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Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’ Is a Fascinating Turning Point for Country Music

The Daily Beast logo The Daily Beast 4/5/2019 By Joseph.Longo@thedailybeast.com (Joseph Longo)
a man wearing a military uniform: Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast © Provided by The Daily Beast Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast

Lil Nas X is riding back stronger than ever. The 19-year-old Atlanta rapper behind the hit single “Old Town Road” was removed from the Hot Country chart last week after Billboard deemed the track not “country” enough. The move immediately spurred accusations of discrimination from fellow rappers, including Tyga and Ski Mask Slump.

The outcry has only spurred Lil Nas X to further success, however, as the rapper returned with a remix, this time with the support of another country outlaw. “Old Town Road (Remix)” by Lil Nas X featuring Billy Ray Cyrus dropped Thursday night, and climbed to No. 2 on Apple Music by Friday evening. The original “Old Town Road,” meanwhile, l is sitting pretty at No. 1 on the platform. (Billboard won’t release their charts until next week.)

Cyrus tweeted his support of Lil Nas X earlier this week. “When I got thrown off the charts, Waylon Jennings said to me ‘Take this as a compliment’ means you’re doing something great!” he wrote. The two met up Thursday night to record the remix, according to a video of the two of them in a recording studio that Lil Nas X posted on Twitter. In the video, Cyrus further praises the rapper: “You’re a light in this world, man. You’re gonna shine. People are gonna see you from all over the universe.”

The up-and-down journey of “Old Town Road” started on the social media platform TikTok. A prolific user, Lil Nas X posted his song on the app, which is largely dominated by teenagers making short-form, highly edited videos. As Gen Z does, it quickly turned “Old Town Road” into a musical meme: the “Yeehaw Challenge.”

Following the rules of viral success, the song then leaped over to Twitter, Instagram and YouTube before populating streaming platforms like SoundCloud, Spotify and Apple Music. Lil Nas X did it all without being signed to a label, meaning he never officially released a studio song ready for airplay. The song sparked a bidding war, however, and Lil Nas X is now with Columbia Records.

Radio stations, wanting to capitalize on the viral hit, ripped the song straight off YouTube. According to New York magazine, the YouTube version—which became the track’s unofficial music video—uses montage footage from the video game Red Redemption 2. With both social media and traditional music avenues on board, the song then hit Billboard’s charts, debuting at No. 36 on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop, No. 83 on the Hot 100, and No. 19 on the Hot Country charts.

Then, suddenly, it was taken off the charts. Rolling Stone was the first to report that Billboard had quietly removed the country rap single from the Hot Country chart. Billboard told Columbia Records that his inclusion was accidental and, upon review, did not meet the requirements for country “musical composition.” On “Old Town Road,” Lil Nas X raps with a twang, “My life is a movie / Bull ridin' and boobies / Cowboy hat from Gucci / Wrangler on my booty” over banjo strings and a trap beat.

“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,” Billboard said in a statement. Had they not removed the track, “Old Town Road” would’ve likely topped Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart.

Lil Nas X has “hope” the remix will bring him back to Billboard’s country charts, but there’s no guarantee. Billboard often considers original and remixed songs as one when it comes to charting. In 2016, for example, Beyoncé released a studio remix of her country R&B tune “Daddy Lessons” featuring The Dixie Chicks, but it was not considered for Billboard’s country charts. Instead, any chart success it garnered was attributed to the original version of song on Beyoncé’s Lemonade album. The Grammys also infamously rejected Beyoncé’s 2016 submission of the song for consideration in country categories.

Another obstacle: Billboard’s charting criteria includes radio performance. A Billboard spokesperson told The Washington Post that “Old Town Road” recieved 63 plays on mainstream R&B/Hip-Hop radio stations but “zero on country equivalents.” Country radio is notoriously a highly-guarded, selective unit. Both Kacey Musgraves and Maren Morris, artists who straddle the line between country and pop, have vocally criticized country radio for also limiting female artists’ airplay.

Former Nashville-based employee of Sony Music Shane Morris tweeted about country music’s racism last week, noting Billboard’s country charts did not shun Taylor Swift’s distinctly pop album Red or Sam Hunt’s use of autotune and rap beats on Montevallo. “By removing Lil Nas X from the Country Charts, the powers that be (and yes, I'm openly saying the Country music industry operates like the mafia) continue what they want country music to sound like, and more importantly... LOOK like,” he said.

“Old Town Road” is part of a bigger social media movement known as the Black Yeehaw agenda. With the obsession over Bradley Cooper as Jackson Maine in A Star Is Born and pop-disco-country star Kacey Musgraves, there has come an impassioned push to acknowledge the presence of black artists in the country world, from Solange’s album When I Get Home to the artists influenced by country in their aesthetics and sound, including Megan Thee Stallion and Young Thug.

In an interview with Time magazine this week, Little Nas X credited Young Thug with pioneering country trap. That’s where Little Nas X wants “Old Town Road” to live, regardless of what Billboard, country music or even Billy Ray Cyrus say. He told Time, “The song is country trap. It’s not one, it’s not the other. It’s both. It should be on both.”

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