‘Old Town Road’ blazes toward minority presence in country music

Country music, according to Dictionary.com, is “a style and genre of largely string accompanied” instruments. It has roots in cowboy music of the West, usually vocalized, simple in form and harmony, and is accompanied by acoustic or electric guitar, or banjo.

Prior to weeks past, the country music genre has stayed relatively untouched by those who did not seem to embody its rustic tone. Then “Old Town Road” went viral, and Lil Nas X, born Montero Lamar Hill, became a new poster boy for a changed genre.

The song dedicated to cowboy culture debuted at No. 19 on the Billboard Hot Country Chart the week of March 16, before it was taken off said chart. Billboard’s reason was that, “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.”

A war over genre labeling budded, with fans using their words and Spotify playlists to justify what category it belonged to. Technically, Lil Nas X’s use of “a softly plucked banjo from a Nine Inch Nails sample” creates a southern twang that bluegrass and classic country songs employ. However, it has a trap beat that spills more into the rap genre. His lyrics, spinning the tale of a badass cowboy, parallel his sense of perseverance against notorious rappers and Hollywood energy that is rapped about by hip-hop legends like Kanye West. Besides, there is hardly anything more organically country than using game play snippets from the western-themed video game, Red Dead Redemption 2.

The Billy Ray Cyrus remix ignited the forest fire that fueled the genre backlash while making the song heard by country lovers and haters alike. Last week, Keith Urban uploaded a cover of the song on his Twitter page, his banjo in hand, playing a more “organic” traditional country music sound. While both remixes are beneficial for gaining publicity for Lil Nas X, it strums up a question of race within the country music genre, and how little diversity exists. The image of a minority artist from Atlanta with a rapper stage name plays on the question of standards that music must implicitly meet. The only question is — how do we break them?

Heavy metal, for example, went under a similar microscope when bands like Linkin Park, Rage Against The Machine and Korn released a sound that interlocked rap lyrics with a classic heavy metal sound. Our solution to the musical dysphoria: create a new genre called Nu Metal, since heavy metal with rap elements can’t exist in its own category. But focusing on the genre could take too much of the impact it can make on hearing music as a whole away.

A viral song isn’t automatically good or meaningful; hits like “#Selfie,” “Never Gonna Give You Up” and “Panda” taught us this distinction. What makes this song great is the ambiguity. It’s not a satire, but an ode — a pathway to a new form of country, a reformation to how we listen to music and a new profile in the white-washed world of country music. In one minute, 53 seconds, “Old Town Road” accomplishes what decades of music production failed to make mainstream: a blend of genres that connects strangers of every background to a common, and now iconic, sound — the banjo.

I give this song 4 out of 5 stars.

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