“Wow.” “Me!” “If I Can’t Have You.” “I Don’t Care.” Four rather disparate songs released in the first half of 2019, with one uniting feature: “Old Town Road,” by Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus, kept them all at Billboard’s No. 2 spot. 2019’s cowboy anthem trotted into the sunset for two months (as of this article’s writing) as Post Malone, Taylor Swift, Shawn Mendes and Ed Sheeran each came and fell.
But why? How did a novelty song about designer 10-gallon hats deflect some of the decade’s most prominent stars? Through a combination of self-promotion, the internet and effort, Lil Nas X and his country-trap fusion defeated some of the biggest talents in pop.
Such a streak is rare. In the history of the Billboard Hot 100, “Old Town Road” is one of six songs to block four or more singles from the No. 1 position. The tune joins the ranks of “Tik Tok” by Kesha, “I Gotta Feeling” by the Black Eyed Peas, “We Belong Together” by Mariah Carey, “You Light Up My Life” by Debbie Boone, “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You” by Bryan Adams and “Theme from ‘A Summer Place’” by Percy Faith and His Orchestra. These songs are some of the biggest Billboard successes of all time, and for Lil Nas X to hold the same record as them is a massive feat.
“Old Town Road”’s competition for the No. 1 spot has not been easy. Post Malone has virtually been a fixture in the Billboard Top 10 since October 2017; Brendon Urie has a loyal cult following from his band, Panic! At the Disco, and his new song, “High Hopes,” was huge; Mendes is a star of some renown; and Sheeran, Bieber and Swift are Sheeran, Bieber and Swift. To outsell even one of these artists for a week would be a miracle for a rookie like Lil Nas X, but to outsell all of them for two months? The run seems impossible.
How did “Old Town Road” gain so high a level of prominence? One must learn the song’s history first, and its story is the stuff of legends. As with so many other songs in the last five years, memes gave “Old Town Road” success. Through some marketing and leaning into a cowboy pastiche over a rap beat, Lil Nas X set his song in prime position to become the background for every cowboy-related video online, right as Wild West memes experienced a surge. As of June 1, there are over 100 million views under Tik Tok’s yeehaw hashtag, and many use his song as the soundtrack.
He charted at 83 on the March 16 issue of Billboard’s Hot 100 off the strength of this meme. The publication also placed him on the country charts; one week later, however, the song was removed. Despite his sound’s obvious kinship with hip-hop-influenced country acts like Florida Georgia Line, Billboard claimed the song, “ … does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.”
The controversial decision attracted the attention of both Cyrus, and the world at large. The “Achy Breaky Heart” singer lent vocals for the remix that maintained “Old Town Road’s” dominance. The power of the internet, marketing, public discourse and a former one-hit wonder, bolstered the song to triple platinum and one of the best Billboard runs of the year.
“Old Town Road” reflects the internet’s increasing power over the charts. As far back as the end of the late ‘90s, the world wide web has posed a cataclysmic shift in the world of music, first with debates on online sales and the ease of piracy on the internet, then with the ability to self-promote as demonstrated by MySpace legend, Soulja Boy. In the 2010s, artists like T-Wayne of “Nasty Freestyle,” Zay Hilfigerrr and Zayvion McCall of “Juju on That Beat,” Rae Sremmurd and Gucci Mane of “Black Beatles,” Desiigner of “Panda” and Childish Gambino of “This is America” took social media by storm in order to find chart success.
Whether by SoundCloud’s ease of access to the music world, various memes and trends or outright controversy, they all became hits, even No. 1 singles. Lil Nas X, one of the less established and most gimmicky artists in that list, is perhaps the artist most inextricably linked to the internet, and his active Twitter feed, @LilNasX, indicates some awareness of the fact. While such novelty hits with outsized popularity are not new, the internet has pushed their presence to new heights.
The other contenders for the top of the charts lack the memetic push. Neither “If I Can’t Have You,” “Wow” or “I Don’t Care,” received the promotional boost of “Old Town Road’s” bizarre history. They rested on more conventional advertising: some teasers and sheer star power propelled them to number two.
“Me!” attempted to capitalize on a return to form after Swift’s disastrous “Reputation” album undid her empire. She recruited Urie, fresh off a resurgence in popularity, and made a flashy video, but it simply fell short. Who has time for Swift’s halfhearted apology to the public when there is a country trap song?
Promotion is only half of the story explaining how “Old Town Road” became one of the elite six, keeping four songs from No. 1. The other half is a subjective, but feasible one: none of Lil Nas X’s victims made particularly good or interesting music.
Each single has star power, but putting big names aside, they all underperformed. Post Malone’s atmospheric moodiness translates poorly into the swaggering braggadocio on “Wow.” “Me!” sugarcoats and laminates Swift and Urie until they suffocate; “If I Can’t Have You” is a forgettable Mendes performance and Sheeran and Bieber live up to the lackluster title of “I Don’t Care.”
The worst sign of all: Post Malone, an artist famed for being drowsy and dreary, is having the most fun of the other contenders. Mendes and Swift are already dropping quickly from their peaks, and while Sheeran and Post Malone are holding ground, it is unlikely that they overtake Lil Nas X. They all pale in comparison to the gimmickry, the audacity and the catchiness Cyrus and Lil Nas X display.
From the Nine Inch Nail-sampled banjo, Lil Nas X’s spirited howl to Cyrus’s grit, “Old Town Road” sounds fantastic in a way none of the others do, plus the song takes itself not at all seriously. A sense of fun can work wonders for silly pop songs.
“Old Town Road” represents a challenge to the established world of pop music. It is a song with an unconventional sound, an unconventional story and an unconventional heart that shakes the foundations of Billboard. Stars as famous as Swift and Sheeran sometimes cannot overcome a gimmicky outsider who connects with an audience in a way their brand name alone cannot.