The list of 500 Greatest Songs we’re working from was updated by Rolling Stone this very year, in 2021. To this point in our progress, #500 through #490, the song selection spans 60 years. Miles Davis’ ‘So What’ (#493), from 1959, is the oldest song, while this entry, ‘Old Town Road’ by Lil Nas X is the most recent, from 2019.
Over the course of these 60 years, we’ve seen fundamental paradigm shifts in popular music that have had profound effects not just on the way music is conceived and recorded, but also in the way that it’s distributed and received.
The first of these major shifts, of course, was video. Music videos aren’t solely responsible for the performative visual aspects of pop music — people were mixing performance art with music long before video made the scene — but there’s no question that video has helped push the visual element to the forefront. It’s the rare hit song released after 1982 that’s not associated with a professionally directed music video. You don’t think of one without the other. Try to imagine Michael Jackson’s ‘Thriller’, Nirvana’s ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’, Britney Spears’ ‘Hit Me Baby One More Time’, or Eminem’s ‘The Real Slim Shady’ without their attendant videos. The resulting pop firmament suddenly looks like a vastly different place.
The second major shift, the metaphoric earthquake that’s currently roiling the landscape, has been the advent of internet and social media: Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Tik Tok, Instagram, Vine, etc. These tools have allowed savvy cybernauts and aggressive social networkers to create, market, and distribute their own material, cheaply and effectively.
That’s exactly what happened with Montrero Hill, a.k.a. Lil Nas X, a charismatic young internet personality who did a little of everything across various platforms and formats before buying an online sample of a Nine Inch Nails song for $30 and writing ‘Old Town Road’ around it. He released the song in December 2018, and made online memes to promote it. Users — lots of users, fucking tens of millions of users — took notice, and began making and sharing short-form videos with the song on Tik Tok.
Feeling old yet?
‘Old Town Road’ was popular enough to debut in the Billboard Hot 100 (eventually reaching #1, where it enjoyed a long tenure). Billy Ray Cyrus heard it, and contributed to a new mix (the original version was less than two minutes in length). Lil Nas X was signed to Colombia Records.
Before Cyrus’ involvement, the song also hit the country charts…and we’re not talking scraping the bottom of the country charts either. It hit #19 country. And then it was removed from those charts in March 2019 by Billboard, who issued this statement:
“Upon further review, it was determined that ‘Old Town Road’ by Lil Nas X does not currently merit inclusion on Billboard‘s country charts. When determining genres, a few factors are examined, but first and foremost is musical composition. 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.”
Let’s do this. Call it the Yeehaw Challenge, Pt. 2. Go listen to Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line’s ‘Meant to Be’ — #3 on the country charts the week ‘Old Town Road’ was removed — then try identifying exactly which elements of today’s country music are being embraced in that song but are absent in ‘Old Town Road’.
Michael Strum: “‘Old Town Road’ makes me feel light, warm, all-encompassing joy. Who needs meth when you’ve got Lil Nas X? I love the timber of his voice, his flow, his accent (‘matt-ee!’), the mix. I love the boldness to mix genres. I love and am inspired by his Pride. I love seeing black input in country again, in the tradition of Ray Charles’ ‘Modern Sounds in Country Music’ (1962). Langston Hughes called out for us to Let America Be America, and Mr. Hill answers the bell ably: wake up on your sister’s couch, find a track, rap about a cowboy hat from Gucci, and break American pop music. That’s a rags to riches story that would make H. Alger blush! A rock and roll story and a great choice here.”
Rolling Stone: Montero Hill was an Atlanta college dropout sleeping on his sister’s couch and looking to break into music when he came across a track he liked by a Dutch 19-year-old called YoungKio that was based around a banjo sample from a Nine Inch Nails track. “I was picturing, like, a loner cowboy runaway,” he told Rolling Stone. Within a year “Old Town Road” was the longest-running Number One song of all time, seeming to sum up eons of American cross-cultural love and theft in just one minute and 53 seconds.