“Old Town Road” challenges Billboard’s separation of music genres by straddling hip-hop/rap and country.
Late last month, Lil Nas X, a little known singer-songwriter, released the song “Old Town Road.” Billboard originally listed the song in the Hot Country Songs list, where it debuted at 19. It was subsequently removed from the list by Billboard, who stated that the song did not “merit inclusion on Billboard’s country charts” because although “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.”
Since then, the song has risen to the top of Billboard’s The Hot 100 and Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs lists. Additionally, a remix of the song has been released featuring country star Billy Ray Cyrus. He then wrote, “Don’t try and think inside the box” in an Instagram post that also featured the #Horsesintheback, a reference to the song’s lyrics. The remix is now No. 1 on Spotify’s United States Top 50, followed closely by the original at No. 3.
The debate ignited by the song itself and Billboard’s choices regarding its classification has covered a lot of ground in the few weeks the song has been out, and there isn’t a real answer to any of the questions posed by identifying “Old Town Road” as not country enough. Instead, it has caused fans of country music, hip-hop/rap and the music industry in general to begin grappling with whether Billboard should hold the kind of power it does, what defines genre and the ways in which genres can begin to shift because of a song like “Old Town Road.”
Billboard was founded in 1894, and since 1991, they have been putting out their Hot 100 list, quickly followed by lists for specific genres. People have lamented that one media outlet has dictated such a large part of how we view out music for so long, and the “Old Town Road” incident re-enforces those criticisms. It is less that people do not want anyone defining what song belongs in which genre and more that Billboard seems less relevant now than it did to many in the 20th century. For decades Billboard was the authority on song charts and even though it uses streaming numbers in their rankings, it seems more logical to let streaming services themselves have more power to classify music than a publication like Billboard.
The “Old Town Road” debate asks fans of both hip-hop/rap and country to reassess what makes their genres distinct. Do heavy drum machine work and sampled baselines make something hip-hop/rap, or is it rhyming verses? For country, is it favoring an acoustic guitar over an electric one, or is it vocals performed in a southern drawl?
One not-so-subtle distinction between hip-hop/rap and country is the setting which they predominantly try to represent. Rappers often root their music in the ethos of the city that they grew up in. Additionally, hip-hop/rap is often defined by themes of life in an urban setting, while country tries to see itself as being a rural genre. That distinction comes with inherent racial connotations, but for “Old Town Road,” this is important. The song, whether in truth or for laughs, is filled with references to the rural life that defines country music, but Lil Nas X is not the first black artist to make a song with country overtones. However, he is the most recent one in memory to make a hit song that blends elements of both genres, which could eventually lead to a blending of the racial conventions many associate with the two genres.
Maybe it’s hip-hop and maybe it’s country, but “Old Town Road” has started a lot of conversations in the past few weeks, and both the song and the debate surrounding it are not likely to leave the public consciousness any time soon.