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It's a country/rap song that's breaking chart records in the US. So why the Old Town Road controversy?

“I’m gonna take my horse, To the old town road.”

Source: Wicked Sounds/YouTube

IT’S CURRENTLY THE number one song in the US but it has also become somewhat of a battle ground between music genres in 2019 and who gets to define them. 

Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road sits atop the Billboard 100 charts, reaching the summit earlier this week and also charting in Ireland where it’s #1 on Spotify’s Irish chart. 

The song is a semi-ironic take on country music themes and sounds, except the main performer is Lil Nas X, a 29-year-old singer from Atlanta who initially found fame on the internet.

Old Town Road features the sound of a plucked banjo sampled from Nine Inch Nails and is almost entirely about country themes (“I’m gonna take my horse, To the old town road, I’m gonna ride ’till I can’t no more).

It also features deep trap drums throughout, a bass sound typical of rap in southern US states. 

The song went viral when it started being used as the music to countless videos on the video sharing app Tik Tok. It was as part a meme where users dress up like cowboys and cowgirls. 

Source: Lifeples/YouTube

Lil Nas X first released it in December 2018 with record label Columbia describing it as a “country-inspired rap track”.

The original video for the song was made up entirely of clips from Wild West-themed video game Red Dead Redemption 2, edited by Lil Nas X himself.

The song began climbing the charts and last month debuted at #19 on Billboard’s Hot Country chart. That was until Billboard decided to remove the song for essentially not being country enough.

“Upon further review, it was determined that Old Town Road by Lil Nas X does not currently merit inclusion on Billboard’s country charts,” Billboard said when the song was removed from the chart. 

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. 

Source: Lil Nas X/YouTube

This decision prompted criticism with many arguing that music can be across different genres. It was pointed out, for example, that pop songs regularly feature on country charts. 

Others said the decision was even more problematic and that Lil Nas X’s race was a factor in deciding whether the song was “country” or not. 

“Billboard’s decision to take the song off of the country chart had absolutely nothing to do with the race of the artist,” the statement said.

Predictably, the controversy has done even more to boost the song and it’s currently on track to reach 80 million streams this week. Beating the previous streaming record set by Drake’s God’s Plan. 

Billy Ray Cyrus has even come in to support the track’s country credentials and a remixed version of the song featuring both Lil Nas X and Cyrus has been released. 

Regardless of the origins of the song, the New York Times has called it “a sociocultural rallying point” and “one of the most emblematic songs of the year”.

For Lil Nas X, who dropped out of college to pursue a music career, he says the song’s success is simply down to hard work and marketing. 

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About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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