‘Old Town Road’s’ boundary-blasting rodeo
Scroll through Twitter, go to a party, listen to a top hits playlist: whatever you do, you’ll probably come across “Old Town Road,” the viral hit from newcomer Lil Nas X (Montero Hill) carving out a niche between genres and defying the implications of its own success.
“Old Town Road” galloped into the limelight on the heels of the yee-haw agenda: a long-running reclamation of cowboy culture by marginalized groups, especially the Black community and female artists. Solange, Mitski, Cardi B, Kacey Musgraves, Beyonce and an ever-growing list of celebrities continue to incorporate elements of cowboy culture into their musical and creative projects. Their work arrived in the midst of cultural appetite for all things campy and cowboy: viral memes like the yodeling Walmart kid heralded the trend as early as April of last year.
Lil Nas X knows how to harness the power of a viral meme. Before he forayed into music, the rapper ran a Tweetdeck Twitter account, @nasmaraj. Like most Tweetdeck accounts, this one traded in “spammy content” and ripping off other people’s jokes — to the point that his account numbered among the many Tweetdeck accounts to get banned from Twitter for stealing content. Bolstered by newfound fame on his personal Twitter account, Lil Nas X continues to tweet with the confident, candid voice of someone who’s at home on the Internet, with a fair amount of memes sprinkled in between shameless self-promotion.
“Old Town Road” isn’t merely a great song. In terms of both popularity and scope, it’s one of the biggest pop hits in recent memory. It has been on top of the Billboard charts for two weeks, and looks to stay there for the next few weeks at least as both the original song and its remixes continue to grow in popularity. As of right now, it is the most popular song in the country. Why then, according to Billboard, is it not the most popular country song in the country? Billy Ray Cyrus was inspired to hop on the remix after the song was booted from Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart, where it would have reached No. 1 had a wave of backlash not kept it from the top spot. While Billboard claimed that the song was removed for “not [embracing] enough elements of today’s country music,” it was impossible to ignore the racial implications of an almost entirely-white genre seemingly conspiring to remove a young black man from its highest peak. Billboard has since reversed its decision, but “Old Town Road’s” lack of support from country radio currently has the song hovering in the mid-teens on the country charts. If “Old Town Road” were to reach No. 1 on the Hot Country chart, it will be the first song by an African-American artist to top that chart since Ray Charles did so 57 years ago with his gorgeous cover of “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” If there’s any justice, Lil Nas X will add No. 1 on the country charts to his ever-growing list of accolades.
Amid the discussion of “Old Town Road’s” place between country and hip-hop, two country music legends and one hip-hop star gave the track their stamp of approval. On April 5, as “Old Town Road” was hitting new peaks of popularity, a remix of the track featuring ’90s country music star Billy Ray Cyrus, of “Achy Breaky Heart” and the hit Disney Channel show “Hannah Montana,” was released.
Cyrus adopts a rockstar persona on the track as he sings “Hat down, cross town, livin’ like a rockstar / Spent a lot of money on my brand new guitar.” A video of Cyrus and Lil Nas X in the studio went viral the day the song was released and the track itself spawned a number of Twitter gems. After just 10 days, “Old Town Road – Remix” surpassed “Achy Breaky Heart” as Cyrus’s most-streamed song on Spotify.
Additionally, country music icon Keith Urban, of “Blue Ain’t Your Color” and “Parallel Line” gave “Old Town Road” his endorsement when he posted an acoustic cover of the track on his personal Twitter account. With a banjo as the only instrumentation for the cover, Urban’s version lacked the hard-hitting beat found on the original and the remix.
Lil Nas X also teased an additional remix of the track, this time with Atlanta trap legend Young Thug, on Instagram. Nas X dropped a photo alongside Thug and Thug posted a 20-second snippet of the remix. While the remix has yet to be officially released, Thug’s co-sign, along with those of Cyrus and Urban, gave Nas X and “Old Town Road” recognition from both the country and hip-hop communities.
“Old Town Road” on campus
Echoing loud and proud from the dorm room to the backyard to the intramural softball pitch, “Old Town Road” has established itself as a bonafide student anthem. There is no doubt in anyone’s mind that the smash hit — a boundary shattering, style smattering, irreverent clattering of glitz and grit — stands alongside “SICKO MODE,” “Mo Bamba” and others in the ranks of the contemporary pop pantheon.
“Old Town Road” (like “Mr. Brightside,” “Dixieland Delight” and “Rock Lobster”) is a staple signifier of various friend group lexicons and an integral part of the campus’ vernacular landscape. It’s “country trap” bars scream through many sets of AirPods and frequently swagger into various community settings following the phrase, “Alexa! Play ‘Old Town Road!’”
At the time being, the song’s unavoidability give its a certain charm; it’s ubiquity gluing disparate groups of students together in jubilant camaraderie. But “Old Town Road’s” charm will soon fade. The ear-worm will, having lost its luster, cease to be a “banger” and fall into the category of “annoying and overplayed” This eventuality, though, should not diminish the “Old Town Road’s” collectivist beauty. The song, a cross-bred springtime rodeo, does not mean to last. It means only to bring people together in a brief and bright celebration of communal spirit.