Monday, April 8th, 2019

Lil Nas X – Old Town Road

We’re gonna bluuuurb til we can’t no more…


Katie Gill: The problem with “Old Town Road” is that it’s more interesting as a thinkpiece than an actual song. The song charting, then being excluded, from the Billboard Country Music charts opens so many questions that can’t be answered in one sitting. Is this a further example of the well-documented racism in country music? Or is this just a freak accident hick-hop song that vaulted its way out of the depths of subgenre hell? Is a twangy voice and references to horses enough to make a song “country”? Does the presence of Billy Ray Cyrus in a remix that dropped on Friday legitimize the song’s credentials or just make them worse? Where was all this controversy when “Meant To Be,” an honest-to-god pop song, was holding steady on the charts? There are so many questions and so many points of conversation that spring out from this song, that it’s a pity “Old Town Road” itself is just okay. Everything about it screams “filler track for the SoundCloud page,” from the length to the trap beats to the aggressively mediocre lyrics. The song didn’t even chart on it’s own merits: it charted because it’s used in a TikTok meme! This is like if “We Are Number One” or “No Mercy” made their way to the top of the iTunes charts and people decided to have a conversation about the limits of genre based on those charting. I’m a little annoyed, because the conversation around “Old Town Road” is something that country music should be having… but just not around “Old Town Road.”

Jacob Sujin Kuppermann: There are essays upon essays to be written about “Old Town Road” as a prism for the racial divides that have served as undergirding for the modern American genre system since the 1930s division between “hillbilly” and “race” records. It’s the perfect hunk of think-piece fodder: a simple core question — is it country? — that can spiral out to all corners of culture until the song itself is obscured. So let’s focus on the song, instead. Because beyond all world-historical significance, “Old Town Road” fucking bangs. It’s all in the bait and switch of that intro — banjos and horns plunking away until Lil Nas X’s triumphant “YEAAAH” (second this decade only to Fetty Wap) drops and the beat comes in. It’s a joke until it’s not — maybe you came in from the Red Dead Redemption 2 video, or from a friend of yours talking about the hilarious country trap song, or from the artist’s own Twitter, which is more Meech On Mars than Meek Mill, but no matter the source, you’ll find that “Old Town Road” has its way of looping into your brain, all drawls and boasts and banjos. It’s meme rap, but much like prior iterations of this joke (“Like a Farmer”), Lil Nas X fully and deeply commits — he doesn’t drop the pretense for a single line, keeping the track short enough to not outlive its welcome while still exploring its weird conceit to its fullest. Yet even in its jokey vibe there’s some actual pathos — no matter how put on, the lonesome cowboy sorrow of Lil Nas X’s declaration that he’ll “ride till [he] can’t no more” feels genuine. “Old Town Road” is everything at once, the implosion of late teens culture into one undeniable moment.

David Moore: So here’s a true gem of a novelty song — a phrase I use with both intention and respect; I grew up in a Dementoid household — that could launch a thousand thinkpieces about hip-hop, country, class, the object and subject of jokes, whether to call something a joke at all, you name it. But what I keep returning to is the economy of it, its simplicity, how there is so much in so little, the way that someone on the outside can grok things inaccessible to the insiders, maybe by accident or by studious observation and a fresh perspective, the way music can be a multiverse, characters from one world complicating or clarifying or confusing the limits of another in a mutually provocative way. I’m not a backstory guy, which is to say I’m not a research guy, which is to say I’m either intuitive or lazy or both, so I don’t have any clue where this came from, but I know magic when I hear it, I know what it sounds like when you discover, or simply stumble into by accident, the path beyond the bounds of territory you presumed exhausted, territory that can always get bigger, always invite whole new parties to the party. It’s a real party party; you can get in.

