Old Town Road
May 1, 2019
Todd plays "Old Town Road" on the piano.
LIL NAS X ft. BILLY RAY CYRUS - OLD TOWN ROAD
A pop song review
Hey everyone. Todd in the Shadows, internet's laziest music nerd coming in late to the conversation yet again. We're all familiar with the concept of overplay, right?
You like a song but you hear it too often in too short an amount of time, and it gets tired more quickly than it should and you stop wanting to hear it? Y'know?
That was before streaming when people had a lot less control over what they listened to, but here's my question: Can a song be overtalked?
Maybe this is a problem just for me cause I have to keep up with current discussions in music to make these videos, and also I never leave my computer, but I have seen nothing in the last month but takes upon takes upon takes about "Old Town Road" by Lil Nas X, which is the Number 1 song in America as I record this.
But it's not just the song, no no no, it is pure thinkpiece bait.
Arguments, counter-arguments, counter-counter-arguments, controversy, the discourse.
You would think it was called "Old Town Road (What we talk about when we talk about Country and Rap and the Historical Racist Exclusion in the Music Industry and the Concept of Genre as a Whole)."
And it's not just that either. It's a social movement.
"Old Town Road" has become a symbol of righteousness, striking back against every historical wrong committed against black artists in any genre.
And I'm just exhausted by it. Like, I figured by the time I recorded my take, things would've calmed down, uh and it has not.
Like, just a week ago the rapper Dave East said that "Old Town Road" was, quote, "wack".
And then he had to turn off his Instagram comments because he was getting so much backlash.
...Because he called it 'wack'. Sure makes me nervous about making this video!
The last time I remember being this nervous because a song had such fervent, devoted fans was Childish Gambino's "This is America".
But "This is America" was provocative by design. It was a firebomb deliberately aimed at an already overheated and volatile political climate, and it demanded that you take it seriously.
"Old Town Road" is a less than two-minute novelty song about riding a horse.
This song was not built to carry that weight. You have overladen that horse.
But who am I to judge about "overtalking" a song? I'm making a video too. What else is going down? I don't have ten minutes of material on the Jonas Brothers. I don't.
And I've been thinking about the intersection of country and hip-hop for a very, very long time.
Like way before even Nelly and Tim McGraw. I mean back when country and hip-hop were considered exact opposites.
And you would hear people say they listen to everything except those two genres.
Now I was a little kid in the '90s when my parents took me to a Hank Williams, Jr. concert, and I watched him do a cover of "Whoomp! There It Is". I swear that happened.
And, y'know it sucked because old Hank was too drunk to stand, but it still blew my mind because, "Whaaaaa? Country and rap don't go together!"
And on the basis of that concert, I declare Hank Jr. the most influential country singer alive, because now country and hip-hop mix so often it's not even noteworthy anymore. But it's mostly come from the country side. They add hip-hop tropes to country songs, they get guest rappers. There really hasn't been much of the reverse.
And then this 19-year old kid who's a complete no-name- In fact, his rap name is just a mashup of the biggest rappers of 20 years ago. He could've been named 'JayLudaBiggie'.
So this no-name with a bad name comes out of nowhere with what he calls a "country-trap song."
I mean, it is a trap song, but it's got a country hook sung in a low southern bass, with lyrics about y'know, bull riding and horses. It doesn't even have a real music video, it's just stolen video game footage. That's how small time he is. But his song catches on as a meme on TikTok, which I'm told is what replaced Vine, and then it gets big enough to start charting.
And then Billboard decided, "Wait, this isn't actually a country song," and they took it off. And that's where the trouble started.
There's just been this huge backlash at Billboard's decision, and the country establishment as a whole. That decision became emblematic of country music's long historical exclusion of black artists, and there's been these big long Twitter threads about it, and they're not super accurate, but the broader points are true as far as I can tell.
Like, there's no reason country music should be 'only for white people,' certainly not historically since it and the Blues come from roughly the same place. No, country became exclusively white as a marketing decision in the record industry 80 years ago.
As to the broader points, is there racist resistance to black people in country music by country music fans and by the industry? Yeah, obviously so.
I know that because every black guy who's ever tried to make it in Nashville has said as much, old and new, successful and not.
So yeah, there are problems even now that they have like three black guys which has brought the number of successful black artists in country history up to, what, four?
I just had difficulty connecting it to "Old Town Road", cause, honestly, I sided with Billboard.
To me, this is not a country song. Like yeah, there are cowboy elements and modern country has hip-hop elements, but you still wouldn't mistake this for any other country song.
Even beyond the beat, it just doesn't sound the same, like the melody and the structure are mostly trap.
The song was only counted as 'country' because his manager checked the box when he uploaded it to Spotify because he figured, "Why not?"
