In the last year or so, two teens have upended the music business, setting records and making history along the way.
At the age of 19, Lil Nas X released the country rap song “Old Town Road,” which went viral on TikTok before climbing to #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, staying there a record 19 weeks. The song that finally displaced it was “Bad Guy” by Billie Eilish, who became the first artist born in the 2000s to have a #1 single and a #1 album. Each is a unique artist with a rare talent. But they share similarities in how they achieved breakout success, with lessons for marketers trying to reach young adults.
*Radical authenticity. Both artists stay true to themselves and their creative vision: Nas X has popularized the “glam cowboy” aesthetic, while Eilish has become known for her baggy attire to combat body-shaming. Both are outspoken champions of LGBTQ+ rights, and both are open about their various struggles: Eilish has spoken about having Tourette syndrome and experiencing synesthesia as well as depression, while Nas X has discussed his journey in coming out as gay, the first artist to do so while having a #1 song.
Historically, teen pop idols have been forced to follow a script that others have written for them, but Nas X and Eilish have flipped that script and taken complete control of their narrative. Their remarkable candor has allowed them to forge an even-deeper connection with their fans, suggesting that other brands should do the same: achieve something completely unique, talk openly about it, and remain totally transparent about the things you most want to hide.
*Smart collaborators. While each star is a “self-made” success, neither did it completely on their own, either. Eilish collaborates with her brother Finneas on her songwriting, and he also produces her music and performs with her in concert. Meanwhile, “Old Town Road” became a chart-topping phenomenon when Nas X brought in Billy Ray Cyrus as a featured vocalist in one of his many remixes.
Each artist draws from a rich reservoir of musical styles: Nas X famously mixes hip-hop with country, two genres often incorrectly believed to be incompatible, while Eilish’s influences include hip-hop, the Beatles, Green Day, Justin Bieber and Avril Lavigne. This suggests that brands would benefit from more unexpected mash-ups: what kind of beverage would Coca-Cola get if it mashed up Sprite and Minute Maid, and what kind of vehicle would Chevrolet get if it mashed up the Corvette with the Silverado pickup?
*Robust online communities. Both artists got their start self-publishing online: Eilish on Soundcloud, and Nas X on Facebook. Today, both of them dominate social media, and use it as a critical part of building and nurturing their fan base. Nas X constantly posts on Twitter, where he came out as gay, and also posts new videos on YouTube. He created memes to promote “Old Town Road,” and the song went viral on TikTok thanks to the #YeeHaw Challenge. Eilish doesn’t post quite as often, but has 20 million YouTube subscribers and 37.5 million Instagram followers, who stay engaged with regular posts. And Nas X in particular invites fans to participate in the music, by posting a #YeeHaw video on TikTok, or an “Old Town Road” remix on YouTube. All of these actions suggest brands should build strong online communities, engage with them deeply, and invite them to co-create.For artists and brands that want to forge meaningful connections with Gen Z and rise to the top of the charts in their respective categories, Billie Eilish and Lil Nas X lead the way.