No one, not even rapper Lil Nas X, thought his song “Old Town Road” would blow up the way that it has. After taking over the Country Hot 100 chart, it was removed for not being country enough, though the artist has been campaigning to get it reinstated.
Now that he’s dropped a remix with Billy Ray Cyrus, I sat down with video producer Paul Tamayo and staff writer Joshua Rivera to talk about rap, country, the Billboard charts, and who we want him to work with next.
Gita Jackson: How do I even begin to explain the phenomenon of “Old Town Road”? This song is a country/trap hybrid that shot up the Country Hot 100 chart until Billboard removed it. Now, Lil Nas X is back with a remix featuring none other than Miley Cyrus’s dad.
I came across this song after it had already been removed from the Hot 100. How about y’all?
Paul Tamayo: Same here. I was late to the party and it was only because of a music video that featured Red Dead Redemption 2 footage that I was like, “Wait, this actually goes super hard,” and fell in love with it. Since then, it’s been a roller coaster of emotion.
Joshua Rivera: I’m not entirely sure! I was in a Slack for some other job I used to have and people were talking about this country heater all day and then I noticed it on Twitter, too, and then I finally caved and listened. And you know what? Everyone was right, except for Billboard.
Gita: After I first listened to this song, I showed it to my boyfriend, who also really liked it. We both listen to some country on occasion, though not really the stuff that lights up the country charts.
To try to figure out what kinds of things actually make it onto the chart, my boyfriend and I checked out some Florida Georgia Line. In what world is “Women” a country song and “Old Town Road” not one?
I implore you to listen until the part where Jason Derulo says they’re really making a difference.
Paul: It’s super hypocritical. You can point to countless other examples of white artists jumping around genres such as Miley Cyrus, Taylor Swift, Post Malone — I could go on forever.
Gita: Taylor Swift honestly got a lot worse at songwriting after going pure pop. I know a lot of people like 1989, but compared to Red, it’s like amateur hour.
Joshua: I don’t know how it charted, but “gangstagrass” was also briefly a thing, as any Justified fan knows, and if both sides of that equation got equal love we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation.
Paul: This is why I respect Lil Nas X’s finesse game so much though. He turned a Nine Inch Nails sample into a “country trap” song, and after being taken off of the Country Charts, asks for help on social media to get Billy Ray Cyrus on a remix, WHICH HAPPENS, and now it’s blowing up even more. I think the resentment mostly stems from this just not happening on their terms.
Gita: Yeah, I feel that. And that’s why it’s so frustrating that it was even taken off the chart.
You look at artists such as Kacey Musgraves, who pretty much made a disco album, and she’s fine for the country charts and the pop charts. A young black man making a trap song that is very respectful of the storytelling of country music? Nah. Not country enough. No shade to Kacey — Golden Hour slayed.
Joshua: Right! Country, as a genre, runs this weird kind of perception trap. It’s much more vibrant and diverse than its rep would suggest, and yet if an artist gains too much visibility for breaking that (white) perception, they’ve got to be shut down
Paul: It’s also, in a lot of ways, labels and the “gatekeepers” struggling to keep up with how social media and just being online can propel things in ways that haven’t really been possible before.
Gita: Yeah! I feel like “Old Town Road” first took off on TikTok, right? Lil Nas X said on Twitter that he was mainly promoting the song via memes while he was broke.
twitter please help me get billy ray cyrus on this pic.twitter.com/UDoeiOZqc1
— nope (@LilNasX) December 5, 2018
Paul: YES. And this is a page from the Soulja Boy playbook which I respect so much. He tweaked the algorithm in his favour. This should be celebrated and supported instead of rejected. I think that’s what so many people are responding to.
Gita: Like, Lil Nas clearly didn’t make this song as a joke, and if you check out his other tracks, the genre hopping and blending are something he’s definitely digging.
So much of country comes from the tradition of black music that it feels weird to me that Billboard shut this song down so hard, especially when so many country artists are trying for the pop crossover right now.
Maren Morris had a huge hit recently with EDM producer Zedd, “The Middle”. There’s nothing country about that song or her vocals in it. Yet a lot of the journalism surrounding that song referred to it as country making a big crossover push.
Joshua: And as we see all the time online, nothing makes something born on the internet go viral faster than the establishment trying to shut it down or dictate what it is.
I guess what we’re talking about here is power — another example of a world where hits come from a raucous and unexpected internet and don’t conform to the old guard’s taxonomy.
There’s a lot of power in being able to say “this belongs” in a genre, and it’s funny to see those lines drawn most in places such as country and rock, two genres deeply indebted to black music but co-opted by a white industry.
Paul: I think the wave has gotten too big for this to just end tomorrow, too. There are also really dope examples of when the crossover collaborations help push the culture forward. I immediately think of Kid Cudi’s “Pursuit of Happiness”, which was covered by Lissie (this dope folk/rock singer), and then got sampled by Schoolboy Q for “Hands on the Wheel”.
Or even more recently, when Kane Brown hopped on a remix to Khalid’s “Saturday Nights REMIX”, proving that these walls are starting to disappear, and that’s a great thing.
Gita: Do you think the “Old Town Road” remix is going to re-enter the Country Hot 100? I think it will. But not without some protest.
Paul: I think at this point it doesn’t really matter. If they want to save face, it should, though. But yeah, I also think it’ll pop back in there. (“Pop” back in there, heh.)
Gita: I feel as though the Billboard charts are pretty antiquated at this point, but I do want to see the country establishment acknowledge how huge this song has been. Dolly Parton remix next, maybe?
Paul: Sign me up, pardner.
Joshua: The whole thing is kind of a low-key watershed moment, I think. The establishment we have is clearly inadequate, and the current state of the media economy means it’s hard to build a new, more equitable one — there’s no site we can go to for, say, what’s going on in Soundcloud rap this month.
It’s all too big! So we should probably embrace what goes big and adjust our metrics accordingly, I guess. So few new acts do go wide!