And I have seen critics in both the country and hip-hop worlds agree with me so y'know at least I'm not alone, but I'm actually not so confident in this argument anymore. In fact, I think the other side's argument is pretty unbeatable, which is that country music already includes tons of non-country music. I'm not even talking about 'bro-country' or 'pop-country'. I'm talking about shit that is just plainly not country music in any way.
How on EARTH could you call this country music? You can't. It has no elements of the genre whatsoever, and yet it was a huge hit on the country charts. "Old Town Road" may or may not be a country song, but it's certainly more country than this. But even just compared to an average modern pop country song, where's my argument?
"'Old Town Road' isn't country. It has creaky banjos and trap beats. Modern country music has processed guitars and snap beats."
Just listening to myself I feel like an idiot.
Like yes, modern genres have been shaped a lot by historical racism, and that's obviously still a problem. But I think there's a secondary problem, which is that Billboard wrote itself into a corner by still trying to define genres at all.
'Genre' is an artifact of a time when music cost money, and people had finite amounts of cash and needed guidelines to help them decide where to spend it. It has nothing to do with the current scene where rock is country, country is pop, pop is indie, and rap is somehow not pop despite being more popular than everything else. Genres have no definition anymore, and it used to be that if genre was unclear, you could identify a song's genre by what radio stations it was on.
But the radio stations only play five songs now and no one listens to them, so what is their definition exactly?
One of the reasons that Billboard gave for their decision was the marketing, and that they'd change their mind if their marketing changed. The "marketing" changes? The music wouldn't change.
Basically the only way you can tell if a song is country is if it's marketed to country radio. I still don't think "Old Town Road" is much of a country song, but I understand it was and is getting played on country stations, so by definition, it is a country song.
Billboard still hasn't changed their minds so yeah, okay yeah now I'm convinced. That is some horseshit. We got horseshit in the back.
But even after I was convinced that Billboard fucked all this up, (sigh) I don't know. I kept hearing arguments that I didn't agree with and it just kinda rubbed me the wrong way. It feels like a lot of separate, unrelated issues are being conflated here. I've heard people saying that Billboard's exclusion of "Old Town Road" is country music saying, "Well we can borrow from hip-hop, but you can't borrow from country music."
But that's not the same thing. Florida Georgia Line aren't trying to be counted on the rap charts. No one's trying to get Luke Bryan played on Hot .97 next to Meek Mill. I mean, that'd be pretty funny if he tried, but that's not happening.
People are like, "Well this just proves Nashville is biased against rappers." Have you been watching Nashville? They've been desperately courting hip-hop for years now. Just begging any famous rapper, "Please, please think we're cool."
I mean, I just couldn't get on board with a lot of the arguments and it really detracted from the song to me, and it got much worse when they released the remix with Billy Ray Cyrus of all goddamn people.
Suddenly I was hearing about how great it was that country legend Billy Ray Cyrus was using his decades of experience in Nashville and credibility to support this wronged up-and-coming artist, what a gracious thing for him to do.
I can't tell if you guys are being serious. You know he's a joke, right? He doesn't have credibility. He's the Rico Suave of country. He's a pop doofus who got big 25 years ago and immediately flamed out. He's not graciously standing up for this kid. He was asked to be on the song, probably because Lil Nas grew up on Hannah Montana, and that's the only country singer he knows. Of course Billy Ray said yes. He's been trying to ride back to relevance on the coattails of younger, cooler artists for fifteen years.
This is like if a young country artist decided he was going to be a rapper, and for cred he joined up with his favorite rapper ever, Ja Rule. Y'know as if Ja Rule cared what genre it was or who was asking. What, is Ja Rule gonna say no?
So that's who Billy Ray is in this equation, don't get it twisted. The kid's doing him a favor just as much as the reverse. But putting that aside, obviously "Old Town Road" is getting screwed over. The country establishment has been trying to make a crossover genre smash like this for years. They should be loving it, and I think the resistance isn't because he's too black or too hip-hop. It's because Lil Nas X comes from outside their little ecosystem.
Country stars only get away with genre bending if they're established country artists, and Lil Nas isn't a "country artist" because he goes by a rap name, and he hasn't kissed the right asses, and used their songwriters, and let them pick out his wardrobe. It's stupid, and it's arbitrary.
But at the same time, I don't think the traditionalist argument against "Old Town Road" is unfair. Lil Nas is an outsider, and he's not super respectful of the conventions of the genre. Instead of "Old Town Road" being included, maybe all the crossover shit should be excluded. Trying to mix with hip-hop has made country music suck ass, and the breakdown of genre lines is why everything sounds like the same Imagine Dragons-y featureless glop.
Or, maybe the existence of genres is what's ruining genre music. Maybe still having separate genres in a Spotify world invites artists to try to hit all the demographics and check all the boxes instead of doing one thing well. Maybe we should give up on genres entirely instead of twisting ourselves in knots trying to draw imaginary lines and definitions.
And wasn't there a song I was supposed to be reviewing?!
Closing Tag Song: "Wild Wild West" - Kool Moe Dee