Lil Nas X deserves multiple Grammys, prove me wrong
Every year, there’s a song that just seems to encapsulate the cultural moment so well that it almost feels scripted, too good to be true. Last year Childish Gambino’s “This Is America,” inhabited that space, in large part due to its provocative, spellbinding video. With too many interpretations to count, the themes present in the cryptic, meticulous short film propelled the fairly simple song to both Record and Song of the Year honors at the Grammy Awards this past February. This year, the song that has most closely followed the pattern of incessant criticism and evaluation has been Lil Nas X’s newly crowned Billboard No. 1 hit “Old Town Road.”
Is this because of the depth of the song, or its accompanying video? No. Maybe it’s because of the pedigree of the artist? Most of us first heard of Lil Nas X within the last month, so that’s a hard no. Could it be the quality of the song itself? Let’s be serious, not close. Yet, the story behind this song is indicative of everything we love and loathe about art, the internet and our collective reluctance to come to terms with history, or reality for that matter.
Let’s start with a statement of fact: Lil Nas X scammed us into liking “Old Town Road.” In a piece entitled “Before ‘Old Town Road,’ Lil Nas X Was a Tweetdecker,” New York Magazine writer Brian Feldman breaks down how Lil Nas X’s Twitter account was previously the Twitter account @nasmaraj, a Nicki Minaj stan account, as well as a tweetdecking account.
It’s a somewhat detailed story that should be required reading if you’re interested in why and how certain accounts can shape the online zeitgeist, but the piece sums up with this sentence: “By trafficking in memes, viral threads, engagement bait and Nicki Minaj stanning, Lil Nas X was able to create a six-digit follower base on Twitter, and it was that platform that served as a springboard for ‘Old Town Road.’” Essentially, through having a popular Twitter account, he was able to plant his song in online circles.
“Old Town Road” opens with an acoustic guitar riff, sampled from a 2008 Nine Inch Nails song. With a rustic feel, a lightly autotuned voice emerges, proudly singing about equestrian feats and the joy of rural American life. After the initial verse, a standard hip-hop beat drops, bearing all the hallmarks of the average drum pattern you’d find in near the top of the hip-hop (and increasingly pop) charts. Throwing in humorous lyrics that caricaturize both country and rap sealed the song's fate as strictly satirical.
A significant boon to his viral hopes was when the song blew up on the accursed video service TikTok. Following in the footsteps of its forebear Vine, the platform generates short videos that are soundtracked by approximately 15 seconds of any song. Once the song had a vice-like grip on the predominantly prepubescent users of TikTok, Lil Nas X was off to the races, or more precisely the Billboard country charts.
With the song seemingly peaking as a mild viral hit that approached the top of the country charts, Billboard lit a fuse by removing it from the list entirely. The move to boot the song off the charts led to a wide backlash, which resulted in a wider discussion about cultural appropriation. country music purists tied themselves in knots trying to explain how the song couldn’t count as a country song, even though thinly veiled pop tunes that graced the top 10 of the country charts made a compelling argument for more “welcoming” interpretations of the genre’s boundaries.
Many noted that Black artists quite literally created what we now call country music, and it’s harrowing to see the lack of agency that the country industry grants Black artists today. The neverending discussion around cultural appropriation did less to provide a nuanced view of music history and the history of racialization, and much more to propel Lil Nas X into fame.
Since we live in Bizarro world, it only makes (non)sense that Billy Ray Cyrus would hop on the song’s remix to push “Old Town Road” over the finish line. Off the strength of scamming, preteens on TikTok and racial division, “Old Town Road” hit the top spot on the Billboard singles chart. The story of Lil Nas X is a microcosm of how we consume and criticize today – it was a “very online” phenomenon, splashed with dashes of both genuine concern and performative “wokeness,” powered by the unavoidable churning of the meme economy.
This marvelous, messy melting pot won’t earn Lil Nas X a Grammy award, but odds are it’ll be the song that best sums up who and how we are this year. This is America in all its humor, contradiction and hypocrisy, and we’re riding until the wheels fall off.