Old Town Road: Blazing Trail & Breaking Genre (20 Minute Read)
Updated: Feb 6, 2020
In December of 2018, a 19 year old multihyphenate (singer-rapper-songwriter) from Atlanta independently released one of the most significant, controversial, and genre-bending songs of the 21st century. His name? Montero Lamar Hill, otherwise known as Lil Nas X. His song? The now fabled crossover mega-hit ‘Old Town Road.’ The genre? Well, according to Billboard, its not country. On March 26, 2019, one week after it first debuted at No. 19 on Billboard’s Hot Country 100 list, Old Town Road was axed from the chart. Billboard’s decision to give it the boot, much to the amusement of country purists and to the chagrin of Hill, set a precedent in how we approach genre definition. In doing so, it laid bare the process of how chart mechanics are developed and revealed their surprisingly archaic nature. It also brought to the forefront longstanding questions about the pareil and white-dominated country music industry and where black artists are allowed to exist within it.
Normally, when a song challenges genre conventions and throws musicology to the wind, Billboard will consider a few factors in choosing where it will inevitably fall; first comes the song’s musical and lyrical composition, then the artist’s discography and their history in the genre, how the song is marked in the genre tags by the artist, how the song is promoted by its label, and lastly, by how fans consume it. This process works for those that obviously fall within the genre's traditional structure, but in many instances, songs fall through the cracks and expose its abundant number of weaknesses; none to the same extent as Old Town Road.
X didn’t have a discography. He wasn’t a genre defined artist yet, he wasn’t selling records and he didn’t have a label to promote it. When he released OTR independently, he marked it in the country category when it was released on Soundcloud and iTunes, which is why it followed suit on the country charts in the first place. A week later, it was gone. Billboard defended the position by stating that “upon further review, it was determined that ‘Old Town Road’ by Lil Nas X does not currently merit inclusion on Billboard‘s country charts,” and that “when determining genres, a few factors are examined, but first and foremost is musical composition. While ‘Old Town Road’ incorporates references to country and cowboy imagery, it does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.” The most striking word used in that sentence is ‘enough.’ It does not embrace enough elements of country music. It is essentially not country enough. Since when has ‘enough’ played a factor in genre inclusion? This is a statement fraught with hypocrisy, coming from an institution with a racist history of imposing musical segregation based on race, giving carte blanche to white artists while restricting their black counterparts. There have only ever been three black artists to summit the Country charts: Darius Rucker, the former frontman for Hootie and the Blowfish, Jimmie Allen, and Kane Brown, with the latter two only receiving their number ones in the past year-- the first pair to do so in the chart’s 28 year history. X had hoped to join those ranks amongst his peers. Even though OTR went on to have the longest run at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in the history of music, that rejection carries a chronic sting.
Although he surely hadn’t intended it when he created OTR, X became a lightning rod for race conversations. OTR shone a light on a subtle but incredibly harmful form of racism and references country music’s well documented white-washing of the genre. Lil Nas X is just cannon fodder of a broader racial argument. The pious critics and purists who have taken the position of gatekeeping their sacred genre make their foray by claiming Old Town Road is the equivalent of a countrified Trojan Horse. Cowboys and tractors on the outside, with gangsters and chains on the inside. OTR is considered devilment. But the songs aberrant and brazen usage of trap elements in an overall country song is merely a Macguffin for them to grab onto, as they attempt to slow the inevitable wave of nascent forms of country ebbing and flowing with consumers’ tastes.
I imagine much of this songs rejection from the country firmament was bathed in the ire that country music traditionalism has created. Similar to other forms of music, as we continue to integrate more technology into our music and develop dalliances with new sounds, it can sometimes not considered “real” music. Like when figures from the gangster rap era are lauded while mumble rappers are denounced or when members of foundational rock bands boycott modern alternative music. But country music is the worst for this. I’ve never seen more self-righteous indignation splayed upon anything outside of what is determined to be “true” country music. Dolly Parton and George Strait are placed on petistles while modern artists are given grief for using synth and bass. There seems to be this notion that there is an assault taking place on country music and Lil Nas X is seen to be just another perpetrator of one of those attacks.
After OTR was initially released, the track quickly gained steam, largely in part due to the Yeehaw challenge on Tik Tok (like most internet “challenges,” it’s not actually a challenge), where creators would play the beginning of Old Town Road over a video of themselves as it leads up to the break of the song. Before the drop, the character in the video would usually drink some liquid labelled ‘Yeehaw Juice’ or something like that. Timed to the infamous line “I got the horses in the back,” they would transform, typically via a twirl, into a countrified version of themselves, decked out in belt buckles, jeans, boots, and of course without fault, a cowboy hat.
