Controversy surrounding this track largely boils to one thing specifically: music genres. It's an easy thing to explain because everyone has a basic understanding of it, but how many people *really* understand it? Look at dance music. Can you tell the difference between big room, hardstyle, techno & progressive house? There are so many specific sub-genres of everything. On one hand, this is a good thing because it allows listeners to easily seek out a musical style that resonates with them. There's so much music in the world that you basically are constantly relying on people to curate it into microcosms so there's no need to listen to absolutely everything in order to get your desired fix.
The problem with this is on the other end of the equation: the artists making said music. If you are at all soaked into the music discourse, you are probably familiar with the sort of backlash that results when an artist who has gained notoriety for their work in sub-genre #43G betrays their established audience by trying to tap into the distinctly different market share of sub-genre #43C. If the latter is seen as more widely appealing, they'll be accused of selling out. I can imagine this is pretty disheartening as I would readily believe it's more likely one of two things: 1. They are aware that confining themselves to one specific sound is going to almost certainly guarantee diminishing returns (after all, even if the core audience is happy, there'll still be the handful who find something has gone missing due to the paradox of music needing to sound similar, but it can't be exactly the same. And of course some people will just fall out due to external reasons), and they need to pay their bills somehow. Or 2. They find themselves creatively stifled by the limitations set upon them by their genre. I find myself especially empathetic of the latter because working in a field of creativity should come as something that fits the name. That is, creative freedom to express yourself in whichever way you want. If I pride myself on anything, it's the diversity of my online portfolio. If you're in a creative field and just creating slight variations on the same thing over and over again, is it really that much different from a mundane 9 to 5 job as a corporate underling?
Evidently the reason I say all of this is that I would like to speak about two specific genres of music, which given what this is about, are of course country and rap music. Part of me wants to say that they're the most commonly maligned genres of music, but another part of me thinks that metal music gets a far wider declaration of rejection that's just not as plainly obvious as it's been safely cordoned off as a niche sub-genre, rarely encountered unintentionally. Country and rap music are a bit different, particularly in the United States, because the massive audiences the two genres serve mean that it is much more difficult to build any sort of dam to contain them. It's music that is so deeply entrenched in serving its pre-existing audience that it will damn the consequences if any idiosyncrasies are too offputting to outsiders.
What's especially peculiar about all this though, is the way that the genres have evolved in recent years. Popular country music has undergone a shift to capture a younger audience. I feel like a lot of this audience has a background in pop, and as such, we've seen big, loud pop choruses inundating the country charts. Sometimes the production takes such liberties that you often get people noting that the only difference between pop & country is the twang in the singer's voice. It's worked though, and with the help of strong digital sales and concentrated airplay, country music is a staple in the upper half of the Billboard Hot 100 even when no other audiences seem to be engaging with it at all. It's not without dissent though. All music genres have their purists, and so of course a genre steeped in tradition would be no exception to that. Florida Georgia Line are loathed for spearheading the aforementioned shift, while Sam Hunt & Thomas Rhett are often decried for their crime of toeing far beyond the line of what should be even considered country music. I was thinking recently that I feel bad for them, as they clearly want to go into different directions with their music, but can't even get it assessed on a level that isn't an evaluation of where they fit on the Kinstry Scale.
Rap music has had its own shifts but the catalysts are less clear. Something that is worth noting is that the genre typically finds fanfare in lower socio-economic scales (which results in those really unhelpful plot charts that tell you that Led Zeppelin fans have a higher average IQ than Lil Wayne fans) or rather just people who don't have disposable income to spend on their favourite music. I've also often thought that due to the way music canonisation has trained the general public, rap music is seen as low quality, without the merit that warrants spending money on it like an Adele song, or...an Imagine Dragons song. Nonetheless, in the 2010s, music streaming has taken the barrier of money away from the picture. As a result, rap music has eclipsed pop music in the charts. Very few pop stars who aren't named Ariana Grande can find much in the way of consistent success, and often feel like they're utilising their inoffensiveness to find their way onto streaming & radio playlists, the only way they can keep up with a genre that is winning over larger audiences seemingly by default. What's peculiar about this success though is that it feels kind of at odds with the music itself. As rap music gets bigger in the charts, it feels like it's getting less radio friendly in the process. Gone are the days of Ja Rule & Flo Rida ruling the roost, along comes the likes of Migos & 21 Savage, scoring hits in spite of pop radio, rather than because of it. Much like with country music, this comes with its own extreme dissent, which I hesitate to dignify at times because it comes with its own problematic angle, but on the base line I somewhat get that it can be jarring and different to the expectations of what popular music is expected to sound like.
