‘Old Town Road’– how the TikTok-propelled country-trap banger sparked debate about genre, race and exclusion

Lil Nas X ‘s debut song ‘Old Town Road’, which has taken the US Charts by storm over the last month and scored a Number One single in the UK, has had a very, well, bumpy road.

How it all started

The meme-friendly tune first gained more popularity on social network TikTok, a platform which has fast become one of the most influential forces shaping mainstream music. For those not in the know, snippets of songs are used to overlay onto user-created videos, similar to Vines. TikTok users can grab songs from other people’s videos too, perpetuating the same song snippets to be used by millions. “I promoted the song as a meme for months until it caught on to TikTok and it became way bigger”, said Lil Nas X to Time. After being adopted by the TikTok audience, the country-trap banger saw a quick chart rise.

The Controversy

The moment which took ‘Old Town Road’s’ stardom to a next level was Billboard’s decision to remove it from the Hot Country Songs chart when it entered the Top 20. Despite country-trap being introduced before by artists such as Young Thug, ‘Old Town Road’ was the first ever single of this genre to break the glass ceiling of country music charts in the US, a country where the charts are, somewhat bizarrely, segregated by genre.

The track, apart from its cowboy themed lyrics, combines a trap-like synthetised beat with warm banjo samples and a melodious chorus, characteristic of country music. Despite this, Billboard told Rolling Stone that: “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”.

The disappearance of the song from the list instigated a wave of outrage and disbelief online, a commotion which gradually transformed into a constructive debate on genre boundaries, and the one-dimensional way in which the music industry labels eclectic records. Billboard emphasised that their decision “had absolutely nothing to do with the race of the artist”, and Lil Nas X himself suggested that it’s the heterogeneity of the genre that is the main reason the single was removed. However, the topic of race continued to be very much alive in the ‘Old Town Road’ internet discussion. Some still claimed that, considering the history of racism in the country music industry such as the use of blackface by early country singers, Billboard’s decision to remove the song was distressing and inappropriate.

Billy Ray Cyrus’s Intervention

After the removal of ‘Old Town Road’ from the Billboard list, a lot of artists decided to take a stand against this decision – one of them being country music icon (and Miley’s dad) Billy Ray Cyrus. The artist decided to show his support online by writing on Instagram: “Don’t try and think inside the box. Don’t think outside the box. Think like there is no box.” #HorsesInTheBack”. He also gave the country-trap genre a nod of approval by joining Lil Nas X in the first official remix of the song. The ‘Old Town Road’ remix made the song even more popular and generated even more memes – this time about Billy Ray Cyrus’s ‘heroic’ gesture and his incredibly slick verse.