August 2019

Arts & Letters

Happy trails: Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’

By Anwen Crawford
The gay country-rapper exposes the complex play of identity, algorithms and capitalism

It was only a matter of time, given that rap from the American South has been the driving force of US popular music – and therefore of global popular music – for the past half-decade, that a country renaissance would take shape, led by black musicians. Beyoncé was onto this, naturally, before it was a trend; she may have started the trend. Her album Lemonade (2016) reconfigured Southern iconography from a black woman’s perspective, and even boasted a full-blown country tune, “Daddy Lessons”. Solange paid homage to black rural life on this year’s When I Get Home, and in between these efforts from the sisters Knowles have appeared hayseed imaginings from, among others, Young Thug (Beautiful Thugger Girls, 2017) and Lil Tracy with Lil Uzi Vert (“Like a Farmer”, 2018). Late in 2018, black listeners and critics named this tendency the “yeehaw agenda”; credit for the phrase goes to social media identity Bri Malandro, who first floated it on Twitter.

Which brings us to Lil Nas X and “Old Town Road”, a song that, as I write, has been number one in Australia for 11 weeks consecutively, and for 12 weeks in the US. It happened to me: I went to bed with “Old Town Road” stuck in my head, and when I woke up the next morning, it was still there. It’s still there, dagnabbit, stubborn as a mule, or should that be “as a horse”? All together now: take my horse to the old town road…

My god, what a weapons-grade earworm. For those who’ve missed the backstory – and for those who haven’t – I’ll try to keep the recap short, though perhaps not shorter than the song. (Original version: 1 minute, 53 seconds.)

December, 2018: Lil Nas X – then 19, now 20, born and raised in Georgia, real name Montero Lamar Hill – puts “Old Town Road” on the internet. He promotes it on TikTok, a social media app where users can create short, looping videos set to music, and lo, TikTok users take it up. The song becomes a soundtrack to countless clips of suburban teens transforming themselves, via nifty editing, into plaid-shirted cowpokes, like so many rustic Clark Kents turning into Supermen. Encouraged by such viral appeal, Columbia Records signs Lil Nas X in March this year, while the song climbs the Billboard country music charts. Roadblock: Billboard disqualifies “Old Town Road” from the country charts, on the grounds it isn’t really country. But cometh the hour, cometh the man, and Lil Nas X has the song remixed, this time with country star Billy Ray Cyrus singing the chorus. (The remix also adds 43 seconds to the song’s length.) No longer just a goofy meme but a bona fide sensation, “Old Town Road” goes to number one – on the pop charts, not the country charts – around the world. Oh, and last month Lil Nas X came out as gay, and everyone dipped their Stetsons into glitter.

My suspicion is that “Old Town Road” will join the ranks of Psy’s “Gangnam Style” (Australian number one for six weeks in 2012) and “Achy Breaky Heart”, by the aforementioned Billy Ray Cyrus (number one for seven weeks in 1992, and let us never speak of that pestilential song again), as a one-off hit, the kind that spawns dances and lingo and then, when its reign is over, becomes a memento to a phase of collective madness. Lil Nas X’s 7 EP, released in July to capitalise on the success of “Old Town Road”, is pretty weak, hit single aside: a handful of sketches in search of a galvanising idea. And that’s fine, for the annals of popular music are filled with one-hit wonders. But a song doesn’t stay at number one for nigh on three months for no reason, and, in the case of “Old Town Road”, a few reasons come to mind.

Firstly, there’s the class alignment between rap and country music, which tends to be obscured by the racial codification of both genres (a codification that Billboard, in excluding “Old Town Road” from the country charts, only reinforced). Both rap and country are the province of working-class musicians and audiences, and not just in America. But it is also true that the most successful musicians in these genres can rise to a dizzying level of prosperity. In which case, it’s no real surprise that a country-rap song making fun of the rich (“Ridin’ on a horse, ha / You can whip your Porsche”) while also indulging in materialist fantasy (“Cowboy hat from Gucci / Wrangler on my booty”) should so grip a global listenership.

Secondly, and to return to the matter of time, if “Old Town Road” were simply an old-sounding song, I don’t think it would have caught on to nearly such a degree. Lil Nas X is not, like Jack White or the late Amy Winehouse, a purveyor of sonic facsimiles of styles gone by. Billy Ray Cyrus may have added some spit and shine, but the original version of “Old Town Road” is best summed up by the word wonky: it sounds like a chair with three legs. It sounds like a low-res JPEG. The banjos that begin the song feel oddly remote, etiolated, and that’s because – you may already know this – Lil Nas X bought the beat for his song ready-made online from a teenage Dutch producer by the name of YoungKio, who had, in turn, sampled an instrumental track with banjos by the electronic rock group Nine Inch Nails. So you see, the internet was baked into “Old Town Road” from the start, and the internet is weird when it comes to time. Time can seem to never pass when spent online; or it moves in short, frantic circuits; or it leaps from one decade/hour/aeon to another with each open browser tab. No wonder, then, that “Old Town Road” with its here-there, new-old air, has served so well as punchline to digital daydreams. Hey, Mum, look, I turned into a cowboy! The frontier is only a swipe away.

