I won’t try to convince you how to feel about XXXtentacion’s shocking murder at the age of 20. But it is worth talking about his ascent and legitimization within the music industry, a fairly unprecedented thing that nobody was equipped to handle. The conditions are there for someone as charismatic and problematic to soon follow in his footsteps, repeating the whole embarrassing ordeal over again.
XXXtentacion was an insanely popular artist whose songs were streamed millions of times by a fanbase willing to justify his behavior. This provided an incredible opportunity for making money, whether by actually releasing his music, or by just being willing to talk about it. At no point did enough actors in the industry say Hey, maybe not, allowing his popularity to balloon until his death, where his legacy will now be debated by people who think it doesn’t matter if you nearly murder your ex-girlfriend, if the songs are hot enough. At a certain industry level, moral concerns about a person’s behavior bend to the financial realities of their success.
The mainstream music ecosystem — publications like Pitchfork and The Fader; radio channels like Apple’s Beats 1 and Sirius XM’s myriad offerings; influencers like DJ Akademiks and No Jumper; streaming services like Spotify, Apple Music, and TIDAL; labels like Universal and Warner all the way down to the indies — is run by people typically over at least the age of 21. Because popular music is heavily influenced by what young people are listening to, the onus falls on these actors — all of whom have requirements for growing revenue or traffic or subscribers or whatever relevant audience metric — to cover and feature music enjoyed by young people. (This is why someone like Mitski gets more coverage than an artist from a previous generation who’s sold far more records but is less buzzy, like Mark Lanegan.) And when it comes to the music of really young people — like XXXtentacion — music industry influencers have very few people on staff who would come to the music naturally through their friends and general social setting. (There’s also a racial component at play, as young people of color are heavily underrepresented across the industry.)
These actors made a conscious decision to acknowledge XXXtentacion in order to do their jobs as cultural facilitators, which often involves engaging with art one finds personally uninteresting (ask a film critic how he really felt about reviewing however many superhero movies came out last year). Of course, not all acknowledgment is created equal. Pitchfork reported on his crimes, and attempted to meaningfully critique his music before deciding to stay away altogether; they were followed in their declination by The Fader, SPIN, Noisey, and other publications. (Others, like New York and The Ringer, met the music and accompanying issues head on.) But this refusal to engage with his music did not seem to make a dent in his popularity. If anything, the notoriety only made him more popular.
A far, far more notable validation for XXXtentacion came from the streaming services like Spotify and Apple, who highlighted his music in playlists like RapCaviar (nearly 10 million subscribers), which play an immense role in influencing what music people casually hear as the industry moves to an algorithmic, streaming-based model. Through this signal boosting, thousands of new fans were consciously created — fans who may have never known about the police report detailing his alleged crimes, which officially included aggravated battery of a pregnant woman, domestic battery by strangulation, false imprisonment, and witness-tampering.
“While we believe our intentions were good, the language was too vague, we created confusion and concern, and didn’t spend enough time getting input from our own team and key partners before sharing new guidelines.”
This success kicked XXXtentacion up to the next level: the labels. Because the industry is now so heavily dependent on streaming metrics — a stark difference from a few years ago, when artists like Chief Keef could rack up insane numbers on YouTube and not make even a blip on the charts — his exponential popularity meant a label like Capitol would eagerly snap him up for a reported $6 million. All of this could happen without a meaningful discussion about his heinous crimes. All the music execs and playlist curators with no real connection to XXXtentacion’s music or milieu beyond it being the next hot thing could simply perform their time-honored role of making a popular thing more popular, in order to make some money. If his fans harassed the woman he abused, so be it; if he continually made disturbing threats of violence, so be it.
Plugged into the algorithm, and legitimized by the labels, he had nowhere to go but up. Recently, Spotify attempted to take a stand by removing his music from their promoted playlists, after featuring him for months, under a “hateful content” policy, only to quickly back down following an outcry from the industry. (Bloomberg reported that representatives from several artists, such as Kendrick Lamar, threatened to pull their music from Spotify.) “While we believe our intentions were good,” Spotify said in a statement, “the language was too vague, we created confusion and concern, and didn’t spend enough time getting input from our own team and key partners before sharing new guidelines.”
There are a few other things at play here. Everyone is in a state of developing morality, but especially so at a younger age, when none of your nascent thoughts about how the world works are tempered by actual experiences. This was how many of his listeners could wave away the documented allegations of severe violence online and elsewhere with “who knows what happened” or “some women lie” or “he’s trying to do better” or “separate the art from the artist” or any of the weak, shitty things one says when they’ve never forced themselves — or been forced — to have real, actionable empathy for someone. Beyond that, every new generation finds new ways to shock its elders, as the old methods become increasingly ineffective. Once, the youth inspired moral panic by listening to basic-ass “Rock Around the Clock” rock n’ roll; now, it’s proudly listening to the music of a woman beater, and waving away the official record.
But the real abdication of moral responsibility falls on the shoulders of adults, who failed to consider all the active dynamics in the situation. XXXtentacion had the backing of the streaming platforms, the labels, and huge stars like Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar, who praised his music. It is not at all difficult to imagine a future in which he appeared at an MTV Video Music Awards or the Billboard Music Awards, his crimes an inconvenient fact against his stardom, like R. Kelly, Chris Brown, Cee Lo, and countless other mainstream stars preceding him. (Already, XXXtentacion’s death is being exploited by Spotify.)
There are no laws preventing bad people from making music, just as there are no laws forbidding personal growth over time. It’s conceivable that XXXtentacion could’ve made some meaningful attempt at redemption and, perhaps, induced his fans to give a shit. It was not a foregone conclusion that all of this should’ve happened with the industry’s willing help, beyond the cynicism dictating that nobody take a stand lest they be sure their competitor is going to follow them. This is music, not politics; the stakes are only so low as our souls, not national policy. But it happened, and it will happen again unless the people who know better decide to do so.