Billboard’s Removal of “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X Shows Country Music’s True Colors

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Billboard’s Removal of “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X Shows Country Music’s True Colors

Maggee Chang, Staff Writer

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American music/media brand Billboard removed “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X from its Hot Country Songs chart, right before it could reach number one. The song debuted on its top 100 Country and R&B/Hip-Hop charts. Billboard released a statement to Rolling Stone for the song’s removal: “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.” A few days later, Lil Nas X invited country artist Billy Ray Cyrus to feature on a remix. The song quickly returned to top 100 in the country charts on April 8.

While the song has strong identities of pop and trap music, 20 year old Montero Lamar Hill– commonly known as Lil Nas X– has proven the music industry and its consumers that genres limit the influence music can bring. The Atlanta-born artist is a viral Twitter sensation who rose to fame from Soundcloud. On paper, he has no ties to the traditional, rural elements of country music. “Old Town Road” is his first known experimentation with country topics, lamenting about riding his horse on the old roads. With light humor, he mentions Gucci cowboy hats and Wrangler jeans. In the remix, Billy Ray Cyrus alludes to high-end sports cars and fashion brands like Fendi. The two-minute and thirty-seven second track has a catchy trap sound with southern drawls. In a series of tweets, Cyrus praises and defends Lil Nas X’s song: “It was so obvious to me after hearing the song just one time. I was thinking, what’s not country about it? What’s the rudimentary element of a country and western song? Then I thought, it’s honest, humble, and has an infectious hook, and a banjo. What the hell more do ya need?”

The removal of “Old Town Road” from the country charts right before it could reach number one has been accused of deliberately censoring Lil Nas X, as punishment for not fitting the country narrative. This debacle revives questions of the validity and definition of music genres, especially country music. The genre is commonly known to be stuck in time, singing about the same topics (drinking, tractors, and girlfriends) with the same sound. Country music and the industry that runs it is known to be a small circle of elites who only accept those who follow the same guidelines. Not only does the removal of “Old Town Road” doubts country music, but also reminds people of the erased country narrative of Black people. Genres like rock, country, jazz, and hip-hop show origins from Black artists. In the 1800s during America’s Western Expansion, one in four cowboys were Black.

Censoring country music that does not align with the definitions of country music made by Nashville elitists is a common practice. In 2013, Texan-born Kacey Musgraves released “Follow Your Arrow,” a song that brought fame and isolation– the lyrics criticize the double standards found in conservative values and expresses liberal ideas such as gay rights and recreational marijuana use. Country radios ‘banned’ the song, preventing the song from reaching country music listeners. Her song was recognized with a Grammy and the record went platinum. Musgraves is one forefront of rejecting country norms, expressing the genre as an authentic method of storytelling.

While this debacle was funny to observe online, it shows the true colors of the country music scene– as it preaches authenticity and country living, the genre has been infamous for only recognizing one type of lifestyle. The racially-charged removal of “Old Town Road” is only an eye opener that the bureaucratic music industry has the terrible habit of determining what is deemed popular or worthy of listening, instead of being a platform for artists and an advocate for its listeners.

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