Old Town Road went through puberty as a meme, so it’s only natural that when we met it again as an adult, we viewed it through that same lens. At first glance, the track feels like a troll on those who listen to country, whereas in reality, Lil Nas X was attempting to pay homage to those who developed the genre before him, while adding his own flavour, fun and culture. It signified a new take on country. But, like any extremely privileged group, many country fans took offense to the status quo being challenged, because they’ve had the privilege of controlling it for so long- indulging in their own country music bacchanalia with no room for outsiders.
Take, for example, the sentiment offered by the Boomer-esque ‘Save Country Music Blog’:
“Old Town Road” is no more country than The Beastie Boys’ “High Plains Drifter.” Including Wild West signifiers or references to horses in no way qualifies a rap song with a trap beat as country. Furthermore, Lil Nas X is not professing to be a country artist. He’s not signed to a country label, and has no affiliation to the country industry whatsoever. Lil Nas X has no ties to the greater Nashville music campus in any capacity. There are no country artists guesting on the track like you had with Bebe Rexha’s collaboration with Florida Georgia Line’s “Meant To Be.” There appears to be absolutely no credible reason to include this song on a country chart aside from a bigoted stereotype bred from the fact that horses and cowboy hats are referenced in the lyrics.”
The logic in this argument, along with the norms in defining genre, are laughable. Since when does an artist need to have a connection to Nashville or the greater country community to release a country song? Since when does an artist have to be constrained to one genre? Ray Charles famously put out over fifty albums spanning various genres going back as far as sixty years ago. A country song should be evaluated on its own merit, not in relation to the artist’s history or connections. And the most saying, ironic argument of all -- citing bigotry in stereotypes. Moving past the hilarity and richness in using the word “bigotry,” this statement communicates pure hypocrisy. This exact same argument (the use of stereotypes) could be applied to most pop-country artists who exist today. Many rely on those same trite stereotypes; the references to beer, trucks, horses, etc. to pander to their own working-class audiences and sell their own music, even if it’s not authentic to who they are in reality. But X is a black man, challenging the conventions of a space predominantly owned by white men, and because he doesn’t fulfill the expectations of the listener base (primarily white people) in regards to said conventions, his entry is more easily noticed and automatically challenged. So even though we may have two artists, both preaching fake ideals through the use of inauthentic stereotypes, one is excluded from the country community and one is embraced. Is this an argument of authenticity? Or is it an argument of race? To me, it seems much more like the latter. Would Old Town Road have been removed from the country charts if Lil Nas X was white? Obviously there are a myriad of factors that influenced its removal, but the perfect storm came together collectively to push OTR out of the country circle: including the songs originality and marked separation from traditional country, its humble beginnings on Tik Tok, and Hill’s place as a rapper and black man.
In writing this piece, I found myself repeatedly asking the question ‘why should Old Town Road be on the country charts?’ when in reality, I should have been asking a more important question: why shouldn't it? What purpose does it serve in excluding OTR if it's even considered close to being country music? What are we trying to protect? What are we trying to preserve? Billboard carries an exorbitant amount of power in how they label and define genre conventions, as these choices often trickle down to Spotify and other streaming services, which determine the artists that go on influential playlists, which then in turn contributes to the number of plays they receive and the type of people who listen to them. Over time, this can harbour incredible change on how we perceive music and the type of music we are exposed to.
Let's take Bebe Rexha’s hit ‘Meant to Be’ featuring Florida Georgia Line, which was on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart for over 100 cumulative career weeks and spent at least 44 of them in the No. 1 spot. Its garnered billions of streams and occupies that same genre grey area as Old Town Road, but was deemed country enough because it features one of pop-country’s darlings, FGL, and the label marketed the record as such. This isn’t a knock on the song, nor is it an argument that it didn’t belong on the country charts, but shows how ridiculous genre-definition is. Because a record markets a label a certain way, it is swayed to a certain genre? If you compare the two songs, neither fall within the conventional bounds of country music and both contain elements of country music, yet one is considered country while the other isn’t. Even from a compositional standpoint, one could argue that Old Town Road is even more country than Meant to Be. Meant to Be sounds like a pop song to a greater degree than Old Town Road sounding like a trap song.
