Down the "Old Town Road" & Up the Billboard Charts

There’s a new song sweeping the nation, and this one has come with a whirlwind of controversy to match. On December 3rd, 2018, rapper Lil Nas X released his latest song “Old Town Road” independently. This song became extremely popular on the video streaming service, Tik Tok, and this exposure eventually lead to his signing by Columbia Records. Quickly shooting up on charts like Billboard after its distribution by Columbia Records, “Old Town Road” appeared on the general “Hot 100” and “Hot Hip Hop,” even reaching 19th on the “Hot Country Songs” category. An appearance of a song on these two chart genres, “Hip Hop” and “Country”, at the same time is not very common. This strange crossover, however, didn’t last long. “Old Town Road” only briefly rose up the “Country” charts before it was silently removed from the category listings by Billboard after being deemed to not actually represent a country song.

Billboard’s decision to discreetly pull “Old Town Road” from the “Country” listing has been met with backlash from artists and fans alike. According to Billboard’s statement on their intentions, they said, “‘Old Town Road’ by Lil Nas X does not currently merit inclusion on Billboard‘s country charts. 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” (RollingStone). The statements refer mostly to the composition style and imagery of the song, but its justification fell short of satisfactory for many listeners and fans of the song. Many implore Billboard to release more explicit guidelines for what they deem “Country” and see if every single song falls under that criteria. There has been a great deal of speculation that Billboard has more malicious reasons for pulling “Old Town Road” from the “Country” charts. Many people attest this decision even to Lil Nas X’s race and how African American artists typically do not find themselves in the “Country” category. However, there is no legitimate evidence to this claim as of now.

In the midst of all this controversy, a very unlikely hero came to the defense of Lil Nas X: Billy Ray Cyrus. Many celebrities, including Billy Ray, have publicly spoken out about Billboard’s removal of “Old Town Road” from the “Country” charts and what appears to be their personal justification of what ‘counts’ as country music or a country song. Cyrus felt so strongly about this that he took it upon himself to reach out to Lil Nas X and collaborate on a remix of his song that now features two verses from Cyrus. But is this addition enough to finally deem “Old Town Road” as ‘country’? Moreover, should it even have needed to be explicitly deemed so?

Regardless, with this new remix being released four months after the song’s original release, “Old Town Road” has flown to the top of Billboard’s “Hot 100” and has become the song everyone is talking about. This Billboard #1 hit has racked up its own share of records; just below two minutes, it’s the shortest song to be a Billboard #1 since 1965. It is also the first song to rank this highly on both the “Hip Hop” and “Country” charts.

With music being such an abstract concept, the lines between genres can easily be crossed or blurred. This song certainly doesn’t sound the same as typical country music from artists such as Tim McGraw or Luke Bryan, but does that mean that we cannot define this song as its own type of country, especially if that’s what the artist wants to call it? Or could it be its own fusion of hip hop and country? The music industry, along with music itself, are very fluid, but one thing that this controversy has taught us is that it is not up to the the monopoly of one prominent platform to decide mononymously what music, and what genres, belong to certain groups of people.

Sources: RollingStone, Slate, NY Times