Lil Nas X's Nirvana Interpolation Was a Smart Move, If Not a Totally Purposeful One
If you saw the headlines last week about Lil Nas X borrowing from Nirvana for his new song "Panini" but didn't notice the similarities from your first listen, you're not alone: they were initially lost even on the rapper himself.
"I didn't realize I was using almost the exact same melody," the viral sensation told Beats 1's Zane Lowe about the echoes of the chorus to Nirvana's 1992 single "In Bloom" found in his "Panini" refrain. "The craziest thing about 'Panini' is it introduced me to Nirvana's album Nevermind... I always seen the cover, but I never actually listened to it."
Artists pleading ignorance about their melodic lifts is certainly nothing new in popular music, but in the case of Lil Nas X and Nirvana, it's particularly credible for two reasons. One is that, indeed, the similarities between the two songs are sutble and fleeting enough that if you weren't thinking to listen for them, you could miss them, even if you were already a much bigger Nevermind fan than the rapper had previously claimed to be. And the second is that, unlike in most historical instances of contestable links being drawn in between the melodies of two sonically disparate songs, "Panini" dropped last Thursday (June 20) with Nirvana frontman and primary songwriter Kurt Cobain already listed in its writing credits.
More than ever before in pop history, pop musicians are looking to get out in front of potential legal disputes over songwriting credits by erring on the side of recognition. Does the pre-chorus of Ed Sheeran's "Shape of You" really take directly from the rhythm and melody in the chorus to TLC's "No Scrubs"? Was the monotone-delivered title hook of Taylor Swift's "Look What You Made Me Do" obviously swiped from the similarly sung-spoken refrain from Right Said Fred's "I'm Too Sexy"? In both cases, maybe, maybe not. But in a pop landscape still reeling from the controversial (and pricey) 2015 verdict awarded in favor of the Marvin Gaye estate in the "Blurred Lines" lawsuit, artists are increasingly anxious to not leave such judgments to the courts. If there's a similarity to be argued, it might be easier (and more importantly, cheaper) for them to just work out a publishing split with the necessary writers and estates ahead of time, rather than risking millions in damages and legal fees down the line.
However, the awarding of such additional credits can also come with a sort of built-in benefit -- one that Lil Nas X has proven far too shrewd a self-marketer not to take advantage of. When "Panini" was released on Thursday, the Kurt Cobain credit and Nirvana interpolation was one of the main points of coverage for the song, giving all the headlines about it a hook beyond just "Listen to the new Lil Nas X song." Two such headlines were retweeted by the rapper himself, who also tweeted directly about the interpolation, thanking Kurt's daughter Frances Bean Cobain for helping make the song possible. Rather than divert attention away from the quasi-lift, as artists might've done in days past out of fear of their songs being subjected to legal scrutiny (or just being dismissed as rip-offs), Lil Nas X leaned all the way into his, allowing it to help motor the narrative of his new single.
And it's a logical narrative for Lil Nas X to push at this point in his career, too. Taylor Swift didn't necessarily have a ton to gain from being associated with Right Said Fred and "I'm Too Sexy" -- a stateside one-hit wonder that doesn't reflect much about Taylor's own artistry or persona -- but unwitting lifts from the world of '90s rock have already become an inextricable part of the Lil Nas X brand. After all, debut hit "Old Town Road" was powered by a much more direct sample of Alternative Nation icons Nine Inch Nails' "34 Ghosts IV," even though producer YoungKio has said he wasn't any more familiar with NIN at the time he came across the track as Lil Nas X says he was with Nevermind when he was alerted to the "Panini"/"In Bloom" similarities.
What good does it do Lil Nas X to establish himself as a spiritual (if not totally purposeful) descendant of those alt-rock acts? Well, it furthers his image as a genre-bending, barrier-busting maverick, one obviously started with "Old Town Road" and its heavy leanings into country imagery and lyrical signifiers. It lends him a kind of classic cool, as both NIN and Nirvana were edgy, boundary-busting acts in their heyday who have endured as lasting youth culture icons -- the kind whose music still emerges in the most unexpected pop places, and whose logos still regularly adorn hats and t-shirts of kids too young to even have been alive for their '90s peaks. It also eases the transition to the rest of his 7 EP, which heavily dabbles in rock instrumentation in several tracks and features production from Blink-182 drummer Travis Barker on "F9mily (You & Me)." And it even extends an arm to curious older listeners who might not understand the TikTok memes that propelled Lil Nas X to viral glory, or the SpongeBob gifs that currently litter his social media, but who certainly have fond memories of Nirvana playing Ed Sullivan. (Hell, Kurt was even friends with LNX's main partner in crime once upon a time.)
"Old Town Road" is about as close to an impossible single to follow up as you're likely to find in pop music: A song so big by an artist so new that the latter can't help looking dwarfed by comparison. Lil Nas X needs all the help he can get to get out from under the megahit's shadow, and while a Kurt Cobain writing credit alone won't do the trick there, it can be just the kind of push a song like that needs to help it build the necessary momentum on its own. And the early returns there are encouraging: "Panini" was the No. 1 song on Spotify in the U.S. for most of the weekend (and just wait until the Gordon Ramsay remix drops). Soon enough, Lil Nas X might not be known just as the "Old Town Road" guy, but as the one who writes all those pretty songs that we like to sing along to.