Thursday, July 11, 2019

Lil Nas X, the “Old Town Road,” and the (f)utility of genre labels

By Jeremy Orosz

“Old Town Road,” a country-trap<1> hit by 20-year-old rapper Lil Nas X, has become the unofficial soundtrack of 2019.<2> The song has held the coveted top spot on the US Billboard Hot 100 for the past 13 weeks—a feat no other hip hop or country single has achieved<3>—and it is on pace to become the first song this century to reach Diamond certification (10 million sales and streams) while still a #1 hit.<4> Consumer demand for both the original version and the remix alike seems insatiable:





Given the recent headlines surrounding Lil Nas X’s decision to come out publicly as gay, it may now seem a distant memory that mere months ago, the song’s rise to fame reignited fiery debates surrounding race and genre in contemporary music.  In late March, as the song was gaining in popularity, the powers-that-be at Billboard decided to remove “Old Town Road” from the country charts—much to the artist’s dismay, who had marketed the tune as a country track. Rolling Stone noticed the song’s quiet disappearance from the charts, and reported on March 26 that, according to an anonymous Billboard executive,

“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.”<5>

On the one hand, this decision should be uncontroversial, at least as far as OTR’s sonic elements are concerned; although Lil Nas X insists that his song is both country and trap—not one or the other<6>—Billboard is perhaps correct that, despite the eclectic mix of generic signifiers in the song, it is more of a hip hop/trap tune with country topoi (in both text and music) than the other way around.<7>  We might use the same “it’s more blueish-green than greenish-blue” reasoning to argue that Run-DMC’s “Rock Box” is a rap song with prominent rock elements while Rage Against the Machine’s “Testify” is rap influenced rock.  Yet conflating genre with style is of course a mistake; genre labels are notoriously unreliable at grouping music into coherent stylistic categories. True, if one uses historical style markers like the use of steel guitar and fiddle as a barometer, “Old Town Road” seems a poor fit for country radio.  But the same can be said of songs by Sam Hunt and Florida Georgia Line, whose recent hits are indistinguishable from contemporary pop.


This song held the top spot on the US country charts for 34 weeks:



And this was #1 for 50(!) weeks:




Although Billboard maintains that race was not a factor in the decision to remove “Old Town Road,” recent history belies this claim.<8> In this past decade, autotune, electronic beats, and even rapped vocals have been regular features on the country charts in the music of white artists;<9> Lil Nas X, however, faced unceremonious exile from the genre for including the very same elements in a nominal country song.  If the music of Darius Rucker is any indication, black artists—until quite recently—were most likely to find success on the country airwaves by producing songs that do little to push the boundaries of the genre. Rucker’s top-performing country hit is his 2013 cover of Appalachian favorite “Wagon Wheel;” none of his original tunes, have reached higher than #30 on the country charts, and even this modest success is likely a residual benefit of his previous life as the singer of Hootie and the Blowfish.


The historical racialization of genre in American popular music is hardly a story that needs re-telling at this late date. Countless episodes, both recent and distant, attest to the singular importance of race in genre assignment. Compare two crooning ballads that became major hits some two decades ago, Brian McKnight’s “Back at One” and Lonestar’s “Amazed:”




 
These songs have plenty in common stylistically with one another, yet the former was classified as R&B, and the latter as country. This categorization seems all the more arbitrary when we consider that Mark Wills’ cover of “Back to One” achieved nearly equal acclaim as a country song, and that “Amazed” has enjoyed several chart resurgences through various R&B covers.10> Such cases demonstrate that the very same song can be repackaged for a different listening public with only minimal modification to the music if it is sung by an artist who looks the part for their genre. None of this is to deny the role of sonic signifiers in genre identification, yet if style were the only factor considered, there would be no such category as “Blue Eyed Soul.”<11> It is equally telling that there is a well-known euphemism for “white soul artist,” while—to the detriment of Lil Nas X’s career—no comparable designation for “black country singer” exists.