Country Features in Old Town Road
Acoustic guitar & banjo - both traditional components of country music and prominent features of the song
The country voice in which X sings the song (100% of the song for that matter)
Lyrical content references country material with a rapper bravado
Country Features in Meant to Be
Slide guitar - also very traditionally used in country, but its hidden beneath the major piano chords and a secondary component of the song
The country voice in which FGL sing (but they only sing about 50-75% of the song)
Lyrical content speaks about a relationship/previous heartbreak (I write with hesitation, as they kind of don’t really speak about much at all) which is fairly standard in country
Non-Traditional Country Features - OTR
X sing-raps the verses (but uses a drawl in doing so)
Bass, hi-hats, 808’s - all typical functions of pop and hip-hop
Non-Traditional Country Features - MTB
Major piano chords - usually a pop function
Bass, hi-hats, 808’s - all typical functions of pop and hip-hop
A pop singer
Both songs are mega-hits. Both share the mechanics and structure of a pop song. Both were created by artists who would likely identify outside the genre. If we include the remix, both songs feature country artists. I’ll admit, if you were making this choice based on the listening test, I also initially would have said this wasn’t a country song, but that’s largely because it hasn’t been done before successfully. The closest thing was FGL feat. Nelly’s ‘Cruise’, one of the most successful songs in country music history, a foreshadowing of things to come. But even in that song, it only has a hint of rap. Pop-country has emerged over the past few years, so it's easier for us to accept it. Because pop is an inclusive genre that is usually more all-encompassing, we think of any pop song with a country element to it as country music. Whereas rap’s inception came from a place of scrappy isolation, having to fight its way into existence. It usually overpowers and absorbs any other genre it is paired with and because of that, it's typically not viewed from the perspective of collaboration. So when considering two genres on the opposite side of the spectrum in terms of listener demographics, it's hard to imagine such a thing could exist. We just label it as rap. We are biased. Thinking about those factors, it's not surprising Billboard acted the way they did. But history will look back on this decision with dismay. Give it time. Ultimately, my case is against these rigid boundaries that prevent genres from shifting and changing. Both are country fusion songs. One is pop-country and the other is trap-country, but both should be on the country charts. The folly of music, should it ever happen, will result from the stoppage of the pioneers attempting to expand its boundaries. The charts should be a palace of musical renaissance, garnering an environment of encouragement and inclusivity for those who border, stretch, and sit within the genre, instead of attempting to hold it in place, because that prevents our growth.
Rarely is an artist given the opportunity to tell the story of one of their songs because typically, that story has yet to be told. But with the re-release of Old Town Road under Columbia records on April 5 with Billy Ray Cyrus, they had the privilege of doing so, via music video.
They’d seen the songs rise to meme fame, its removal from the charts, and its rebirth with Billy Ray. So they told that story. The video is surprisingly self-reflective, funny, and authentic. It paints the picture of the songs growth, how it intermingles with different demographics and offers a look into a future that could be. The cameo-ridden video (featuring Chris Rock, Vince Staples, Diplo, etc.) begins with Lil Nas X on horseback flying down The Old Town Road in 1889, hot in chase from a group of bandits. He finds solitude in a seemingly familiar place, at least for the moment, alongside his compadre-in-felt, Billy Ray Cyrus.
Billy Ray: “It’ll be fine. We’ll settle down here for the night.”
Lil Nas X: “I don’t know… Last time I was here, they weren’t too welcome to outsiders.”
Bill Ray: “Ehhh, you’re with me this time. Everything’s going to be allllllllright.”
As those words are spoken, X is ambushed by the farmer and his rifle, and he begins sprinting to what looks like a small mining hole, only to be sucked into a ‘Being John Malkovich’ esque portal, time travelling to the Old Town Road again, only 130 years later in 2019.
After strutting the streets and gaining acceptance of the black community, he moves onward to a super mall, to pick up his now infamous tassel-ridden cowboy get up. Billy Ray picks him up in his new Maserati sports car as they head towards a bingo game - the home of old white people. Upon entrance to the gym full of bingo players, they are met with silence and harsh eyes, much like this scene from Get Out.
It’s at this point in the music video where, much like Tarantino, the director attempts to flirt with the idea of revisionist history. We see everyone coming together and line dancing, enjoying the moment this song built. It poses an idea: what if country traditionalists were able to get past that initial roadblock this song creates in their minds? Would they too would be able to enjoy the blockbuster song of the year created by a 19 year old black, gay rapper in one of his grandma’s closets? Or could they at least accept it as one of their own? This video suggests both a past where Old Town Road couldn't exist and an alternative reality in which music genres aren’t exclusive clubs that you must gain access to, but a place where we embrace new ideas instead of shutting them out for being different.
My favourite comment on Old Town Road came from Justin Sayles of the Ringer:
“while “Old Town Road” may not be the best song of 2019, it is its most significant. Yes, the singer/rapper/mega-vi human shined a light on the country music world’s racism and sparked a million memes. But he also gave young kids their first favorite song. And if you grew up loving music, you know that there’s nothing more important than that.”
Lil Nas X is pretty much a kid himself, and watching him nervously laugh while giving a surprise performance of Old Town Road to the students of Lander Elementary, who manically keep singing off beat, warms my heart more than anything else I’ve seen in 2019. Because to them, the genre doesn’t matter, all they know is it makes them happy. And they can share that moment with each other for the rest of their lives.