Katherine St Asaph: “Old Town Road” is the “Starships” of 2019: a song that objectively is not great, but will be called great for the understandable reason that liking or disliking it now unavoidably entails choosing the right or wrong side. This tends to lead to hand-waving freakoutery about critics not talking about the music, man, but once The Discourse is out in the world, it becomes a real and critical part of the song’s existence; not talking about Billboard punting “Old Town Road” would be like talking about “Not Ready to Make Nice” as an workaday country song. The problem is not quite as simple as “the Billboard charts don’t want black artists,” an argument with historical precedent but now doomed to fail: clearly, people like Kane Brown and Darius Rucker and Mickey Guyton (who’s left off lists like this, somehow) have hits. It’s more about respectability politics. Traditionalists hate the idea of memes, social media, and perceived line-cutting, all of which means they’ll hate a song born not of the Nashville and former-fraternity-bro scene, but via TikTok and stan Twitter. But what they really, really hate is rap and anything that sounds like a gateway to rap; like if they tolerate this Cardi B will be next. Country radio, for the past decade or two, has been pop radio with all the blatant rap signifiers removed; its songs aren’t about cowboys or horses but suburban WASP life. Of course, double standards abound. Talking about lean is out; talking about bingeing beer is fine. “Bull riding and boobies” isn’t OK because it’s from a guy called Lil Nas X — I honestly think people would whine less if this exact song was credited to “Montero Hill” — but “I got a girl, her name’s Sheila, she goes batshit on tequila” is OK because it’s from a guy called Jake Owen, and “Look What God Gave Her” is OK because it hides its ogling of boobies behind plausibly deniable God talk. Fortunately “Old Town Road” is better than “Starships” — the NIN sample is inspired, and the hook is evocative and sticky. (It fucks with authenticity politics, too — Lil Nas X wrote his own song, but the big corporate country artists often don’t.) Its main problem is that it’s slight: a meme that doesn’t overstay past the punchline, a song that never quite gets to song size.

Thomas Inskeep: Sampling Nine Inch Nails’ “34 Ghosts IV” to (help) create a western motif is hands-down brilliant, so huge thumbs-up for that. Lyrically, this is pretty empty, a bunch of western clichés strung together — but then again, the same can be said of plenty of Big & Rich songs. Split the score down the middle, accordingly.

Scott Mildenhall: But surely this is how country music should sound? Lil Nas X has performed alchemy in combining two generic styles into something inspiring, flipping the meaning of “pony and trap” on its head. The mechanical sound of trap is rusted into the mechanical sound of fixing a combine, or at least pretending that is something you might do, and such performance is fun for all the family. Well, unless you’re an American farming family tired of stereotypes anyway.

Stephen Eisermann: Non country (trap) beat with subtle country instrumentation? Sounds like much of country radio, only way better! 

Nortey Dowuona: A burning, humming bass girds under sticklike banjos as Lil Nas X rides into town to water his horse and head back out onto the open road.

Alex Clifton: I spent the weekend re-enacting this scene from Easy A with this song, so it’s safe to say I like it. I especially love the “horse”/”Porsche” line, which is unexpected and amazing.

Alfred Soto: The usual genre conversations threaten to smother analysis. If Lil Nas X can use trap drums, then why can’t Sam Hunt use loops? Silly. (Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes: “The Constitution is what the judges say it is”). The Kanye allusion (“Y’all can’t tell me nuthin'”) works extra-diagetically. An assemblage of modest, discrete charms held together by a solid performance at its center — nothing more. I await the Future-Frank Liddell collab. 

Edward Okulicz: It’s affectionate and actually quite deferential in its treatment of its parent genres. Crossovers like this have been hinted at, and gestured towards in the other direction quite a bit of late (country artists affecting hip-hop, less so the latter), and the two genres have more in common than the caricatures of the sorts of people who are supposed to listen to them do. Of course, I mean those genres as they exist today, and not in the warped imaginations of purists. You can see why kids have latched on, and it’s easy to snarl at Big Chart for sticking their oar in. The kids are right; artists control the means of production and radio and chart compilers can accept that they aren’t the tastemakers, and attempts to force their tastes down other people’s throats will lead to a backlash. This is not a brilliant song but it’s a picture of one of many potential musical futures and, at two minutes, the perfect length too. The right response is to smile, and “Old Town Road” makes it easy to smile — it’s an earworm. Sure, it doesn’t give me the same immediate feeling of fuck!!! this is the best that I got when I first heard that version of Bubba Sparxxx’s “Comin’ Round” but country music survived “Honey, I’m Good” and it will survive this. It might well thrive.

Hannah Jocelyn: I recently found out that I have a moderate Vitamin D deficiency, but looking up the song everyone was talking about and hearing this basically confirmed that I should go outside more often. There are definitely things to talk about: it’s the logical conclusion to “I listen to everything except country and rap” jokes when the inverse has taken over the Hot 100, and it’s a song that’s set to hit number one because everyone is incredulous that it exists at all — with a Billy Ray Cyrus remix to boot. The conversations about what makes a song “country” are all fascinating, but it’s hard to fully enjoy pieces about something that, as an actual song, is so fundamentally empty. The Nine Inch Nails sample is interesting, but like everything else, more intriguing in theory than execution. This will wind up on every site’s “best of 2019” lists, and then in ten years people will snark on how a song with “My life is a movie/Bullridin’ and boobies” was so critically acclaimed. As a meme/discourse lightning rod, it’s an [8], as a how-to guide for late-2010s fame, it’s a [10], but there’s little appeal in a vacuum. Adding a bonus point, because music has never existed in a vacuum anyway.

