Billboard “quietly” booted Lil Nas X’s twangy trap hit “Old Town Road” from the Hot Country Songs chart last month, but the controversy that followed has been too resounding to ignore.
“Old Town Road” is a fun, tongue-in-cheek ditty about, well, not much. But the song has touched off a serious debate about apparent double standards when it comes to black and white musicians stepping outside their expected musical genres — and whether those genres even matter in an era filled with artists (and fans) who resist the idea of genre altogether.
Thanks to the song’s prominent Nine Inch Nails sample, “Old Town Road” put Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross at the top of the chart for the first time. It also has been a boon for Billy Ray Cyrus, now poised to land his first No. 1 hit — a status “Achy Breaky Heart” never attained.
Lil Nas X’s original version of the song, which found its early fan base on TikTok, a social network known for generating music-based memes, wasn’t country enough for Billboard. Rolling Stone reported last month that the company had removed the song from the Hot Country Songs chart, where it had spent a week at No. 19. Billboard told the magazine that the song did not “embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.”
But it sounded plenty country to Cyrus. “It’s honest, humble, and has an infectious hook, and a banjo,” he tweeted last week. “What the hell more do ya need?”
Billboard’s methodology for measuring a song’s success is complicated and evolving. After news spread of Lil Nas X’s ouster from the country chart, Billboard told The Washington Post in a statement that “the song’s removal was primarily based on the track’s overall lack of country music instrumentation” — debatable, given the song’s heavy banjo presence. To be fair, the banjo part in “Old Town Road” (courtesy of that Nine Inch Nails sample) underscores just how difficult it is to fit the song into one genre. An instrument associated with folk music, delivered to a trap song by way of a rock sample.
Billboard cited “Old Town Road’s” ambiguity in its rationale for removing it from the country chart, noting that the track had been classified as different genres, from country to rap, across various streaming platforms. The company also referenced the lack of airplay the song had gotten on country stations. That may become a moot point — Billboard’s magazine reported Tuesday that the song had debuted at No. 53 on the country airplay chart, thanks in large part to being spun on morning shows, including Bobby Bones’s syndicated (and hugely popular) iHeartRadio program.
In a recent statement, Billboard said that it would “continue to monitor how ['Old Town Road'] is marketed and how fans respond,” and that the decision to remove the song from the country chart could be “revisited.” But when it comes to Billboard’s standards for what constitutes country music, Lil Nas X’s addictive track has put a spotlight on genre-bending music by white artists that has been embraced by the country community. As fans and critics alike have pointed out, there are a number of tracks on the Hot Country Songs chart that contain elements of other genres, including pop and hip-hop.
One prominent example is Bebe Rexha’s “Meant to Be,” a pop ballad featuring hip-hop and EDM elements. Rexha works primarily in those genres — the song’s Nashville cred comes from its featured act, Florida Georgia Line, whose massive debut single, “Cruise,” peaked at No. 4 on the Hot 100 after the country duo released a remix featuring rapper Nelly. “Meant to Be” has been on the Hot Country Songs chart since December 2017, when it debuted at No. 1 and stayed there for a record-breaking 50 weeks.
The success of “Meant to Be” also highlights concerns on an industry level. The song was nominated for best country duo/group performance at the 2019 Grammys. But in 2016, Beyoncé's “Daddy Lessons,” a yeehaw-inducing track from the singer’s showstopping visual album “Lemonade,” was mysteriously rejected for consideration by the Grammy country music committee. “Daddy Lessons” received heightened attention earlier that year after Beyoncé performed the song alongside the Dixie Chicks at the Country Music Awards, drawing a backlash. Incidentally, “Daddy Lessons” never made Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart.
Billboard’s pitfalls may stem in part from the company’s 2012 overhaul of its methodology for the genre charts. The changes, which included (finally) incorporating digital sales and streaming data, heavily skewed those charts toward music favored by pop fans, argued pop critic and chart analyst Chris Molanphy in a 2014 Pitchfork article. One result, Molanphy wrote, was that the genre charts were essentially turned into “condensed versions of the Hot 100, with all the songs that Billboard has decided don’t qualify for that genre taken out.”
The R&B/Hip-Hop chart took the biggest hit, according to Molanphy. “What is perhaps worst about this system is how Billboard, supposedly objective chart-maker, is now in the sorry business of trying to decide who qualifies for an R&B chart, with all the bizarre identity implications,” he wrote.
Coincidentally, one of the white artists who courted success on the R&B/Hip-Hop chart under the new metrics was Cyrus’s daughter, Miley, who faced widespread criticism a few years later when she declared in a Billboard cover story that she was basically done with hip-hop.
Over on the country chart, Taylor Swift’s decidedly pop 2012 hit, “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” spent 10 weeks at No. 1. Swift was well-established in country music circles, but the song’s reign still rankled some purists. In that regard, the new methodology’s drawbacks weren’t limited to race. But a more cynical reading of Swift’s crossover success, which Billboard said was “buoyed” by the changes to the charts, is that there are different rules for black and white artists. The optics, at least, are not good.
As white artists appear to have flourished in cross-genre collaborations, black musicians have spoken out about feeling pigeonholed into so-called urban genres. While Billboard scrutinized the song’s country bona fides, there was apparently no ambivalence about keeping “Old Town Road” on the R&B/Hip-Hop chart, where it has occupied various spots for the past five weeks. (During the week that it assessed the song for country airplay, Billboard cited a small number of radio spins for “Old Town Road” on stations reporting to its R&B/Hip Hop airplay chart.)
The subversive popularity of “Old Town Road” suggests that the way we consume music today isn’t as beholden to genre as charts and award-show categories would have us believe. (It also ignores the cross-genre elements that have long existed in Southern rap.) A quick scan of the Billboard 200 albums chart gives a glimpse of the genre-fluid nature of modern pop music. This week’s lineup includes chart-topper Billie Eilish, Juice WRLD and Khalid — young artists of varying backgrounds who, like Lil Nas X, launched their careers on the borderless Internet and refused to be boxed in.
In the end, Billboard couldn’t corral “Old Town Road” into a specific category because Lil Nas X belongs to a generation that simply doesn’t make or listen to music that way.
Elahe Izadi contributed to this report.