FROM HUMBLE BEGINNINGS TO A VIRAL MEME
It all started on social media. Lil Nas X is, in fact, quoted saying that after he dropped out of college, all he had to his name was his dad paying his phone bill, and a Twitter account; “I gotta make something shake” he thought, because he wasn’t going back to work. The song itself was released in December last year. It speaks, with pride, about an “Old Town Road” as the path to success. Lil Nas X talks about how he intentionally started by trying to make a meme out of the track to make it successful - and it worked.
"I run a meme type of account on Twitter; I know what my audience is looking for… So I put some potentially funny lines in there."
Lil Nas X doesn’t hold back from crediting the successful promotion of his music to his knowledge of Twitter and meme culture. This did cause some confusion about the song:
“I think its a parody, I couldn’t get on board. It reminds me of all of Eminem’s music, where he’s taking the piss. I just think it’s a joke.” Shane, 29
It is seriousness and humour combined. Despite (or perhaps thanks to) this confusion the track demands cultural currency. It caught fire on the meme/challenge friendly social media app TikTok in March, where millions of young creators used the track as a backdrop to them transforming into cowboy outfits. Goofy videos using “#yeehaw” sampling “Old Town Road,” have over 67 million views. The joke is simple - it centres around dance moves in front of the camera. Yet, countless takes on the idea have been created. It blew up so rapidly, radio DJs were ripping it from YouTube to be able to play it on air. Plus, being just under two minutes long, the song makes for a stupidly easy replay.
THE BILLBOARD BAN & GENRE DEBATE
The song was propelled into a broader pop culture conversation when Billboard removed it from its country charts - right before it got the chance to climb to the number one spot. Why? The tune melds country and hip-hop, creating "country trap," a sound that has the music industry and fans alike arguing what, exactly, qualifies as "country." “The song is country trap. It’s not one, it’s not the other, it’s both. It should be on both”, Lil Nas X pointed out.
Billboard’s move sparked debate around issues of race within certain music genres - and broader debate about genre in the music industry. Lil Nas X then collaborated with country star Billy Ray Cyrus (father of Miley Cyrus) on a remix. The ingenious move went down superbly with fans of the original song.
“The whole origin story of a young black kid releasing a country single I think is great. Once upon a time the country charts and rhythm and blues charts were literally the same, but they split them. Literally by race - back in the day. It’s just brilliant to see black people taking back country. All genres should be open for all types of people. The YeeHaw Agenda Instagram [which explores the sartorial influence of the Wild West and its forgotten black cowboys], which I love, is having a resurgence because of it. It features pics of black people dressed as cowboys. You’d be amazed seeing all the hip hop outfits taking photos in cowboy gear etc...” Grace, 27.
The remix also earned Lil Nas X another noteworthy social media moment as Twitter users sarcastically asked if the song was “country enough” now that Cyrus featured on the track. As a consequence, both the original and remix were climbing the streaming chats side by side.
THE APPEAL OF THE UNCLASSIFIABLE
Controversy around genre-mixing heightened the youth interest behind the already unforgettable song which, as one critic put it, “wrenches the listener into a daze.” It is its unique, mixed, sound that garnered a lot of young people’s attention:
“I mean I always loved country music I think it’s got such a good vibe, but when rap is added to it so there is like a solid beat which makes it way easier to dance to!” Rachel, 17
Commentators such as Megan Evershed (Vice) have pointed out that “Old Town Road” is a signifier for how younger generations are less beholden to specific genres, or albums - the rise of streaming and playlisting has meant that young music fans now choose their favourite songs and create their own diverse playlists instead. Evershed notes:
“...almost 97% of Gen Z women listen to “at least five musical genres on a regular basis.” ...Blending different sounds becomes more likely when the music-makers themselves are constantly listening to varied genres.”
In the context of “Old Town Road’s” virality, it’s also been pointed out that it could arguably be seen as a song with no genre at all. Afterall, Gen Z aren’t too interested in labels - they are instinctively drawn to discovering the new, the unique, the unclassifiable.
Lil Nas X gamified the modern music ecosystem. His success story revolves around fun and a knowledge of how tech and meme culture works together. This is reflective of how social media is intrinsic to how young people are discovering and listening to music today. Cross-platform resonance is extremely important when looking to create a significant moment. How could you disrupt or gamify the discovery experience for your audience through favoured social media platforms?
Gen Z music fans are tearing down musical boundaries by embracing sounds which could be deemed difficult to categorise. They are less rigid in their judgement of creative or artistic output. “Old Town Road” left many music professionals stumped. How could you create an ‘unclassifiable’ creative or experience for your audience?