The last time country music produced the most popular song in America was 2005, when American Idol catapulted Carrie Underwood’s “Inside Your Heaven” to the peak of the Hot 100. Nashville’s drought at pop’s top will continue this week, technically, even though Ariana Grande’s reigning No. 1 was overtaken by a banjo-laden song about horses, cowboys, and porches.
That song, Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” has profited from the very question of whether it is, in fact, country. In mid-March, the track by the then-19-year-old Atlantan appeared at No. 19 on the Billboard country charts, prompting certain Nashville pundits to protest; this was rap, not country, they argued. Billboard was convinced and kicked the song off the country charts. Publicity over that episode, the continued simmering of a social-media meme related to the song, and last week’s release of a remix featuring Billy Ray Cyrus has helped the song surge 14 spots on the Hot 100. Also contributing: “Old Town Road” has a nutty-sweet catchiness, and it represents the latest amazing performance of one of pop’s most reliable magic tricks.
Lil Nas X is both meme-maker and rapper, and the “Old Town Road” phenomenon drew on both skills. Over a loop of plucked banjo (sampled from a Nine Inch Nails instrumental), grounded with electronic claps and bass rumbles, and in a rolling, folksy cadence, he brags of his Buffalo Bill swag: “Cowboy hat from Gucci / Wrangler on my booty.” The music video, such as it is, is all clips of the Wild West–set video game Red Dead Redemption 2. On the app TikTok, teens have played the song over edited footage of themselves transforming from street wear to denim, plaid, and cowboy hats. Watch a compilation and the wacky routine takes on a dreamy rhythm. Poof—you’re George Strait, you’re Dolly Parton, you’re Paris Hilton in The Simple Life.
It’s a perfectly straightforward meme given what “Old Town Road” has come to represent: genre as plaything. The 2019 mixtape on which this song originally appeared is a collection of feisty, internet-steeped rap. “Old Town Road” is a digression, but only mildly so. In a familiar hip-hop ritual of announcing one’s greatness by listing stuff—cars, clothes, substances—Lil Nas X simply swapped in the sort of items you’d find at a Santa Fe boutique. He pushed his thin, hoarse voice into a strained evocation of outlaw singers, sampled some plucking worthy of an old Wells Fargo commercial, and sang about horses—but all on the way to a Kanye West refrain about invincibility: “Can’t nobody tell me nothin’.”