‘Old Town Road’ is a record-breaking, gay-pride-celebrating, America-unifying pop-culture miracle
Lil Nas X knew just the way to goose his numbers.
Faced with the task of keeping his country-trap smash “Old Town Road” atop the Hot 100 for a 17th week — at which point the song would set a new record for the longest run at No. 1 in Billboard history — this 20-year-old rapper and singer released a remix on Wednesday night featuring RM of the ultra-popular K-pop group BTS.
Within hours, the track had racked up more than 2 million plays on YouTube, while its cutesy title, “Seoul Town Road,” became an instant trending topic on Twitter.
“I got the homis on my back / Have you heard of that?” RM raps, punning on the name of a traditional Korean farming tool (!), “Homis made of steel / From Korea, they the best.”
As surprising as it was inevitable, the remix was the latest instance of the thoroughly modern — and winningly goofy — gamesmanship that Lil Nas X has used to drive the spread of “Old Town Road,” which first caught on among users of the video-sharing app TikTok before migrating to streaming services such as Spotify and Apple Music.
Since then he’s made countless memes about the song, released other remixes (with the likes of Billy Ray Cyrus and Young Thug) and convinced Chris Rock to star in a lavish music video that’s been viewed online nearly a quarter of a billion times.
On Monday, Billboard will reveal whether the BTS gambit did enough to push “Old Town Road” past the only two other songs to spend 16 weeks atop the record industry’s most closely watched singles chart: Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s “One Sweet Day,” from 1995, and “Despacito,” the 2017 Latin-pop juggernaut by Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee and Justin Bieber. (Provided a remix doesn’t stray too far from an original, Billboard combines their streams and downloads in its chart tabulations.)
As much as it’s an artifact of the internet era, though, “Old Town Road” also embodies aspects of a form that long predates YouTube.
It’s a novelty song — and that’s nothing to be ashamed of.
For decades novelty songs have been written off by many as empty confections or cheap provocations; the term — applied to tunes as varied as “Mama Will Bark,” “Gangnam Style,” “They’re Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!” and any of “Weird Al” Yankovic’s meticulous parodies — suggests that a song is doing only one thing, which is telling a joke, often at the expense of a performer’s artistic dignity.
Self-appointed defenders of serious rock point to novelty songs’ limited shelf life as proof that they don’t (or shouldn’t) matter, as though passing the vaunted test of time is somehow more miraculous than providing somebody with two minutes of joy. There are all sorts of reasons the music business values the career artist over the one-hit wonder, from concert promoters’ economic need for long-touring acts to the inescapable cultural example set by the Beatles.
Yet “Old Town Road” — whose essential 2019-ness is a feature, not a bug — demands that we reconsider these prejudices, beginning with the very meaning of “novelty.”
“Novelty isn’t just about being funny — it’s also about being new,” said Dr. Demento, the veteran radio host known for playing weird and wacky records. “And ‘Old Town Road’ is a very inventive piece of music.”
Built on a track that Lil Nas X bought online for 30 bucks from an unknown producer in the Netherlands, “Old Town Road” combines the rapper’s drawled delivery with a booming beat and an eerie banjo lick sampled from Nine Inch Nails; it’s hardly the first song to blend hip-hop and country, though there’s something about its proportions — the way it carefully balances swagger and whimsy — that feels fresh.
Is there comedy in the song? For sure: “My life is a movie / Bull riding and boobies / Cowboy hat from Gucci / Wrangler on my booty.” Those are funny lines! But they’re also sufficiently well-crafted — as vivid as they are pithy — to make us question our reflexive dismissal of music that makes us laugh.
In books and film and television, comedy these days is regarded as a high art; nobody thinks “Veep” is any less of a creative achievement than “Succession” (which, by the way, is pretty damn hilarious). Yet funny songs are still perceived differently, as though the presence of a joke somehow precludes any further emotional or intellectual impact.
“Old Town Road” clearly shows us that’s not the case. For one thing, the rabid response to the song among young children isn’t really about the song’s deceptively sophisticated humor. All you have to do is watch the viral video of Lil Nas X setting off an elementary school to see that he’s touching other nerves; to these kids, he’s Kurt Cobain tapping into an eternal wellspring of rebellion.
Even older listeners can recognize that “Old Town Road” has taken on a kind of moral weight in the three or four months since it took over pop music. Though the track didn’t arrive as part of the reality show of its creator’s life — a rarity in the modern record industry, in which celebrity narrative rules, and another reason this song qualifies as a novelty — its ascent has drawn welcome attention to Lil Nas X’s identity as both a black man in country music and a gay man in hip-hop.
He may not have consciously inserted those themes into “Old Town Road” — then again, he may have done precisely that — but when we look back at the song years from now it will undoubtedly speak to us of this complicated moment.
Dr. Demento said that’s more typical of novelty songs than folks might assume; he cited “Monster Mash” and what it tells us about Americans’ changing attitudes regarding Halloween in the early 1960s. He also compared Lil Nas X’s views to the subtly progressive politics in stuff by Yankovic and Frank Zappa. (A Lil Nas/Billy Ray ticket wouldn’t be the worst youth-vote grab in 2020.)
“Old Town Road” does boast one formal innovation, the DJ said, which is the Avengers-like frisson Lil Nas X got from inviting Cyrus, himself a one-hit wonder, to team up for the song’s most popular remix — a piece of world-beating art, don’t forget, made for less than 1/10,000,000 of what the suits at Marvel spent on “Avengers: Endgame.” That the two later did another version with Mason Ramsey, known on the internet as the Walmart yodeling kid, shows how deeply Lil Nas X understands his place in pop.
Indeed, what’s been most fun about watching his gloriously improbable ride — as pure a demonstration of music’s democratic system as any in memory — has been how untroubled he’s seemed by “Old Town Road’s” novelty status (even as his excellent “7” EP showcased the real skill underpinning his beginner’s luck).
On Twitter lately he’s been musing cheerfully about the song’s imminent fade, as though he knows it’s unlikely to stick around for long after it claims that 17th week at No. 1.
Dr. Demento, who said “Old Town Road” has led his own countdown for two months, echoed the sentiment.
“My chart isn’t as scientific as the Hot 100,” he said with a chuckle, “but I think it’s going to fall off this month. I’m just kind of computing that now.
“But I hope it breaks the record in Billboard,” he added.
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