere near the cultural recognition it does now before it was stolen on August 21, 1911. At the time of the theft, the painting was not even the most famous in its gallery in the Louvre, let alone the world.
The theft caused a national outcry. The museum closed for a week and fired its director and head of security. Newly global newspapers, including the Petit Parisien, which claimed the largest circulation in the world at the time, “mourned the loss and hyped the painting” at the same time, according to Sassoon. After all, “one could not grieve for trivial damages.”
Two years later, in 1913, the story of the recovery of the Mona Lisa in Italy seized the attention of the entire world. An antique dealer in Florence received a letter signed from ‘Leonardo’ claiming to want to return the painting to Italy as a cultural “treasure stolen by foreigners.”
After the thief was apprehended and the painting was recovered, newspapers obsessed over the story, reprinting images of it over and over for readers across the globe. The Mona Lisa was at the center of the world’s attention in a way that it had never been before. The Mona Lisa was now iconic.
In remaining No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for the past 17 weeks, Lil Nas X holds the record for the most consecutive weeks atop the chart, breaking the mark previously held by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee's “Despacito” and “One Sweet Day” from Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men.
Similarly using technology and controversy, Lil Nas X transformed his “Old Town Road” into an iconic piece of art. From the day Billboard announced the record was ineligible for placement on their country music chart, the 20-year-old Georgia native has performed a masterwork of publicity to cement his place in music and pop culture history.
As a self-described student of the internet, Lil Nas X built momentum for “Old Town Road” on social media, posting the song on Twitter in December 2018 with a host of memes. Everything changed, though, when the record reached TikTok, the video-sharing app which eclipsed Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook in total installations last September.
“I promoted the song as a meme for months until it caught on to TikTok and it became way bigger.” –Lil Nas X, Time
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Quickly, Lil Nas X became a trending topic on TikTok as teens across the globe drank “yee yee juice.” A single beat drop transformed listeners into cowgirls and cowboys, and their pets into gun-slinging cats and dogs. The single first appeared at No. 19 on Billboard’s country chart on March 16, but by the next week, the music publication had quietly removed the record, placing it onto the rap charts.
In response to the decision, a Billboard representative issued the following statement to Rolling Stone:
“Upon further review, it was determined that ‘Old Town Road’ by Lil Nas X does not currently merit inclusion on Billboard’s country charts. … While ‘Old Town Road’ incorporates references to country and cowboy imagery, it does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.”
The internet being the internet, backlash ensued. Outlets like Vulture and Pitchfork interrogated Billboard’s decision within the context of a history of cutting charts along racial lines (they called the R&B charts “Hot Black Singles” at one point). Billboard quickly issued a statement, claiming the song’s removal had nothing to do with the color of Lil Nas X’s skin, but media outlets rightly remained skeptical.
Describing the song as “country trap” but “definitely more country,” Lil Nas X stoked the fire by expressing his disappointment in Billboard's decision. And as we’ve already gone over, controversy piques public interest.
Just days after releasing “Old Town Road,” Lil Nas X tweeted interest in working with Billy Ray Cyrus, and through the scandal, he got his wish. In releasing a remix with Cyrus on April 5, Lil Nas X had fanned the spark of his viral success to a full-on flame. The next week, the song went No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. With the release of a star-studded music video and two more official remixes, including “Seoul Town Road” with BTS’s RM, the still-green Columbia Records signee continued to reinject energy into his all-time smash. A viral moment became a historical event.
When Lil Nas X first posted the song with a meme last December, he told the world “country music is evolving.” It turns out that his proclamation was a prophecy of his impact on music. How, exactly, does a 21-year-old keep the continually churning news cycle and music release schedule focused on the same piece of content? By capitalizing on a perfect storm of events—talent, scandal, and technology. Sound like a familiar blueprint?
Even with a similar rise to fame, “Old Town Road” isn’t an exact cultural canon replica of the Mona Lisa. Seventeen weeks is nothing compared to a century of fame. But does the question of longevity truly matter? Will “Old Town Road” need to be remembered in five centuries for it to be considered a masterpiece now?
For us to answer these questions, it’s best to focus on the relationship between masterpiece and memory. The Mona Lisa is the Mona Lisa only because we continue to remember it so. Artists craft masterpieces in remembrance. Cultural canons don’t just appear; the people chose them. A masterpiece is made not by the artists themselves by simple virtue of their achievement, but by us, the people, who tell its story.
When Lil Nas X took over the internet and broke a record using every avenue available to him, he made a masterpiece; his very own Mona Lisa.