When Lil Nas X first released his country-rap single “Old Town Road” on December 3, 2018, he was a relatively unknown artist with only a few uploads on his SoundCloud account. Flash forward a few months later to April 2019 and Lil Nas X has gone from a young artist struggling to be recognized to topping Billboard charts and being signed by Columbia Records. His unlikely road to fame marks an unprecedented shift in the use of social media and the debate regarding the country music genre.
TikTok, an app where users can share short, looping videos, was the start of the song’s ascent. According to their official website, TikTok was one of the most downloaded apps in the past year, an accomplishment evidenced by its over 500 million users to date. Lil Nas X released “Old Town Road” on TikTok for users to freely utilize in their own videos on the app. While many up and coming artists share their music using platforms like SoundCloud and YouTube to establish their fanbase, Lil Nas X’s use of TikTok has demonstrated the app’s great potential in jumpstarting a music career.
The release of his song coincided with the popularity of the #yeehaw challenge on TikTok, where users become cowboys and cowgirls in their videos. His lyric “I got the horses in the back” became closely associated with the challenge, plays in nearly all videos as the background to their transformation. The yeehaw hashtag currently has over 80 million views on TikTok, demonstrating the popularity of the viral challenge. Once the song’s use took off on TikTok, its popularity outside of the app also blew up. Lil Nas X himself had a role in sparking interest in the song by creating his own memes to contribute to the viral nature of today’s social media trends.
The song also presents a renewed focus on the genre of country music. As only two country songs had previously topped Billboard’s Hot 100 in the 30 years prior to the release of “Old Town Road,” the single defied expectations when it reached the peak position on the Billboard chart in April. While the song has enjoyed great success on the Hot 100 chart, it sparked the question about what is considered country music. In March, Billboard removed the single from its Hot Country Songs chart, claiming it was not a country song, but kept it on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart.
Billboard justified its decision to remove “Old Town Road” from the Hot Country Songs chart in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine saying, “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.” This statement has led listeners to question what these “elements” are and how songs should be categorized. The removal not only prevented the single from topping the country chart in the following week, but discredited the single’s genre as being country music.
The song’s blend of both country and trap elements is represented by its use of banjo instrumentals, rap and hip-hop beat. During an interview with Time magazine, Lil Nas X stated, “The song is country trap. It’s not one, it’s not the other. It’s both. It should be on both [charts].”
Some believe the conflict of labeling Lil Nas X’s single as country music may stem from historical precedents in music regarding race. In the Rolling Stone article “Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’ Was a Country Hit. Then Country Changed Its Mind,” writer Elias Leight describes how the “music industry still relies heavily on old-fashioned definitions of genre, which have always mapped on race.” He cites Billboard’s R&B chart as being “originally titled ‘race music,’ while the Latin songs chart lumps together a myriad of genres and languages under one ethnic umbrella.” In the last 50 years prior to Lil Nas X’s chart-topping success, both all country artists who had a song at Billboard 100’s peak were white, demonstrating the general demographic of popular country singers.
Despite the song’s removal from the country chart, it has received much love from fellow artists, including Billy Ray Cyrus, Justin Bieber and Will Smith, on their respective social media accounts. Cyrus has also been more vocal on his opinion of the classification of “Old Town Road.” He tweeted, “It was so obvious to me after hearing the song just one time. I was thinking, what’s not country about it? What’s the rudimentary element of a country and western song?” He continued, “[the song’s] honest, humble, and has an infectious hook, and a banjo. What the hell more do ya need?” The tweet currently has over 260,000 likes.
Following the controversy, Lil Nas X also released a remixed version of the song featuring the prolific country artist. The vocals of Cyrus in the remix has led to more debate about the song’s genre as country music, with some believing Cyrus’ addition further emphasizes the song as belonging in the country category. The music video on YouTube reached the number one trending position in the United States on the day of its release and currently has over 30 million views, with another version coming our way that will feature artist Young Thug.
Despite the initial controversy, the song’s immense success has catapulted Lil Nas X to success, with over 18 million listeners on Spotify and over 700,000 followers on Instagram. With a forthcoming release of another remixed version of “Old Town Road” and new releases likely in the future, only time will tell how the perception of the country trap genre will change.