How Lil Nas X's Never-Ending "Old Town Road" Rollout Changed The Game

BYLuke Hinz5.0K Views
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Lil Nas X
“Old Town Road” is gonna ride til’ the remixes can’t no more.

The year is 2028. Young Thug has been re-elected for a second term as President following a wildly successful “Make America Slime Again” campaign. Area 51 has been repurposed into an amusement park jointly operated by Keanu Reeves and Anthony Fantano. Kenny Beats is a decorated law enforcement officer with a New York Times bestseller on online bullying. The critically-acclaimed Kanye West biopic “Me Time,” starring Danny McBride in the title role, has beaten out Endgame as the highest-grossing film. A nationwide vote to replace “The Star-Spangled Banner” with “Old Town Road” has passed in unanimous fashion, and the latest remix, featuring Betty White, Zack Fox, and a jailhouse recording from Tekashi 6ix9ine, is a constitutionally mandated playlist addition for every wedding and Bar and Bat Mitzvah.

In a world where the inconceivable has become the daily norm, such a future is not an implausible reality, especially given the manner in which 20-year-old Lil Nas X, real name Montero Lamar Hill, has captured the hearts and minds of the masses with his aforementioned one-in-a-million single. For a record-tying 16 straight weeks, the (almost?) diamond-certified “Old Town Road” has topped the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and is now just one week shy of the record for consecutive weeks at the No. 1 spot. Not even the stiffest competition seems up to the task of catching the runaway stallion. Post Malone’s new single released over the July Fourth holiday weekend? Goodbye indeed. Billie Eilish’s take on the Plants vs. Zombies theme? It appears as if the Bieber stimulus package won’t be enough to push it over the edge. Even two new songs from the usually reliable Taylor Swift have proven incapable of dethroning the “bull ridin’ and boobies” outlaw.

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So what does it all mean, and how did we get here in the first place? Beyond its inimitable charm and Thanos-esque inevitability, “Old Town Road” has thrived on controversy and its uncanny ability to both accommodate and adapt to the whims of its creators. Produced by YoungKio, a Netherlands teenager who offered the Nine Inch Nails-sampling banjo strums in his beat store as a “throwaway,” the song has capitalized on some truly impeccable timing over the course of its remarkable reign. “Hick hop” and the infatuation with black cowboy culture reached a fever pitch in December shortly after the song was released and listed on SoundCloud as a “country” record, an “ingenious platform disruption” strategy that allowed Lil Nas X to circumvent the crowded rap ecosystem. As the memes intensified, so too did the song’s ubiquity to the point that everyone from Mark Ruffalo to the Texas Tech men’s basketball team were saddling up. Even as it began to pick up steam in the months that followed thanks in part to its #Yeehaw challenge loopability on TikTok, it became abundantly clear that the song was more than pure parody. At its core, “Old Town Road” is an imaginatively well-made pop song: its catchy refrain, unique take on country-infused trap, and brevity (none of the versions surpass the three-minute mark) beg the listener to spam the replay button. To quote  New York’s Brian Feldman, “the ascendance of Lil Nas X on the back of ‘Old Town Road’ feels very DIY, a web-native breakout hit happening entirely outside of the record-label and radio-DJ gatekeeping systems.”

The true breakout moment came in March, when Billboard tried to quietly remove the song from their Hot Country Songs chart only to have it blow up in their face in the form of large scale media hysteria. Much of the internet justifiably felt that the decision may have been racially motivated and that country music ilk were doing everything in their power to keep a young black artist from joining the ranks of those inside the historically segregated saloon. “Old Town Road”’s short-lived career on the country chart due to an inadequate amount of “cowboy imagery” (as if this ridiculous standard is even something that can be quantified) would prove to be the best thing that ever happened to the oddball single. The kerfuffle and ensuing debate surrounding the industry’s problematic love affair with categorization caught the attention of none other than country legend Billy Ray Cyrus, who hopped on what is considered the definitive version of the song. In the end, Billboard backtracked on their decision following the song’s validation from Mr. “Achy Breaky Heart.” Turns out that all it took for “Old Town Road” to transcend genre charts and win the showdown was some rather convincing lines about “Fendi sports bras” and “Maserati sports cars.”