There is not a lot of crossover between these genres. So if they're already unpleasant to centrist outsiders between the two, you can bet that fans of one encountering the other can be a hellish experience for all involved. That's why so much discourse around "Old Town Road" gets so heated: it requires a proper understanding of both to really handle the situation. There's no shortage of takes that use the song's shortcomings as a way to lambast the less-preferred genre.
"Old Town Road" forcibly put itself in a situation to court controversy over its identity. Lil Nas X deliberately listed the song as country music for the sole reason that it would be easier to gain visibility with less competition. As a former tweetdecker, it's fair to say he knows about manipulative marketing tactics. This is the reason Billboard put the song on the country charts in the first place. Them taking any time at all to further analyse the song and deem it inappropriate for the country charts really just shows a sort of incompetence that they'd seem to just roll with their data and fix later if they feel necessary.
The decision to remove "Old Town Road" has called upon a lot of observation that the decision is based on race. It's pretty easy to see why people would come to the conclusion, the country music charts are primarily white, and Lil Nas X is not. There are people of colour making country music and doing well there, but they rarely dare to challenge the status quo as if they're already on thin ice. Considering he initially made the Hot 100 without airplay, I'm sure Kane Brown is pretty happy to get played heavily on the radio now and wouldn't dare see what he can get away with.
Really though, the issue is with the institutions surrounding the situation. It shouldn't come as a surprise that a radio format which is infamous for 40 week climbs to #1 followed by leaving the chart 3 weeks later, allowing everyone to get a turn and multiple artists sustaining #1 hit streaks in tandem with each other, has people in charge keeping things in line. It's fair to say that the Nashville Music Row has a lot of sway over Billboard. An outsider like Lil Nas X threatens to make a mockery of their situation; with his further reach, "Old Town Road" would almost certainly be crowned the #1 country song of 2019. Who's to say it couldn't start a wild new sort of trap country hybrid that country radio wants nothing to do with, but is ruling the country charts week in, week out. The opposite situation happened with Bebe Rexha, whose "Meant To Be" spent a while on the Hot 100 before it was arbitrarily deemed eligible to sit on the country charts (likely due to Florida Georgia Line's involvement), where it would sit at #1 for 50 weeks in a row. Evidently it was deemed to be not too much of departure from the genre, and instead something that could be used as a flagship for the genre's success. Though it took a while, the song was so popular that it ended up topping the country airplay charts. It wasn't just some fringe weirdness, it was the definitive country hit.
My grand opinion on this whole ordeal has nothing to do with Lil Nas X, I just think that the Hot Country Songs chart, in addition to all of the other similar charts, is a pointless mess that serves no real value. I often wonder if Billboard deliberately wanted to cause a reaction when they unveiled them. This was back in 2012, so the first ever Hot Country Songs #1 hit was Taylor Swift's "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together", and the first ever Hot Rap Songs #1 hit was PSY's "Gangnam Style", two songs that are not without elements of those respective genres, but are so clearly tapping different audiences that they would never have gone close to #1 on the radio equivalents. A year later and the R&B Charts were dominated by Robin Thicke & Justin Timberlake. They couldn't have predicted this sort of awkward white-washing but they sure didn't care to stop it.
So it's kind of a funny chapter in the story of these charts that Billboard themselves have made their own actions artificially affect the charts. Lil Nas X's outcry over their decision has ended up putting the public on his side, and what was shaping up to be a reasonably big hit has now become the biggest song of the year, and a rallying call for a young artist cheated by the system, even if that system is a chart that isn't especially looked at fondly. In my experience, most country music fans don't even care about that chart, and are more interested in the airplay chart.