A friend observed to me that “Old Town Road” is reminiscent, too, of a spiritual, and that’s true. “I’m gonna take my horse to the old town road / I’m gonna ride till I can’t no more”, as the chorus goes, is not so far removed in sentiment from “Get on board, little children”, or “Swing low, sweet chariot”, or any other of those old, old songs of escape that form the first root of popular music. I’ve been listening to Bessie Smith again lately, especially “Muddy Water”, which Smith recorded with her band in 1927. “Muddy water in my shoes / Reelin’ and rocking to them lowdown blues”, she sings. Jimmy Harrison’s trombone droops like a willow on the riverbank, and the clarinets blow a slow call. “They live in ease and comfort down there / I do declare”. Now the song sounds like a harbinger of imminent catastrophe; the thing is, it always has been. Country blues looks forward and backward at once, inscribing memories of the future, and Lil Nas X, with a weathered baritone that belies his age, does the same, but somehow lightly and joyously, as if it weren’t yet too late to ride off into a tranquil sunset.

Lastly, there’s been an ocean of virtual ink spent on the subject of Lil Nas X and genre. (Sample claim: “Lil Nas X is a Gen Z artist, and Gen Z aren’t interested in labels”.) I’m not persuaded that the cultural meanings produced by genre are going away; if genre really had ceased to matter, there’d be nothing at stake in calling “Old Town Road” either a country song, a rap song, a country-rap song or something else altogether. And clearly, there’s something still at stake, not least an understanding of how genre histories have brought about this debate in the first place. But there’s another issue at stake in the discussion that “Old Town Road” has generated, and that’s the relationship between genre and identity. Let’s go back to Bessie Smith for a minute.

The blues existed before anyone thought to market it as “blues”, or promote “bluesmen” and “blueswomen” as the people who created it. The music preceded an identity based upon the music. Likewise, rock ’n’ roll existed before there were rock ’n’ rollers, and punk music before punks. A recognisable “identity” based upon a musical genre – particularly a subcultural identity like punk or early hip-hop – was the result of that genre’s incorporation into the market, where it would be reflected back as saleable thing: identity as commodity. As sociologist Dick Hebdige observed in his classic and influential study of punk, Subculture: The Meaning of Style (1979), “Each new subculture establishes new trends, generates new looks and sounds which feed back into the appropriate industries.” But this process took time, and was often marked by the participants in a genre resisting that genre’s commercialisation.

The internet killed subcultures, because it made the feedback loop between a genre’s creation and its commercialisation practically instantaneous: there’s no hiding online from the market. But the internet hasn’t killed identity. Far from it. The idea of identity as our primary mode of meaning-making is everywhere. Writing in The New Yorker about “Old Town Road”, critic Amanda Petrusich argued that “we have arrived at a moment in which self-definition trumps any other kind of categorisation”. In a sense this is what Lil Nas X succeeded at: by listing his track as a country song on music platforms like Soundcloud, iTunes and Spotify, he swerved around the assumptions of identity that have become baked into country music as a commercial genre, particularly the racist assumption that country is, by default, “white” music. He also gamed the algorithm.

There is a complex dynamic going on here between self-definition (to use Petrusich’s term), online data and capitalism. It’s not enough to believe that we all get to invent (or reinvent) our identities from scratch – and 20, 30 or even 40 years ago I think popular musicians and audiences were a good deal more cynical when it came to the ways in which our very selves are bought and sold. I mean, X-Ray Spex wrote “Identity” (“Did you do it before / you read about it?”) in 1978. But it’s as if the internet made us all newly credulous. I’ll choose the colour of my phone. I’ll make some Spotify playlists. I can create myself! Meanwhile, my data is being used to categorise me in ways I can’t control or even meaningfully consent to, and now everything I’ve looked up online connected to “Old Town Road” – the hashtags, the TikTok clips, the music video on YouTube, the magazine articles, the remixes on Spotify – becomes part of my data-self, too.

Not to totally harsh everyone’s groove. “Old Town Road” has its charm, and a part of that charm is its myth-making: young and unknown rapper waylays some banjos, writes a sleepy-happy tune about horses, dons a fringed jacket with his name embroidered on the back, and holds the charts to ransom. But I return to the fact that, at heart, “Old Town Road” is a song about escape. The question is, what do we need to escape from?

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

Lil Nas X. © Terry Wyatt / Getty Images for Spotify

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