I have a confession to make. While there are many serious journalistic questions I seek to answer as Editor of The Glitter and Gold, I am also interested in the less-than-rational ones fans ask. Recently I have been spending time on Reddit and Quora feeding my fascination for the types of questions that go viral. Here questions like “Is Taylor Swift a good person?” can warrant hundreds of responses. These questions are not always sensible. Neither are the answers. And neither are we. Many of the things that capture our attention speak more to our deepest needs and desires than to the forward-thinking portions of our brains.
Travis Scott captures the spirit of the times
This leads me to one question which has taken much of my imagination over the last few days. “Will your favorite artist be remembered in 100 years?” Posting this question to a popular Travis Scott subreddit, it instantly struck a chord. Within a few hours, it received over a thousand Upvotes and more than a hundred comments.
“He might be a footnote in what music was popular in the late 2010s,” one fan noted, “other than that I doubt it.” Many responses fell in the negative. “Do you remember the biggest artist of 1921?” another asked. Though some fans expressed enthusiasm Scott would be around, most Reddit users were skeptical. Drake and Kanye West were thought to be safer bets.
Travis Scott poses for an Epic Records promotional photo.
Travis Scott and the dizzying heights of fame
Yet neither Drake nor Kanye West posses the immediacy of Scott’s appeal. The Texan rapper lives the life people fantasize about. After breaking through to a mass audience, his 2018 album Astrowrold has continued to chart in the US for a remarkable 147 weeks. Scott’s 2020 Fortnite concert was also no gimmick. It captured the imaginations of millions of fans. While his McDonald’s brand collaboration was both praised and scorned, it formed part of the $100 million (US) Scott is reported to have made in merchandise deals alone in 2020.
Scott’s on-again-off-again relationship with Kardashian and beauty icon Kylie Jenner also bears mention. As does his $23 million LA home. Despite his anti-celebrity image, Scott is a master of self-promotion. His massive online following, in addition to his Netflix documentary, blockbuster albums, mega-brand partnerships, and headline-making Hollywood relationship has introduced his work to an audience of millions.
Scott’s ‘Astroworld’ has sold more than 270,000 physical copies.
Travis Scott and the new age cowboy aesthetic
There is more to Travis Scott than celebrity or sales figures. What fascinates me is Scott’s image. Even though he operates in the world of pop there is an outlaw element to what he does.
One of the foremost ‘It’ personalities in rap, Scott attracts the most innovative photographers and designers to his side. His Astrowrold cover, echoing ’70s classic albums such as Pink Floyd‘s The Dark Side of The Moon, was shot by David LaChapelle. An entire new-age cowboy aesthetic, recently championed by the closely associated Cactus Plant Flea Market brand, has grown up around Scott. No copycat, he leads and does not follow.
Scott rides the wave of the times. Though as the here-today-gone-tomorrow world of pop culture often shows us, it only takes a more interesting personality to arrive to end another’s career overnight. (Look how Travis Scott’s free-living image has exploded as Wiz Khalifa‘s evaporated.) Unless you become one of hip hop’s greats, it can be a ruthless business.
The Science of forgetting
Fans make all kinds of statements about the prospect of Travis Scott’s longevity. Science too can make a ready guess. A 2019 study titled The Universal Decay of Collective Memory and Attention offers several fascinating insights about how we, as a society, remember and forget. The paper suggests there are two key things that determine how long we remember cultural products such as songs and films. The first is oral communication. This includes conversation and social interaction and the second is “physical recording of information” in books and other written material.
The study found biographies remain in our cultural memory for 20 to 30 years. Songs, on average, last until the 5.6 year mark. The popularity of the music chart-topping pop musicians, author of the study Cristian Candia has shared, is tied to our communication with others. Attention comes from seeing artists at live events, listening to music in social environments, and interacting with friends. What makes an artist stick? The study asserted simple elements in their music and the ease with which fans can place artists into familiar narrative templates are two key elements capable of enhancing their appeal.
The Universal Decay of Collective Memory and Attention also provides a reflection on fame. For some it is fleeting. For others, it lasts a long time. The most globally remembered people, it reveals are Aristotle, Plato, and Jesus. Others such as Leonardo Da Vinci, Galileo, Isaac Newton, and Karl Marx also top the list. These people changed the world through the power of their ideas. In general, however, we have an unbelievable capacity to forget. Especially when it comes to music.
Travis Scott is cast against the cosmos for an Astroworld promotional photo.
Love comes quickly, memories can last a long time
Another researcher in the field, Cesar A. Hidalgo has expanded on why songs last about 5 years. “After that,” he has shared with Pri.org, “they go into the cultural memory, which is the memory that is encoded in materials — in recordings, books, magazines, different forms of recorded media. And in the case of songs, those five years are more or less the timescale of the transition between these two regimes.”
One theory Hidalgo offers for this is simply that new content arrives and pushes older material out of our heads. Generational shifts can also have a dramatic impact. Athletes and musicians in particular tend to be tied to the living memory of certain generations. When their fans begin to pass away so do these figures’ reputations. (We tend to have different musical tastes to our grandparents!)
Songs tend to date poorly. Looking at the music of the last thousand years, very little remains listened to today, apart from classical masters such as Bach and Beethoven. More recently The Beatles offer an example of a band who can currently top record charts despite not recording or performing together for more than half a decade. A famous or dramatic death helps increase longevity. As do physical relics.
“I think everlasting figures catch the spirit of the time,” another scholar, Chris Rojeck recently informed the BBC, “and somehow express it and act as the public face of it. So we don’t have to think too hard about what the time is. They sum it up immediately.”
Travis Scott and Everlasting Fame
Travis Scott certainly fits this bill. His immediate appeal to Millennials and Gen Z is tremendous. But can he match the cross-generational appeal of The Beatles?
The odds are long. Let’s not sell him short though. After all, science suggests we will have to wait 5 years after his last hit album to know for sure. “The next 10 years will tell,” Reddit user TShark6 fittingly points out, “if he keeps making albums as popular as Astroworld then maybe. Streaming will still be around in 100 years so it will be easy to access compared to music around 100 years ago.”