The final nail in the coffin for Billboard was the release of the "Old Town Road" remix featuring Billy Ray Cyrus. Putting his credibility aside, Billy Ray undoubtably has a history on the country charts, and vocally still fits the part. This put Billboard in a catch-22 situation. If they were to continue leaving the song off the chart (2 months later, this is indeed the case), it looks like they're arbitrarily defying an artist's intent while even less country-influenced songs reside on the chart without question. If they did decide to include it after this, then they would not be able to avoid facing up to the reality that their initial decision was racially influenced, given that the remix is musically exactly the same just with an extra verse & chorus from a country singer.
I am not here to make a statement on whether "Old Town Road" is rap or country. I really think that the song makes for a strong argument that pigeonholing all music into boxes like this is a fruitless affair, as there will always be songs that skirt the line between two or more genres. Khalid's big hit at the moment is produced by Disclosure. Marshmello is seen as an EDM producer but has hit songs with rock instrumentation, the Jonas Brothers have just scored a big pop hit with a song that sounds remarkably similar to Portugal. The Man's "Feel It Still", the longest running #1 hit of all time on alternative radio. You just can't pin everything down in one place because you're going to keep having to make snap decisions in places where more nuance is required. I'm almost certain that the exact same recording could be released by two different artists and Billboard could still file them under different genre charts purely because of the way the two artists are marketed. "Old Town Road" even further muddies the discourse because its lethargic lyrics about 'bull ridin' and boobies' can be seen as an example of a cliche bad rap lyric, and as an example of a cliche bad country lyric. I've genuinely seen people use its lyrics to decide which genre it goes in, but both ways. Behind all of this is the amusing side factor that the song is built around a sample of a Nine Inch Nails song, thus it's literally taking content from a 3rd genre that's not even part of the conversation. I think it's best to analyse music on what it's trying to achieve, not on the agenda that you've decided that it's trying to push.
With that in mind I should probably put forth my thoughts about the song with that in mind. Truth be told, I first heard it the week that it debuted on the Billboard Hot 100, and it struck me as so fascinating that I was kind of obsessed with watching the song, as I felt sure it would catch on with more people the same way it did for me. I won't pretend I thought it would get quite as big as it is, but then there are a lot of critical factors that nobody could have predicted anyway. Whether or not you take it as sincere, the twang that Lil Nas X sings with for the song is a lot of fun. It kind of reminds me of "Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm" by Crash Test Dummies in that regard, such an atypical register that it really sticks out. Lil Nas X knows it too, deliberately helping his SEO by uploading the song to YouTube with '(I Got The Horses In The Back)' appended to the title. My favourite line in the song is when he says he 'cheated on my baby', which has a weird sort of sorrow in his delivery that it just makes me laugh thinking of what possible context it could fit.
The remix deserves mention too. I feel like I'm slightly too old to properly imagine the reaction it's really going for, as I've known Billy Ray Cyrus quite a while before he was Miley's music star dad on "Hannah Montana". His appearance for me has become a great source of amusement for the way it's re-written history. If people love to pigeonhole artists into genre, they also love to pigeonhole careers. How many times have you heard someone say that Gotye's now somebody that we used to know? Or talk up iconic artists as infallible even if they have multiple albums pre, or even post-fame that are seldem given credit (possibly rightly so). So now we've got a mega one hit wonder from 1992 returning 27 years later with an even bigger hit. The chart enthusiast in me absolutely loves it. I gotta say too that Billy Ray plays his part well. Even if it's not really true to his career arc, you can hear the sound of a grizzled veteran in him. I want to say the whole thing is remarkably wholesome, but I can't help but wonder if Lil Nas X is mocking Billboard when the YouTube thumbnail for the song has him grinning to the camera holding a sack of money, and you can see in the first sentence of the description that he calls it a Billboard #1 hit. It's pretty on brand for who has to be the most endlessly funny and self-aware artist on social media in the tenure of their fame.
I really think this song has the power to do a lot of good in terms of building bridges. It's really easy to use it as yet another peg to reaffirm all pre-conceptions of who/what is and is not meritorious, but that's just planting further seeds of disarray. What I'm saying is that it doesn't matter what the song is really, it's just a fun time to be had.