Lil Nas X’s hit “Old Town Road” sliced its way through the Tik Tok-verse as a groovy meme, but when the man, the myth, the legend was removed from the Billboard Top 100 spot for not being “real country,” Billy Ray Cyrus hopped on the remix with a fresh voice and even fresher production accompanying him.
What is so special about “Old Town Road?” Obviously, the combination of rap and country music is an attention grabber, especially since often fans of these genres are thought of as polar opposites with the only thing they have in common being a healthy hatred of ska. While “Old Town Road” isn’t the first of the rap-country subgenre, it is definitely the most viral, but I believe the context of this beautiful melody is even more valuable than the fact that it’s an absolute banger.
“Old Town Road” is a mellow blend of two genres that doesn’t overpower one genre with the other. It is a coming together of values and ideas that recognizes both art forms as rich and valid. Cyrus’ verse gives much more heart and collaboration to a song that already appeals to a broad spectrum of people.
There is some controversy surrounding this bumpin’ jam. When you look at the Billboard Top 100 country list, all of the artists have a few things in common. After Lil Nas X’s face was no longer in that group, it became extremely clear to a lot of people that one of those unifying factors is that every artist on the list is white.
The impact of race on musical trends and genres in undeniable. The sale of race records and more popular sweet, hillbilly music was a very real and well-recorded divide in the south, and that separation existed farther north as well when jazz made its way into larger cities. Demographics defined the markets, and the markets defined the products. To most record labels, it only made sense to market along very strong race lines. That being said, as music has evolved, in all genres, many white artists have taken a lot of influence from black musicians.
Country music is no exception to this, and yet, all popular country music artists are white. While I’m not trying to say that the people of Billboard are outwardly trying to limit black artists because of their race, I do believe that it’s not outlandish to say that the removal of “Old Town Road” from the top 100 list is the product of historic discrimination within music. Additionally, as our lives and culture become more and more entwined in the internet and online social media platforms, the boundaries between genres become more and more difficult to define.
With the increased volume of readily accessible music, as well as greater opportunity to make and promote music through platforms like Soundcloud and Spotify, there is more music being created and more people listening to that music than before when we were limited to radio stations and record labels.
The sheer mass of music at our disposal means we are being exposed to a lot more material that is less easily categorized than what people were listening to twenty years ago.
As it stands today, a lot of music contains elements from many different genres. Rap and hip-hop are especially prone to adopting outside genres since sampling allows artists to capture unique sounds within a greater composition. Rap has incorporated punk, rock, metal, EDM and even ringtones — why shouldn’t it bring country into the mix? And if a rap or hip-hop song has elements of country music, doesn’t that make it a part of that genre?
I think so, and so do the millions of people that listened to, celebrated and advocated for “Old Town Road.” Cyrus thought so too, and his involvement on the remix brought it back to the charts for both country and hip-hop. I hope that we do not quickly forget the sentiment that this collaboration carries.
This brings attention to the free range songs have to exist in several genres at the same time, to contain and utilize elements from multiple and diverse sources and blend sounds that come from other genres. It’s these genres that are popularly thought of as mostly white — in the case of country — and black — in the case of rap and hip-hop. It’s an elegant and happy reminder that the human experience cannot be limited to a specific demographic, sound or image.
No genre exists independent of universal sentiments that motivate all art. While the details may change, the overall content can always be traced back to a universal human feeling or need, and we should all come together to recognize that we all have these feelings regardless of where we exist in life.
This song is a message. We can learn — we must learn — compassion, friendship and peaceful coexistence from Lil Nas X and Cyrus. This is not a call to arms. It is a call to lay them down because we are all people trying to find a way back to our own old town road.