American music has impacted the way we engage with the idea of musical genres immensely. Not only have they given us unique genres but these different categories represent many different aspects of American culture and history. Any one who loves music and is alive today knows that there are huge differences between the classical American genres of rap and country music.
Some would even say the two were at the opposing ends of a spectrum. One reason that these two genres are perceived to be eons apart is the stark geographical distance and locations within America that they are rooted in. Both genres have become synonymous with a certain cultural and racial identity as well.
And that is where the conversation bring us to Lil Nas X’s controversial and extremely popular song “Old Town Road” that has captured the minds and Spotify playlists of the American populace. The hit no. 1 song has not only been streamed more than a million times of Spotify but is also currently on the number 2 spot on the iTunes chart.
But not everyone is happy with the song. But let’s discuss that in a minute.
Let’s talk about the song itself. The first time you hear it, Old Town Road can be identified as a pure Country song. The imagery is certainly there. “I’m gonna take my horse to the old town road / I’m gonna ride ’til I can’t no more,” is what the song starts with. The official music video that has 23 million views on YouTube itself screams Country music as the imagery is from a very Western themed Red Dead Redemption 2 from Rockstar Games.
The song sounds pretty much like an ode to the cowboy life and what it’s like living in the old West and all in all is a pretty catchy tune, albeit with a little snap to it in terms of the slight hip hop element to it. An article in The Fader even dubbed it “a country-adjacent hip-hop mish-mash from 19-year-old Atlanta artist Lil Nas X.” The song has even sparked a worldwide Tik Tok challenge where people are transforming themselves into cowboys and tbh, we’re so here for it!
So, what’s the problem with it?
Well, it all started when music gatekeeper of sorts, Billboard, removed the song from it’s Hot Country Songs chart category after there was debate as to whether the song could be classified as such. However, this sparked a new debate, perhaps one that is far more important. Did this move by Billboard have anything to do with the singer’s race?
Well, here’s what Billboard had to say for themselves in a statement to Rolling Stone, “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.”
And as was expected, people were not pleased. This brought a few issues to the spotlight such as the fact that in the 21st century was it not a little archaic to limit artistic expression especially since the audiences clearly related to the song being Country music? It also begs the question of whether there is no place for a black Country artist in the genre?
Most don’t see what the big deal is since nowadays the music we hear on the radio is not a strictly or rigidly confined to one genre. A good example would be the combination of Pop and Country music. So, why is the backlash restricted to hip hop or rap artists trying to wade into this relatively uncharted territory?
Although Billboard has since then denied any allegations that the race of the musician had anything to do with the decision, people aren’t all that convinced.
Lil Nas X had this to say about the decision and the criticism of his song,
just because old town road has funny lines doesn’t mean it’s parody. it has a theme. anybody with ears can tell i put some kind of effort into that song.
— i am reading all that (@LilNasX) March 27, 2019
However, the criticism stems from the fact that just because a song mimics Country elements, it in no way means the music actually represents true Country music. The song’s popularity, however, speaks for itself and is definitely a deserving hit. But, the question of whether there is resistance to include unconventional musicians into the ranks of Country history still remains and still speaks of an inherent racial divide in modern day america.