How Lil Nas X's 'Old Town Road' Got So Popular - Rolling Stone
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Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’ Was a Country Hit. Then Country Changed Its Mind

The viral phenomenon blew up so fast radio professionals had to rip it from YouTube to play it on the air, and the music industry is still scrambling to decide what, exactly, to call it

Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road" went viral with help from the app TikTok.

Courtesy Columbia Records

On Sunday night, Justin Bieber hopped on Instagram to announce his latest musical crush to 106 million followers. “This shit bangs,” the star wrote, flashing a picture of Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road.” Lil Nas X’s genre-defying creation blends banjo strums and jaw-rattling bass, rural imagery and hip-hop signifiers. Hooky, short and wildly loopable, “Old Town Road” took off on the app TikTok, which allows users to create video clips set to music. Now this outrageous hybrid is the latest bizarre viral phenomenon — it debuted on Billboard’s cross-genre Hot 100 chart, the Hot Country Songs chart and the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart all at once.

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Lil Nas X’s career on the country chart, though, was short-lived. Billboard quietly removed “Old Town Road” from Hot Country Songs and informed Lil Nas X’s label, Columbia Records, that his inclusion on the ranking was a mistake, according to an insider with knowledge of the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Billboard did not publicly announce the change, but in a statement released to Rolling Stone, the publication said 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. 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.” Through a representative, Lil Nas X declined a request to comment on Billboard‘s decision.

Expelling Lil Nas X’s single from Hot Country Songs points to a complicated racial dynamic. The music industry still relies heavily on old-fashioned definitions of genre, which have always mapped on race — Billboard’s R&B chart, for example, was originally titled “race music,” while the Latin songs chart lumps together a myriad of genres and languages under one ethnic umbrella.

In today’s streaming world, however, songs can go viral before labels, radio programmers and playlist curators can sort them into genre buckets. When the music industry enforces genre borders after the fact, it becomes part of a power struggle about who has the right to make what and, in this case, whether black artists can fit in predominantly white genres. “When do we get to the point where [black artists] can be accepted and played on other formats?” the insider says. “That’s still the question.”

Danny Kang, who co-manages another viral country sensation, Mason Ramsey believes that Lil Nas X’s race had nothing to do with country’s decision to symbolically exile “Old Town Road.” “That’s a hip-hop song,” Kang says. After the publication of this story, a representative for Billboard provided a subsequent statement indicating that race did not play a part in the decision to remove “Old Town Road” from the country chart.

None of this made much of a difference to Lil Nas X four months ago. He released “Old Town Road,” which suggests an unreleased Key & Peele spoof of the sub-genre dubbed “hick-hop,” in the first week of December, when the internet was crawling with cowboy memes. “[Lil Nas X] is very internet savvy — he understands how to play with the internet and manipulate it to create viral moments,” Kang says. His team started communicating with Lil Nas X on December 18. 

Lil Nas X was shrewd about positioning his banjo hip-pop mash. “On SoundCloud, he listed it as a country record,” Kang says. “On iTunes, he listed it as a country record. He was going to these spaces, gaining a little bit of traction on their country charts, and there’s a way to manipulate the algorithm to push your track to the top. That’s favorable versus trying to go to the rap format to compete with the most popular songs in the world.”

“Old Town Road” also became a smash on TikTok, where truckloads of young users (over 6 million in the United States) create short video clips set to music. The app enjoyed a burst of new interest Stateside just before Lil Nas X released his oddball single. Indify, a company that uses streaming and social media data to identify potential stars early in their careers, saw “Old Town Road” start to gain traction on SoundCloud in late December, according to Connor Lawrence, the platform’s chief marketing officer. “Now, the growth is insane,” Lawrence adds.

“He listed it as a country record. He was going to these spaces, gaining a little bit of traction on their country charts, and there’s a way to manipulate the algorithm to push your track to the top.”