Regardless of how “Old Town Road” sounds, had a song with the same stylistic components been recorded by Jason Aldean or Cole Swindell, there seems little chance that it would have been banished from the country charts. Even if the remix of “Old Town Road” featuring Billy Ray Cyrus had been released a few weeks sooner, perhaps Billboard would not have been so hasty to deem the song inadmissible for mainstream country radio.  The controversy over Lil Nas X makes it clear that the now-abandoned chart categories of “race” and “hillbilly” music are hardly a quaint vestige of an earlier time; the racial and stylistic presumptions underlying these now passé monikers still inform the genre divisions in operation today.


Billboard nevertheless seems to have learned their lesson from mishandling of “Old Town Road.”  Remarkably, two songs by black artists currently hold Top-10 spots on the country charts: “Good As You” by Kane Brown (by now, an established country star) and—more significantly—“The Git Up,” an ironic (and perhaps parodic) treatment of a Western line dance by new artist Blanco Brown.  The latter is a truly remarkable earworm that will surely become a fixture of wedding-party playlists:


 "Old Town Road” of course paved the way for the meteoric rise of “The Git Up,” and the enduring popularity of both songs suggests that more black artists will try to catch lightning in a bottle by adopting the same cowboy aesthetic. Whether our genre system is prepared to accommodate it, however, remains to be seen.

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<1>Thanks are due to the many students of mine, who brought the song “Old Town Road”—and the controversy surrounding it—to my attention. Trap is a sub-genre of rap associated with the American south, most especially Lil Nas X’s hometown of Atlanta, GA.  The music of Jeezy (formerly Young Jeezy) epitomizes the trap style.
<2>The story of Lil Nas X’s sudden rise to celebrity is provided in several journalistic venues.  See especially Joe Coscarelli, "‘Old Town Road’: See How Memes and Controversy Took Lil Nas X to No. 1.” https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/10/arts/music/old-town-road-lil-nas-x.html
T<3>he previous record for a hip hop song was 12 weeks at #1 on the Hot 100. See https://www.goldderby.com/article/2019/lil-nas-x-old-town-road-billboard-history-record-news/
<4>Lil Nas X celebrated the Diamond certification of his single prematurely:  https://revolt.tv/stories/2019/07/05/lil-nas-town-road-diamond-070085bc94
<5>Elias Light, “Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’ Was a Country Hit. Then Country Changed Its Mind.”
 
https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/lil-nas-x-old-town-road-810844/
<6>When asked about the song’s sudden removal from the country charts, Lil Nas X told Time, “The song is country trap.  It’s not one, it’s not the other.  It’s both.  It should be on both [charts].” https://time.com/5561466/lil-nas-x-old-town-road-billboard/
<7>Consider also Caramanica’s view that “‘Old Town Road’ isn’t quite fully country or hip-hop, at least not in the ways those genres taxonomize themselves. It’s something far more slippery, slithering between the two spaces and arriving at pop novelty.”  https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/11/arts/music/lil-nas-x-old-town-road-country-rap.html?action=click&module=RelatedLinks&pgtype=Article
<8>See https://genius.com/a/billboard-removed-lil-nas-x-s-old-town-road-from-its-hot-country-songs-chart
<9>For more in-depth discussion on the influence of hip hop on country music, see my forthcoming article on this topic: “‘Straight outta Nashville’: Hip-Hop Allusions in Contemporary Country Music,” Popular Music and Society, 43.
<10>Most prominent, perhaps, is Boyz II Men’s 2009 cover. Of note, while serving as a judge on The Sing-Off, Boyz II Men’s Shawn Stockman reported that “Amazed” was first offered to his group to perform before Lonestar recorded it. This claim is certainly plausible, though little evidence corroborates it.
<11>This term is associated with artists such as The Righteous Brothers, Hall and Oates, and Sam Smith.

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Jeremy Orosz is Assistant Professor of Music Theory at the University of Memphis

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