Is “Old Town Road” a country song or not? WTF?!
— D., Normal Heights
At least a couple of times a year, somebody sends me what looks like a throwaway question, little more than an opportunity for a few quick puns and sly remarks, but which actually raises deep questions of significant social importance.
This is one of those questions.
For those of you not yet in the know, the basic story of “Old Town Road” is as follows: rapper Lil Nas X achieves crossover success with country-music-adjacent hip-hop jam, “Old Town Road,” which features lyrics about horses and country roads; song goes viral online, surprises many by charting on Billboard Hot Country hits; Billboard execs unilaterally decide song “isn’t country enough,” pull song from charts; country fans revolt, accuse Billboard of casual racism; nobody can actually agree whether the song belongs on the country charts or not because on the one hand it’s a catchy trap beat, and, on the other hand, it’s all about trucks, horses, cowboy hats, and Wranglers.
It would be so easy for me to run this issue into the ground with a series of jokes about bladders full of lean, but the debate over whether or not “Old Town Road” counts as a country song says more about the tension between hipster and mainstream than much of what I write in this column ever could. The conflict over “Old Town Road” is nothing less than a battle between the hipster mentality and the establishment.
The operative question here is, who gets to decide whether a song like “Old Town Road” can properly be called “country”? On the one hand, you have the Establishment, whose position is basically, “We control the charts, and we get to say what’s what.” On the other hand, you have the fans, whose position is basically, “Artists and labels are nothing without us, so we should be the ones who say what’s what.”
As in most cases, the truth falls somewhere between those two extremes. Culture and the state of what’s cool are not dictated by some executive in a corner office somewhere. At the same time, the say-so of a single person — or even a vocal and substantial contingent of like-minded people — doesn’t automatically rewrite the world’s social contract in conformity with the foment and roar of the vox populi.
I probably shouldn’t try to speak for country fans, or Billboard execs, but in reality the boundaries of “country” music are no more immutable than the boundaries of any popular art form. What fits the mold at any given time represents an uneasy truce in a battle that has raged for generations between equally zealous belligerents. You have The Man on one side, desperately fighting to maintain control over the constantly shifting field of humanity’s favor. On the other side, a hundred million voices cry out, each one trying to rise above the others and assert itself as the authority to speak for the rest; and somehow they blend together and convey something like a unified message of this is what we want, damn it.
Today, at least, it turns out we want trap beats, horses in the background, and pronouncing “matte” as if it were spelled “mattey.” In this one, the fans will probably find themselves on the right side of this historical footnote, but it’s only one skirmish, and there will be many more.