Old Town Road: Country or Rap
By RISHI DHIR ‘19
If you are one to listen to the radio or the “U.S. Top 50,” you’ve surely heard the song “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X. You probably know the first few lyrics, “Yeah, I'm gonna take my horse to the old town road, I'm gonna ride 'til I can't no more.” What many of you may not know of is the controversy over the genre to which “Old Town Road” belongs.
The lyrics of the song feature traditionally predominant country themes, but the addition of a buoyant, electronic beat has confused the music industry. Lil Nas X, a rapper from Atlanta, released this self-proclaimed country track in December of 2018, and as a result of a massive social media challenge known as the “yeehaw challenge,” the song has rose to popularity in recent months. However, this popularity is where the dispute begins.
As its fame grew, the song eventually reached the top of Billboard’s hot 100 country list. Suddenly, to the chagrin of many, Billboard removed the song from the country list and placed it in the rap category. When asked why, Billboard responded that the song, “did not embrace enough elements of today’s country music in its current version.”
With central focuses of horses, bull riding, and cowboy hats, the song echoes the themes of any other country song. Fans of the song expressing confusion and annoyance ultimately compelled Billy Ray Cyrus to make a remix of the song with Lil Nas X, which now has become even more popular than Nas’s original. In explaining why he chose to add a verse on the track, Cyrus noted, “I was thinking, what’s not country about it? What’s the rudimentary element of a country and western song? Then I thought, it’s honest, humble, and has an infectious hook, and a banjo.”
Some look at the choice to remove the song as a microcosm of a much larger issue. Considering Lil Nas X is a black rapper, fans sparked controversy about whether the removal of “Old Town Road” from Billboard was a reflection of a systematic exclusion of black artists from the country industry. As reported by Time magazine, many people believed that removing Lil Nas X from the country hot 100 list acted as protection from a “black entrance into a predominantly white genre of music, limiting black artists into a rap genre.” Though Billboard has denied these claims, audiences speculated that adding Cyrus onto the track, as a white country singer, might warrant his return to the country chart.
Whatever the reasoning behind the characterization of the song, this debate begs a bigger question. How much power should organizations like Billboard have in the genre categorization of a song? Since Billboard holds so much power in aiding artists reach popularity, should they be able to make their own decisions on songs without the consent of the artist? Regardless of whether you think the song belongs in the rap or country category, the song is a great demonstration of the modern synthesis of two seemingly different genres.