It feels like Lil Nas X just rode into town, but it also feels like forever ago. His insurgent hit single, “Old Town Road,” is already so many things: a twangy rap song, a swaggy country song, a wink, a joke, a novelty, a smash, a cartoon tumbleweed that keeps gathering meaning, and for the next 15 minutes, proof positive that the contents of America’s musical melting pot can only achieve the viscosity of molten Velveeta when everyone is actually having fun.
“Old Town Road” sparked a legit scandal after it was removed from Billboard’s country music charts last month because, according to the big brains at Billboard, the song “does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.” Billboard’s decision did, however, embrace enough elements of yesterday’s racism to draw everyone’s attention, so in a delightful act of retaliation, Lil Nas X recruited the 57-year-old country star Billy Ray Cyrus to sing on an “Old Town Road” remix, and now a frivolous ditty about hats and horsies is prompting a broad, meaningful discussion about how racial segregation is baked into the entire idea of genre. Really, this is America. Crack open our silliness and seriousness comes gushing out.
“Old Town Road” is now the No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100, which feels both hilarious and just. Billy Ray hasn’t been up here before — even his gigantic “Achy Breaky Heart” stalled at No. 4 back in 1992. Ditto for Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails whose signature sex-ballad, “Closer,” only reached No. 41 in 1994. ( “Old Town Road” samples a Nine Inch Nails cut from 2008 called “34 Ghosts IV.”) And double-ditto for the 20-year-old Lil Nas X and the track’s producer, YoungKio, who have somehow made this achy-breaky-freaky-deaky-country-rap-banjo-trap-post-industrial-bleep-you-like-an-animal song into the most popular tune in all the land.
“Old Town Road” is only just fine, though. Let’s not get carried away. It’s fun to hear Lil Nas X sink into that low drawl, daydreaming about the life of a libertine cowboy, then leap back up for air: “Yeah, I’m gonna take my horse to the old town road / I’m gonna ride ’til I can’t no more.” He sounds adaptable, which is enough — unless a song’s adaptability makes it good, in which case “Old Town Road” qualifies as great. You’ve probably already heard it in a coffee shop, or at a baseball game, or at a bar, or in a shopping mall, or at a wedding reception, or at the gym, or bleating out of some kid’s phone on the bus, or seeping from some Honda CR-V driving down your street, or inside your Honda CR-V, or at a small child’s birthday party.
“Old Town Road” already seems to be a stealth children’s song. Billboard now measures a single’s value by the stream, and babes love listening to songs over and over and over and over again. This is democracy in action, and we should probably lower the voting age to 4½ . If our nation’s youngest youths are the ones who keep “Old Town Road” near the top of the charts, the song’s closest relative will be “Baby Shark.” Doo-doo-do-do-do-do.
“Old Town Road” already has a cousin of sorts: “I’m on a Boat” by the Lonely Island, a satirical music trio featuring the comedian Andy Samberg. Just as “I’m on a Boat” seemed to be making fun of rap music while basking in its grandeur, Lil Nas X appears to be poking fun at country music while tapping into its majesty. Also, did you know that “I’m on a Boat” was nominated for a Grammy? A rap Grammy. Best rap-sung collaboration at the 52nd Annual Grammy Awards, January 2010. Nobody protested. Nobody asked for it to be removed.
“Old Town Road” amounts to something bigger when it’s placed in a broader context — even the broader context of dumb parody songs. Comparing the hue and cry over “Old Town Road” to the Grammy-worthiness of “I’m on a Boat” should remind us that white people are often welcomed into black spaces while black people are more frequently forbidden from entering white spaces. Seriousness gushes.
“Old Town Road” was probably supposed to be just for fun. It twangs with the absurd energy of a novelty tune, but unlike the accidental YouTube hits of yesteryear — “Chocolate Rain” by Tay Zonday, “Friday” by Rebecca Black — “Old Town Road” is vaguely stylish and somewhat self-aware, not unlike many other hit singles that borrowed across genre lines throughout the ’90s, including “Justified and Ancient (Stand by the JAMs)” by the KLF, and “Scatman (Ski-Ba-Bop-Ba-Dop-Bop)” by Scatman John, and “Mambo No. 5 (A Little Bit Of . . . )” by Lou Bega, and of course, “Cotton Eye Joe” by Rednex.
“Old Town Road” might be here to stay, even though it’ll probably end up like the “Monster Mash” — highly durable but mostly meaningless, a true pop paradox, a graveyard smash. “Old Town Road” could also be gone tomorrow, in which case, we’ll all look back and laugh. For now, let’s keep laughing as we look around in every direction because the next “Old Town Road” could come from anywhere, and when a song this weird has the potential to get this big, it can never arrive too soon.