From there, it was off to the races, and the viral smash hasn’t looked back since. April brought a remix from producer Diplo, and last week saw the arrival of the much-anticipated remix featuring Walmart yodeling wonderchild Mason Ramsey, and Young Thug reprising his role as Country Billy. What “Old Town Road” ultimately professes is a foolproof winning formula: lasso artists with immense cultural capital from all corners of music and revitalize singles with new features that top the previous versions. All of this is buoyed by one simple (if remarkably lucrative) premise: Billboard counts remixes, provided they meet certain parameters, as a single entity. Thus, the now five versions of “Old Town Road” contribute to its grand total, a catch-all bucket worth upwards of 1.3 billion streams as of three weeks ago.

Although this Avenger mentality wherein big names are presumed to equal big numbers (DJ Khaled albums read like A-lister phone books) is nothing revolutionary, the way that it has been employed by Lil Nas X is something that other artists such as Blueface (“Thotiana”) and Billie Eilish (“bad guy”) are catching on to when it comes to song promotion and longevity. As if on cue (and likely in an effort to lock down that record-setting 17th week at No. 1), Lil Nas X has released yet another remix, this time featuring his “Ho-Mi” RM of BTS K-pop fame. Embracing the tongue-in-cheek humor of the original, the rechristened “Seoul Town Road” is a brilliant chart move, and more definitive proof that Lil Nas X is playing chess while the rest of the field is playing checkers. For the past few years, BTS have been around-the-clock mainstays on Billboard’s Social 50 chart, which tracks artist engagement on social media platforms. Their endlessly devoted “ARMY” has been known to flock en masse to stream the boy band’s music, and they’ll presumably treat this new remix with the same fervor. Lil Nas X has promised that “Seoul Town Road” is the last remix, but don’t be surprised if Gordon Ramsey makes his foray into music with the “Panini” sous-chef as his spiritual guide. 

With each passing remix, Lil Nas X continues to soak up the sublime outlandishness of it all. The refreshing frontiersman’s reclamation of the cowboy aesthetic is as unproblematic and good-willed as anything you’ll find amidst the jaded banter of social media. While it’s likely passed maximum media saturation, “Old Town Road” has transformed the remix into an online event in which the possibilities are endless and the rules are made to be broken. From internet curiosity to pop culture phenomenon, the sustained success of “Old Town Road” has sparked further discussion regarding genre boundaries and the idea of “gamed virality.” At its foundation, the semantic hair-splitting is neither here nor there, and the ongoing cross-pollination of sonic influences continues to make gatekeepers trying to preserve a dated chart structure look all the more foolish. 

The fact of the matter is that a savvy and likeable college dropout with a genuine entrepreneurial spirit is utilizing tactics within the confines of online ingenuity, and he’s doing it better than anyone in the era of internet influence could have fathomed. His fluency in the satiric language and comedic conceit of the internet (see his meme-propagation days as a “Tweetdecker”) earned him a spot on Time's unranked list of the 25 most influential people on the internet this year alongside Ariana Grande, James Charles, and the World Record Egg. In the wake of March’s controversy, Billboard senior director of charts Gary Trust was quick to commend the rising rhinestone cowboy: "I think Lil Nas X is taking us a little bit further than what we usually see," he said. "And good for him, he's being creative." 

It goes without saying that there are now three certainties in life: death, taxes, and “Old Town Road” remixes. The limit simply does not exist: bimonthly drops of such collabs are a foregone conclusion at this point, and they’re probably only going to continue to get more and more outrageous. The bottom line is that “Old Town Road” is gonna ride til’ the remixes can’t no more. In the meantime, it’s Wrangler-wearing progenitor may very well return from the stable in a couple weeks with the likes of Shaq Diesel and Xzibit to fan the flames. Just last Monday, Lil Nas X threw out the idea of Dolly Parton and Megan Thee Stallion joining in the fun, to which Parton all too eagerly responded. Regardless of whether or not such remixes materialize, the “Old Town Road” rollout continues to build on the partnership between commercial prosperity and novelty as it rides off into the Red Dead Redemption sunset. 

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