Myles McNutt is an assistant professor of communication and theater arts at Old Dominion University in Norfolk.
From the moment “Harlem Shake” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2013, the meaning of the music charts has been in flux. At the time, Billboard’s decision to count YouTube streams of songs toward a track’s standing was controversial. Six years later, few would question this measure of a song’s success.
But each new milestone on the charts reignites the argument that a song that became popular by new means ought to be differentiated from music that followed a more traditional path, including radio play and album sales, to No. 1.
“Old Town Road,” the unavoidable Lil Nas X song that has dominated the charts all summer, is the peak — or the nadir — of streaming’s takeover of the Billboard charts. This week, the song passed Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s “One Sweet Day” and Luis Fonsi’s “Despacito” for the most weeks at No. 1, with 17. The fact the most enduring chart topper of all time originally gained notoriety as a meme on the social media site TikTok is a clear reminder that the Billboard charts don’t mean what they used to. It would be wrong, however, to assume that Lil Nas X didn’t have to work as hard as his predecessors, or that the nature of his success in any way diminishes his achievement.
It’s easy to ignore the labor involved in “viral” content: A “virus” spreads indiscriminately, as opposed through the work of its creators. University of Southern California professor Henry Jenkins and digital strategists Sam Ford and Joshua Green have instead argued we should think of such content as “spreadable.” That change in terminology allows us to see an important idea more clearly: “Old Town Road” found its footing as a meme, but without Lil Nas X’s decision to tap into TikTok’s creative community to get the song out there, the track might never have had the opportunity to become a cultural phenomenon.
Moreover, the ability for a meme to sustain such a long run reinforces the shrewd way Lil Nas X and Columbia Records translated the song’s initial success into chart momentum. Billboard’s refusal to classify “Old Town Road” as a country song helped propel it into the news cycle. A series of remixes helped keep it there, refreshing the song’s chart position on streaming services while showcasing the track’s distinct identity.
Lil Nas X’s collaboration with country icon Billy Ray Cyrus, which propelled the song onto the charts, spoke to a conflict over what counts as country. A remix featuring Young Thug and Walmart yodeler Mason Ramsey released this month engaged the song’s rap bonafides and its meme origins simultaneously. The final remix, “Seoul Town Road” featuring RM from K-pop sensation BTS, ties Lil Nas X to a larger movement of artists who have used the Internet to bypass radio and leverage a direct connection with young listeners.
Beyond the remixes, however, the song owes its longevity to Lil Nas X himself, who has curated an online presence that is the perfect match to the song’s run. The rapper’s work in service of his song includes traditional promotion, posting Spotify links and encouraging his followers to buy and stream the song explicitly to help him break the record. However, Lil Nas X’s social feeds are also full of memes. Most of his promotional posts are accompanied by videos, images or GIFs to reframe his self-promotion as an extension of the mastery of online culture that helped him turn “Old Town Road” into a hit in the first place. While it is possible that these posts are part of a label strategy, the intimacy Lil Nas X has cultivated online, most evident in his choice to come out as gay on Twitter at the end of Pride Month in June, wouldn’t be possible without the work he put into cultivating his relationship with his fans.
It’s true that there was no social media or streaming music when Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men spent 16 weeks at No. 1, and so it’s perfectly fair to say that changes in the music business have created two distinct eras of the Billboard charts. But the success of “Old Town Road” reinforces that the work required to keep a song at No. 1 hasn’t disappeared in a “viral” culture; it’s simply changed. Everyone involved with “Old Town Road” did more than merely create a hit: They made Lil Nas X and the performance of “Old Town Road” a kind of movement.