Taylor Alatorre: Remember when the internet was still described as a realm of lawless and limitless potential, when open source could be touted as revolutionary praxis and “free flow of information” was a sacred utterance? Now one of the key political questions is whether private companies should be doing more to banish online rulebreakers or whether the federal government should step in to delimit what those rules are. Whichever side ends up winning, it’s clear that the wide open spaces of the Frontier Internet are rapidly facing enclosure. Montero Hill learned this the hard way when his @nasmaraj account was suspended by Twitter as part of its crackdown against spam-based virality. While Tweetdeckers are nobody’s martyrs, it’s a minor tragedy every time an account with that many followers and that much influence gets shunted off to the broken-link stacks of the Wayback Machine. Rules must be laid down, but their enforcement always entails loss — the bittersweet triumph of civilization over nature that forms the backbone of every classic Western. Maybe Hill/nasmaraj/Lil Nas X had this loss in mind when writing the jauntily defiant lyrics of “Old Town Road.” Maybe he was just riding the microtrends of the moment like he was before. Still, this particular microtrend — the reappropriation of cowboy imagery by non-white Americans — feels too weighty to be reduced to mere aesthetics. Turner’s Frontier Thesis may have been racially blinkered to the extreme, but the myths and yearnings it spawned can never die; they just get democratized. So it makes sense that young Americans, even those who don’t know who John Wayne is, would subconsciously reach out for the rural, the rustic, the rugged and free, just as we feel the global frontiers closing all around us. Our foreign policy elites hold endless panel talks about “maintaining power projection” and “winning the AI race,” but most normal people don’t care about that stuff. We’re all secretly waiting for China to take over like in our cyberpunk stories, so we can drop all the pressures of being the Indispensable Nation and just feast off our legacy like post-imperial Britain. And what is that legacy? It’s rock, it’s country, it’s hip hop, it’s “Wrangler on my booty,” it’s all the vulgar mongrelisms that force our post-ironic white nationalists to adopt Old Europe as their lodestar. In short, it’s “Old Town Road.” We’re gonna ride this horse ’til we can’t no more, we’re gonna reify these myths ’til we can’t no more, because when the empire is gone, the myths are all we have. (Oh, and the Billy Ray remix is a [10]. Obviously.)

Jonathan Bradley: People suppose that genre exists to delineate a set of sounds, and while it does do that, it depends even more on its ability to build, define, and speak for communities. The question of whether “Old Town Road” is a country song or not is in some ways easily resolved: country music showed no interest in Lil Nas X — or at least not until Billy Ray Cyrus noticed an opportune moment to complicate expectations and grab headlines — and so Lil Nas X’s song was not country. Even taking into account its sound and subject matter, his hit is best understood as a burlesque on country music, one that parodies and exaggerates the genre’s motifs and themes for heightened effect. The kids on TikTok, who turned the long-gone lonesome blues of the song’s tumbleweed hook into viral content, understand this intuitively: they use the incongruity that clarifies at the beat drop as an opportunity to engage in caricature and costume. And while Lil Nas X, a huckster and a trendspotter before he was a pop star, has been happy to embrace the yee-haw mantle that has been bestowed upon him, his song is a familiar rap exercise in play and extended metaphor. The Shop Boyz did much the same thing with “Party Like a Rock Star” and it would be obtuse to suppose that was a rock song. And yet, as the country historian Bill C. Malone has written, country since its inception has attracted fans “because of its presumed Southern traits, whether romantically or negatively expressed”; there has always been a bit of schtick to this sound. I wondered when we reviewed Trixie Mattel whether country is, on some level, intrinsically camp, and it’s tough to declare definitively that Lil Nas X’s bold hick strokes are that much more stylized than Jake Owen’s performance of small town ordinariness. And just as a country music based on cohesive community rather than sound has found itself broad enough to encompass northern hair metalAuto-Tuned club stomps, and Ludacris, the gate-keeping involved in keeping Lil Nas X out begins to look suspicious. After all, the first song to debut on Billboard‘s Most Played Juke Box Folk Records chart, the predecessor to today’s Hot Country Songs, was “Pistol Packin’ Mama,” a hillbilly goof by the decidedly uncountry combination of Bing Crosby and the Andrews Sisters. As Malone has written, “While the commercial fraternity thought mainly of profits, the recording men, radio executives, publicists, promoters, ad men, sponsors, and booking agents who dealt with folk music also readily manipulated public perceptions in order to sell their products.” One of the ways they did that was to tap into already mythological figures of American individualism like the cowboy, who is, after all, a creature of the west and not the South. “The respective visions of cowboy and western life drew far more from popular culture and myth … than they did from reality,” Malone writes of the early country singers who embraced cowboy personae; in some ways Lil Nas X’s purloining of meme interest in that same culture places him within a rich country heritage. After all, when in popular entertainment has shameless self-promotion not been part of the aspirant’s trade? It does matter how cultural communities react to the music made in their name, but when certain people are adjudicated not fit for club membership, it is worth asking why. Country’s culture, I said recently, is “one that’s implicitly but not definitely Southern, implicitly but not definitely rural, and implicitly but not definitely white,” and it’s easy to see how Lil Nas X doesn’t fit into that. Country music’s racism isn’t unique to the genre — the historical hegemonies of punk and indie rock are at least as determinedly white — but it is particularly visible. Country is racist like the South is racist like America is racist. Lil Nas X disrupts that settlement, helping us imagine a country music that genuinely encompasses the music of the American South — a genre that has space for “This is How We Roll” and Miranda Lambert, Lil Boosie and Young Thug, “Formation” and Juvenile, and perhaps even Norteño and banda sounds. That would be, however, not only a far different country music to what we know today, but the music of a far different America.

