“To the medieval mind the possibility of doubt did not exist.” — William Manchester
Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” first gained traction in late December of last year after it became popular on TikTok, an app that allows users to make video clips set to music. From there the song soon became a viral hit, making its way to Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube before appearing on streaming platforms such as SoundCloud, Apple Music, and Spotify. What presumably made “Old Town Road” attractive to listeners was its unorthodox blend of bass drums and high-hats — resembling trap music compositions — with banjo strums and rural imagery. Lil Nas X, who continuously listed “Old Town Road” as a country record, was not signed to a record label during his song’s ascension. This prompted radio stations to rip the song straight off YouTube, hoping to capitalize on its popularity.
Listen to “Old Town Road” below:
With social media, music streaming services, and radio supporting the viral sensation, it eventually hit Billboard’s charts, debuting at №83 on the Hot 100, №36 on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop, and №19 on Billboard’s Hot Country chart. The choice to include “Old Town Road” on two Billboard charts of distinct musical genres, despite it being pitched as a country song, was most likely the result of its unorthodox blending of hip-hop/trap music with country — something Lil Nas X refers to as “country trap.” Unfortunately, in March Billboard removed the song from its Hot Country chart, stating that it does not incorporate enough elements of today’s country music despite referencing country and cowboy imagery.
Billboard’s attitude toward “Old Town Road” was met with much criticism from both fans of the song and those observing the situation. For example, rapper Ski Mask the Slump God tweeted, “Wow , Discrimination At It’s Finest.” It should be said that Lil Nas X is Black. While one could point to him blending two distinct musical genres as the reason for it being taken off the Hot Country chart, it is also important to note that mainstream country music has a history of discriminating against Black artists. Even Beyoncé, a musical icon, was turned away when she tried to have her country song “Daddy Lessons” considered for a Grammy nomination in 2016. Thus, many felt Billboard’s treatment of “Old Town Road” was another case of mainstream country music, which primarily comprises White artists, excluding others from gaining success in this category (i.e. racism).
However, Lil Nas X was given a second chance at notoriety in his genre of choice when country singer Billy Ray Cyrus agreed to join him on a remix of the song. Oddly enough, the artist had been trying to recruit Cyrus since December 2018 to make a guest appearance. Almost instantly, this remix went viral and soon made its way to №1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart.
Listen to the remix of “Old Town Road” below:
The newfound success of “Old Town Road” was met with much praise from listeners, leading many to put their own spin on the song or record cover tracks. Others commended Cyrus for his help with the song’s success on Billboard, such as Twitter user Valentino Handsome who wrote, “Yoooooo I fucks with that remix! I hereby give @billyraycyrus a one-time weekend pass to the cookout for that Old Town Road feature.” Several others on social media echoed a similar sentiment.
The notoriety “Old Town Road” has gained from the contributions of Cyrus, while good, have many implications. First, one must consider the narrative of Cyrus being a noble person or having a “pass to the cookout” — a phrase indicating that a non-Black person is being accepted into the Black community. Given the country singer’s race, the way he is viewed can potentially perpetuate White savior mythology. The White savior, usually male, is said to have an innate sense of justice and seeks to uplift non-Whites while restoring faith in the White race (Maurantonio, 2017). Thus, Cyrus’ actions could potentially make many forget the larger issue, due to his position as a White country singer. It is imperative that the discrimination observed in mainstream country music not be overlooked. Furthermore, it is uncertain if Cyrus truly wanted to help Lil Nas X in the midst of his hardship. However, a case can be made that the country singer’s feature is a strategic career move.
Prior to collaborating with Lil Nas X, Cyrus’ highest charting song on the Hot 100 was his 1992 debut single “Achy Breaky Heart,” which peaked at №4. Since then, none of his other solo singles have moved back into the chart’s top 40. Cyrus has, however, managed to maintain relevancy with several songs featured on the Hot Country charts over the years — “Achy Breaky Heart” being his only №1. It was not until a collaboration with his daughter Miley Cyrus on 2007’s “Ready, Set, Don’t Go” that Cyrus was able to find great success in the Hot 100 charts once again — the song peaked at №37.
It should be noted that Miley, who can be described as a country-pop singer, later experimented with hip-hop culture, which resulted in some of her most successful songs and a well-received 2013 album entitled Bangerz, executive produced by notable hip-hop producer Mike Will Made It. One can assume that Cyrus was later influenced by his daughter’s decision making since he guest appeared on rapper and producer Buck 22’s trap music/EDM inspired “Achy Breaky 2” a year after Miley’s album release. Oddly enough, this song — charting at №80 on the Hot 100 — was a new spin on Cyrus’ 1992 hit. Another point to be made is that hip-hop recently became the most popular music genre in America. Thus, it may have been inevitable that Cyrus fuse hip-hop culture — trap music included — with his music; that is if the country singer wanted to maintain relevancy given his own music history.
Happily, Ever After?
All things considered, Cyrus’ feature on “Old Town Road” has indeed propelled Lil Nas X’s career and given his song more notoriety, perhaps more than it would have gained otherwise. However, the actions of Cyrus should not be overly praised. As was mentioned earlier, doing so might perpetuate White savior mythology, which most certainly applies in this scenario given mainstream country music’s preoccupation with promoting White artists. Instead, one could appreciate Cyrus’ gesture while still being aware of and fighting against discrimination and racism in mainstream country music.
Another point to consider is Cyrus’ celebrity status. A case could be made that the country singer’s reputation played a role in the success of “Old Town Road.” Celebrity influence has historically impacted public opinion in the US. For example, Singh and Banerjee (2018) stated that advertisers largely rely on a celebrity’s mass appeal to produce more well-known brand acknowledgement and review, and also form brand recognition among buyers. Despite this, however, one must ask if a remix to “Old Town Road” would have become so popular if the country singer featured with Lil Nas X was a famed Black country singer.
Lastly, it is important to consider how this entire situation will impact Lil Nas X moving forward. While he is currently capitalizing off of his hit song — a new music video for it is rumored to come out this Friday — one must ask if his fame will be short-lived, especially considering the artist’s aspirations in country music. Cyrus, on the other hand, has significantly gained from his feature on “Old Town Road.” In addition to his first №1 Billboard Hot 100 appearance, the country singer is also set to headline upcoming concerts. Additionally, some outlets have given Cyrus full credit for the hit single while withholding mention of Lil Nas X. Thus, it should be questioned if this White Knight will truly help a dark horse, or if “happily ever after” is nothing more than a fairy tale.
Maurantonio, N. (2017). “Reason to hope?”: The white savior myth and progress in “post-racial” america. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 94(4), 1130–1145.
Singh, R. P., & Banerjee, N. (2019). Exploring the influence of celebrity worship on brand attitude, advertisement attitude, and purchase intention. Journal of Promotion Management, 25(2), 225–251.