The Viral Success of the Yodeling Kid Seems Awfully Familiar

Mason Ramsey. Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images for Stagecoach

In the age of social media, the entertainment industry has been prone to spend money on new and sometimes questionable ideas quicker than a T1 connection would’ve ever dreamed of. (Ava, we’re still waiting on that Rihanna heist movie based on a single meme.) Even by these arguably reckless standards, though, the swift ascent of Mason Ramsey has been enough to give anyone serious whiplash. If you don’t recognize that name, that’s because he’s become less known for who he is and more for what he does — or, more accurately, did: he’s Yodeling Walmart Boy, the 11-year-old viral sensation spawned from just one tweet, which has already led to TV-talk-show guest spots, appearances at Coachella and Stagecoach, and a real-deal record contract with a debut single, “Famous,” that’s doing algorithm-busting Spotify numbers.

A brief breakdown, in case most of that above paragraph comes across as total gibberish: in late March, a video surfaced of Ramsey singing Hank Williams Jr.’s “Lovesick Blues” in a Harrisburg, Illinois, Walmart. As the video made the rounds, some pointed out that this wasn’t the first time Ramsey’s been filmed slinging cowpoke anthems at the House of Rollbacks, but this time it stuck: within a week, the video was practically inescapable. He opened up an Instagram account (@lilhankwilliams), and as goes the fate of most sentient memes, he was quickly booked on Ellen at the top of April, where he expressed a distaste for sparkling water, did his yodeling thing again, and was awarded a $15,000 scholarship from Walmart. After the Coachella appearance, the show had him on again at the end of the month to perform on the legendary Grand Ole Opry stage.

All signs point to daytime’s dancing queen as the sole enabler here, but that isn’t quite the case: shortly after the Grand Ole Opry appearance, Ramsey announced that he’d signed to Atlantic and its country imprint Big Loud, unveiling his debut single “Famous” in the process. Written by Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard, as well as songwriters Corey Crowder (no, not the former basketball player), Sarah Buxton (who wrote several songs for Nashville’s first season), and Canaan Smith, “Famous” is, as quantified by the modern music industry, something of a hit: as of this past Monday, the song had already racked up over 2 million Spotify streams, taking the top slot for the most-streamed country song on Spotify the world over. As of this writing, it also holds the No. 1 spot on iTunes’ U.S. country chart.

“Famous” is a sweetly sung and competent song, and there’s little pleasure to be taken in picking apart the success of a child who’s barely old enough to have full access to Netflix’s parental controls system; but it only takes one listen to decide that there is something seriously wrong here. “If I’m gonna be famous for somethin’ / I wanna be famous for lovin’ you,” he pleads on the song’s chorus, with lyrics that imbue roughly a month and a half of surprise success with a lifetime of hard-won experience; later, he tells his presumed paramour, “Another five years/ Best thing I got is right here” — a nice sentiment that nonetheless underscores the surreality of a half-decade also representing literally half of Ramsey’s life.

It’s tempting to draw parallels between Ramsey and meme-turned internet personality rapper Bhad Bhabie, another not-old-enough-to-vote viral phenomenon with a much more dubious claim to fame and a recording contract with Atlantic. But Bhad Bhabie’s turn as a musician came after a year and a half of a toxic and improbable mini-stranglehold on the news cycle, retaining a level of “staying power” that Shovel Girl could only dream of; it would be crass to say she earned it, but the passage of time makes her ascent slightly easier to swallow. Ramsey, on the other hand, has been fed through the viral meat grinder and pushed through the music industry’s sausage machine quicker than it takes to explain what’s going on in the current season of Westworld — and he’s already singing about the pressures of fame in apposition to his romantic travails. It doesn’t so much make one feel old as it does highlight how dangerously young of a person this is happening to.

But the mind-boggling and meta-opportunistic phenomenon “Famous” represents — of achieving and subsequently complaining about a low level of notoriety, with digitally accrued recognition being the alpha and omega of modern life — isn’t without precedent. (And I’m not talking about the rampant plague that is YouTuber culture — although this seems like a good time to mention that Jake Paul, brother of Logan Paul, is booked for SummerStage next month.) Let’s take a trip back to the somewhat simpler times of March 2011, when Rebecca Black’s “Friday” kicked open the door to an era where, as Forbes stated at the time, “the power of social media” possesses the ability “to create overnight sensations.”

Simultaneously celebrated and roundly maligned, “Friday” was the creation of Ark Music Factory, a music-production company co-founded by industry hangers-on Patrice Wilson (who infamously laid down a not-so-hot 16 on the song) and Clarence Jey. Representing something of a cross between a teen-pop anti-hit-making factory and a chain email scam targeting rich parents, Ark wasn’t long for this world visibility-wise; Jey left the company in 2011, and that same year Wilson founded a new label, Pato Music World. Black later found her own sense of web redemption as (of course) a YouTuber with over 1.3 million subscribers — but she wasn’t the only aspiring singer Ark sunk their claws into.

“I wanna be an ordinary pop star / I wanna be like somebody else,” the 11-year-old CJ Fam sings directly into the camera in the video for the Ark-crafted “Ordinary Pop Star.” Rudimentary and amateurish, the video is as potentially disturbing in the rearview as it was when first laying eyes on it seven years ago, representing an aspiring pop artist presumably complaining about the price of fame that she hasn’t even achieved. There’s fake-TMZ sequences, blasé photo shoots, and most eerily, a scene that features Wilson and Jey smiling with satisfaction as they watch her trapped-looking expression on a video monitor, her vocals punching the air above dystopic electro-pop: “I wanna be like those normal girls / I wanna have a regular life again / Like going to school and having good friends.”

CJ Fam wasn’t the micro-sensation that Black was, but “Ordinary Pop Star” garnered a low level of attention nonetheless; in a somewhat stunning gesture of exploitation, the internet-eating-itself publication DIS magazine filmed several videos of Fam at her family’s Fort Lauderdale home, singing in her living room and playing the piano; a still used in the feature captures (intentionally, no doubt) a sort of dead-eyed gaze on her face, the presumptive ennui expressed by “Ordinary Pop Star.” But the feature’s most revealing moment came from Fam herself, in which she expressed dissatisfaction toward how the video for “Ordinary Pop Star” turned out: “It was very disappointing that my song was misunderstood,” she stated. “The video was suppose[d] to start out with myself and a friend in pajamas watching TV and fantasizing about the pitfalls of being a pop star, the video was not suppose[d] to portray me as an existing pop star.”

Fam’s quote is damning, as well as illuminative of the differences between her situation and the one Ramsey currently finds himself in: whereas “Ordinary Pop Star” was partially the work of a pair of shadowy industry hucksters, “Famous” is the product of big-money music-biz folk and established country singer/songwriters. But “Famous” and, by extension Ramsey’s career thus far, was borne of the same insta-notorious social-media churn that birthed Fam, Black, and every single person in between who’s gotten a bit of publicity burn off of a viral post or two. The churn’s just quicker now, and perhaps the question to ask isn’t what’s next for Ramsey — it’s who’s next in line right behind him.

The Viral Success of the Yodeling Kid Seems Awfully Familiar