Does “Old Town Road” Signify a New Phase in Musical Evolution?

An anomaly occurred just a little less than a month ago, when Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” charted on the Country Billboard chart. It was, at that time, maybe taken as a joke. But then you started listening to it… and you couldn’t really tell what the song was. Was it a country song, but made with hip-hop instruments? Or vice-versa? Regardless if it feels like a glazed-donut dipped into an orange 7/11 Big-Gulp, the song itself represents perhaps a new age in contemporary music.

After charting on the country chart, however, the song was then deemed “un-fit” for the country chart by Billboard, and removed promptly. Un-phased, Lil Nas X didn’t back down, but rather, saw a loop hole within the Billboard chart that he could seize upon. Soon after, to legitimize his song as “country,” he brought in none other than Billy ray Cyrus to record the song’s chorus. And after the remix was released, it topped the Billboard 100 chart altogether, giving Cyrus his first #1 record since “Achy Breaky Heart.”

What followed was a series of memes and tweets mocking the success of the song. However little does the public know, or even Lil Nas X rather, that what the song represents is perhaps a cultural shift in how music will be made and produced. “Old Town Road” is not a country song, but a trap song with country elements. But the fact that it registers with people as country opens up a different debate entirely.

The reason as to why Billboard removed it from the country chart in the first place is because it does not “embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version,” and was therefore disqualified. But what does that mean necessarily? What and who is to judge what qualifies as “country” music or not? Pitchfork recently published an article earlier this month about this exact situation, going on to say that if it feels like these dimensions and qualifications are starting to sound made up, it’s because they are. We are now in the days that charts can no longer keep up with the constant fast-pace changing of music. What was once considered free-reign of recognition now just feels like laws, which don’t take into account any type of modern change (look how the charts adjusted with streaming numbers and “album equivalent units.”)

2019 Stagecoach Festival - Day 3
Diplo, Lil Nas X, and Billy Ray Cyrus onstage during the 2019 Stagecoach Festival (Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Stagecoach)

Interestingly enough, along with Lil Nas X and Cyrus, “Old Town Road” is also Nine Inch Nails’ first number 1 hit, as the song’s beat is derived from a song off off their instrumental album Ghosts I-IV. But little would actually know that without looking at the song’s writing credits.

Shortly after “Old Town Road” was removed from the country chart, Billy Ray Cyrus rang in for support of Lil Nas X, going onto say that “only outlaws are outlawed.” Which opens up an entirely new discussion – are modern day music charts detrimental to the growth of contemporary music? It depends how you look at it. If you make a product and call it one thing when it’s actually another, odds are the public will call you out. However, if the lines are blurred just enough, made unrecognizable, and the familiar becomes unfamiliar, or vice-versa, you can get people talking and listening.

So, what does this all mean? What’s to take away from this whole fiasco that probably won’t mean much a month or two down the line? What it means is that, when it comes to producing music, we have gotten to a point where we no longer see music as genres, but as tool sets – with each genre comes a varied instrumentation one way or another, and everything’s at our disposal. “Old Town Road” just happened to evoke the traditional signifiers of country music.

We are now in a time where there are no “new songs” or “old songs,” but songs we have heard, and songs we have not. When Nine Inch Nails, Lil Nas X, and Billy Ray Cyrus can hold the same number one spot at the same time, it proves that the lines between genres are truly starting to blur in mainstream music. Maybe “Old Town Road” will be forgotten a year down the road, but the impact it’s made and the gaping hole it has pointed out in the mainstream charts is now apparent.


Featured photo via Twitter/@Stagecoach

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