“Here to kick off the show with a world-premiere performance…,” an announcer said at the start of Sunday night’s Academy of Country Music Awards, and for a second or two I wondered if the ACM had actually pulled it off.
Surely the event, broadcast live on CBS from the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, had its opening number locked by the middle of last week. But that was before “Old Town Road” ignited a controversy on its way to becoming the biggest song in America.
So what better way to air out the issues — and draw a few million eyeballs — than to scrap whatever had been planned and put Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus onstage for the first time to do their viral smash instead?
Alas, this was when Florida Georgia Line and Jason Aldean appeared for a joint rendition of their “Can’t Hide Red.”
I couldn’t hide my disappointment.
Any follower of country music knows that change comes slowly to Nashville. But the Academy of Country Music (which is actually based in Encino) prides itself on being quicker to adapt than the genre’s more traditional trade group, the Country Music Assn.
Which means that the ACM’s annual awards show was absolutely the place to continue the conversation “Old Town Road” started — or restarted — about who belongs in country music.
In the unlikely event that you haven’t heard it, “Old Town Road” is a country-trap song by the 19-year-old Atlanta rapper Lil Nas X. It has a sampled banjo lick and lyrics about horses and boots; it also has a hypnotic beat out of hip-hop.
The tune, which caught on early among users of the video-sharing app TikTok, came to wider renown after Billboard ruled that it was ineligible for the trade magazine’s country chart because “it does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music.”
Many presumed that one of those elements was white skin.
Sensing an opportunity to get on the right side of history, Cyrus — who’d tweeted that he identified with Lil Nas X as a fellow recipient of Nashville’s scorn — jumped on a remix of “Old Town Road” late last week, and thus a sensation was born.
In one sense, the questions “Old Town Road” raises are easy to answer.
What’s a country song? Why, any song that feels country-ish, which Lil Nas X’s certainly does.
But the racial and cultural implications run deeper, of course; they weren’t going to be settled in five minutes at the ACM Awards.
Still, insofar as there’s a reason to tune into these things, it’s to see a medium figuring out how it wants to present itself to the world.
And what Sunday’s show said in that regard was dispiriting.
In “Can’t Hide Red,” Aldean and Florida Georgia Line basically make the same point that “Old Town Road” does; the song is about how country isn’t a geographical condition but a state of mind — how you can “move from the boondocks to Beverly Hills” and still represent where you come from.
But the fact that the ACMs sanctioned that view only when it came from three white dudes (including one wearing American flag-print pants) felt like a lost opportunity to exercise the kind of growth mindset that Nashville is always saying it believes in.
The rest of Sunday’s mostly unremarkable show offered a few glimmers of progress, including big wins for Kacey Musgraves and a tart monologue by the show’s host, Reba McEntire, both of which chipped away at country music’s appalling gender problem.