One of the fun things about pop music is following the rocket-like trajectory of certain songs. As a youth, I have a distinct memory of hearing the swelling strings of “Iris” by the Goo Goo Dolls for the first time and thinking, “I’m going to be so sick of this song in six months.” We knew it when Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper dropped “Shallow” last year. It was clear as day the song was destined to be a smash.
2019 may still be a toddler but we already have our Song of the Year. Specifically, the song that people will listen to 10 or 20 years down the line and say, “THAT’S what 2019 sounded like.”
That song is “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X.
“Old Town Road” is simple, yet contains multitudes. The evocative banjo sample is courtesy of a Nine Inch Nails instrumental. The beat is by 19-year-old Dutch producer YoungKio, who sold it online. He wasn’t even aware of Lil Nas X until the song started to blow up. And Lil Nas X’s lyrics are a hip-hop remix of classic cowboy iconography (“My life is like a movie/ bull riding and boobies” is fucking legendary). In fact, Lil Was X’s lyrics were down home enough to sell the song to more open-minded country music programmers.
That’s where most of us (read: adults) first became aware of the song. Before that, “Old Town Road” was already a popular meme with kids on the TikTok app. Its sudden viral success is how the song found its way to the Billboard Country chart. However, following its debut, Billboard decided to pull the song from the chart. As they told Rolling Stone, “While ‘Old Town Road’ incorporates references to country and cowboy imagery, it does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.”
This prompted an interesting debate about what is and isn’t country music, as well as an important conversation about how the country music industry treats black artists. To me, “Old Town Road” sounds like a rap song with country elements, not the other way around (YoungKio told Billboard, “It’s not a country beat. I didn’t make it with that thought behind it”).
Still, “Old Town Road” does seem to appeal to more open-minded country fans. Specifically, non-traditional country artists like Billy Ray Cyrus, whose own (abysmal) “Achy Breaky Heart” was met with skepticism by country purists at the time of its release over a quarter century ago. In a brilliant countermove, Lil Nas X dropped a remix of the song featuring Cyrus last week, all but daring country radio to continue to exclude it.
The truly crazy thing is that Billy Ray sounds AMAZING on this. His voice has aged into a compelling late-period growl and, following Lil Nas X, his verse is endearingly goofy.
The totality of exposure reached critical mass this week: “Old Town Road” is now the number one song on the Billboard Hot 100. Stereogum has a good rundown of the many fun-facts surrounding the song. One of the most salient is its length: At 1:53, it’s the third shortest #1 hit of all-time. “Old Town Road” trots in, makes a few trips around the track, then gallops off. You can’t really get sick of it (at least not in the way a maudlin ballad like “Iris” grows annoying).
So let’s just say it: “Old Town Road” is the Song of the Summer (a distinct category from Song of the Year, though they do sometimes overlap). It’s silly and fun to sing along to, two qualities that transcend genre. We’re going to be hearing a lot more of it over the next four months.