That helps explain why “Old Town Road” flew onto the radio this month. “A couple of our markets put in ‘Old Town Road’ before that was even on a record label,” says Phil Becker, vp of content for Alpha Media, a network of nearly 200 radio stations. “”People were looking for the song file — where can we even get it? One [programmer] was like, ‘I just recorded it off the internet.’ Three of our markets right out of the gate were sharing the same MP3 [ripped] off YouTube.”

That scene would be unimaginable 20 years ago, when radio and labels worked together to make hits. Since artists needed those institutions to become popular, it was easy to dictate certain paths to success — a country hit came from a country label and earned support from country radio. But now the music industry often scrambles to sign and endorse tracks like “Old Town Road,” which have already erupted online. Hits are not initially dependent on industry support, which means that for a brief, giddy moment, some songs exist entirely outside of traditional commercial categorization.

That was certainly the case last week, when “Old Town Road” played on six different radio formats, according to Mediabase. Only one country station played the track — Radio Disney Country — but it was committed, spinning “Old Town Road” 15 times to date. “For those stations that tend to be more traditional country, it might be a little left of center,” says Phil Guerini, vp of music strategy for Disney Channels Worldwide and gm of the Radio Disney Network. “But you see the type of reaction the audience is having to the song. That’s informed by their perception of this song’s country relevance.”

“One [programmer] was like, ‘I just recorded it off the internet.’ Three of our markets right out of the gate were sharing the same MP3 [ripped] off YouTube.”

To the extent that you can corral “Old Town Road” and stuff it into a genre category, contemporary country is probably the best fit. “Old Town Road” certainly incorporates elements of hip-hop production, but at this point, rap’s country infiltration is ancient news, from Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem” to Sam Hunt singles.

But no genre wrestles with its identity as openly as country, which is why country singers are constantly recording songs asserting their own country-ness. “It doesn’t take much to question whether something is really country or not,” says another source at a digital distribution company who works with country artists. “Trap drums [like the ones in ‘Old Town Road’] are one of the things that make people want to say, ‘It’s something else.'”

While “Old Town Road” was briefly labelled a country hit, the distributor did a quick temperature-check in Nashville. “I talked to people at agencies, people at streaming services down there, people at record labels,” he says. “Unanimously, everyone kind of looked at it as a gimmick. They looked at it the same way they looked at the yodel guy.” But the “yodel guy,” Mason Ramsey, is white, and when a viral moment — albeit one without trap drums — took him to the country charts, he was allowed to stay there. 

The expulsion of Lil Nas X is not the only recent example of the country music establishment rejecting the work of black artists who did not come up in the Nashville system. In 2016, Beyoncé reportedly tried to submit the Lemonade track “Daddy Lessons” to the Grammy committee that oversees the awards given to country songs, only to be shot down. (Beyoncé also records for Columbia.)

This problem is not exclusive to country. In the music industry, rock and pop are also still thought of as music by, and for, white people. Much of Juice WRLD’s Death Race for Love is textbook rock and roll, awash in guitars. It will probably be the most commercially successful rock album of 2019. But you won’t find any Juice WRLD on Spotify’s premier rock playlist, which is dominated by white artists. Meanwhile, some pop radio programmers acknowledge that the format is reluctant to play music by black artists.

Lil Nas X’s single is now caught in a very unusual middle ground. “‘Old Town Road’ was broken [in part] using country channels,” Kang says. And the track elicits an enthusiastic reaction based on “country relevance.” But for some, it still doesn’t qualify as country.

Once Columbia signed Lil Nas X, it weighed submitting his single to the streaming services for consideration on their country playlists, according to the insider. But the label ultimately decided against it. “If he wants to be a rapper [later], you can’t put country under his title — he will never be accepted [by hip-hop fans],” the source explains. 

Judging from the tepid reception for “Old Town Road” at rap radio last week, some hip-hop power-brokers haven’t embraced Lil Nas X yet either. And now that he has been removed from the country chart, “Old Town Road” is a genuine oddity — listened to everywhere, but not at home anywhere.

“What do we do with artists that blur genre lines when they’re [artists] of color?” the insider wonders. “No one else has that problem.”

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