Soon after Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” debuted in December 2018, it quickly rose to the top of Billboard’s Hot Country Songs. But in March of 2019, Billboard removed the song from the country chart, claiming that it had been wrongly classified as country. The track went on to top the Billboard Hot 100 Chart, staying there for a record 19 weeks. But a debate remained about whether Billboard’s claim was right. Is “Old Town Road” a country song or not?
It’s often assumed that in order to evaluate an artwork (like a song) properly you need to know (among other things) what genre it belongs to. Is this liquid good? Well, that depends. It’s a terrible soup, a terrible sauce, but an awesome milkshake!
But if that is true, then the question of which genre “Old Town Road” belongs to isn’t just an idle curiosity. It becomes pretty important. And it’s hard to talk about any of this without also discussing race and its relationship to the history of genres like country and rap.
John Dyck (Auburn) and Brandon Polite (Knox College) try to answer this question in the below video. Dyck bats for the “Old Town Road”-as-country team, and Polite does his best to throw curveballs, arguing for it as a novelty hip-hop song that parodies, and perhaps even mocks, country tropes. Over the course of their discussion, they consider a number of issues:
- how well “Old Town Road” fits within country music’s history
- the ironic power that country music institutions have and the centralizing role that Nashville plays
- how much (or little) the song sounds like a country song
- how to define genres
- the recent infusion of the trap subgenre and hip-hop across popular music in general