Iris Xie: Yeet haw! Aside from the great pleasure I’ve had in showing this to my friends, (Me, two weeks ago: “Have you heard this country trap song???” My friends, this week: “Iris, that song you’re talking about now has Billy Ray Cyrus on it??”) and either slinging back and forth memey references, engaging in discussions on the state of white supremacy in the music industry while also debating about the song’s merit, or hearing my friends start singing “can’t nobody tell me nothing…” very quietly at any moment and I can’t help but join in — it’s all been very fun. Aside from making plans to play “Old Town Road” on my next country road drive to Costco, something that’s occurred to me is that this is a song boosted by the status and calamity of its metanarrative. We could always use more discussions of the double standards that Black and POC artists face in the industry when it comes to genres and participating in it, and I’m honestly glad Lil Nas X just made something that was fun and made sense to him, even if “Old Town Road” doesn’t stray too much from the conventions of both trap and country, resulting in a well-balanced mashup that sounds more safe than surprising to me, but is serene in its confidence nevertheless. On the flipside of that genre-mashing, Miley wishes and is probably very jealous of her father now for hopping onto this train, lest we forget about all of her cultural appropriation attempts. But for the song itself, those long, relaxed drawls and the imagery of riding a horse to the trap beat — why not? We live in weird times now, Black people’s contributions to country music were erased, and it’s kind of a relaxing song. Also, I’m a fan of the “Can’t nobody tell me nothing” lyric, which has become an unintentionally defiant line in the face of all the backlash, resulting in a message to rally around. Now excuse me, as I text my friends that “I’m gonna take my horse down to the old town road.”

Reader average: [5] (9 votes)

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6 Responses to “Lil Nas X – Old Town Road”

  1. Katie: “The problem with ‘Old Town Road’ is that it’s more interesting as a thinkpiece than an actual song.”

    me, looking at everything I wrote: …lol

  2. lmaoooo. as someone who’s been devouring “Old Town Road” thinkpieces like they’re going out of style, I can’t judge. There’s so much phenomenal blurbing here and I cannot wait to get lost in a link hole thanks to everyone’s blurbs.

    also, I messed up my alt-text: “No Mercy” is that “I’m already Tracer” song and I apologize that it might be stuck in your head now.

  3. dear Iris: please put “Yeet haw!” on a t-shirt so I can buy one for everyone I know!!!

  4. Damn I don’t even know what TikTok is — I thought for a second everyone was referring to some meme that involved Kesha? (I work in a high school but all of my students just use Instagram and very few of them had heard of this song when I asked them about it.)

    (Come to think of it, “Tik Tok” was a territory broadener, too.)

  5. I work in a high school as well and it seems like most if not all my students are aware of what TikTok is. A lot of them don’t use it and consider it embarrassing (and they definitely use Instagram more than anything), but they are familiar with the memes. Which is to say that they’re also familiar with Old Town Road. I played it in class last week and it had the loudest (positive) response of any song I’ve played all year. Hearing a classroom sing “I got the horses in back” in unison… so good.

  6. Still haven’t managed to hear the whole thing yet, but is it just me or wouldn’t this song make an easy mashup with Bruno Mars’ “That’s What I Like”?

    Every time I hear “I got the horses in back” my brain immediately follows up with “Everything twenty-four karats, Take a look in that mirror (take a look), Now tell me who’s the fairest [etc.]”