Late last year, a delightfully strange song began to make its way around the teen-favourite social app TikTok. Equal parts country twang and hip-hop bass, Old Town Road lent itself well to cowboy memes and line-dance riffs.
Over the next few months, the indie song by a little-known artist called Lil Nas X found fans on SoundCloud and music-streaming apps. It even landed, unceremoniously, on several Billboard charts — including the one measuring popular country songs. But it wasn't until April, when Rolling Stone reported that Billboard had quietly removed Old Town Road from the Hot Country Songs chart, that the genre-bending earworm became a cultural phenomenon.
Billboard's decision ignited a debate about how to classify the song — which Lil Nas X has described as "country trap" — and whether it would have stayed on the country chart if it had been recorded by a white artist. Amid the controversy, country veteran Billy Ray Cyrus hopped on a widely praised remix. One week later, Old Town Road galloped to the top of Billboard's Hot 100 chart, where it remained for a record-breaking 19 weeks before being dethroned in late August by Billie Eilish's Bad Guy.
The song's unusual, industry-befuddling journey, meanwhile, propelled Lil Nas X (born Montero Hill) to sudden fame. And the 20-year-old Georgia native has capitalised on the moment, releasing several iterations of his breakout single, which headlines his debut EP 7, released in June by Columbia Records.
On SoundCloud, where Lil Nas X first released Old Town Road, his bio notes (in typical Gen Z parlance) that "old town road is not my only song tho fr". But it's certainly his most popular. Let's break it down by the numbers.
In June, the data firm Nielsen revealed that Old Town Road had been streamed more than one billion times through on-demand audio- and video-streaming platforms (i.e. Spotify and YouTube). But the song's streaming success — a key metric for Billboard's contemporary methodology — predates the country controversy. By the end of January, the song had hit one million plays on Spotify alone. It also made it onto the Hot 100 and the Hot Rap Songs charts before Rolling Stone reported its removal from the country chart. And while it climbed to No. 1 days before, the Cyrus remix kicked things into high gear, landing a record-breaking 143 million streams (across all platforms) in one week.
While his EP has received lukewarm reviews, Lil Nas X seems primed to repeat his strategies for other songs, including his second single, Panini. Currently at 36 on the Hot 100, Panini could take a page from Old Town Road and boost its digital footprint with a remix — a fact not lost on Lil Nas X. The rapper-singer used social media to suggest a collaboration with Lil Uzi Vert, who also found early success on SoundCloud and told TMZ he was open to collaborating.
Sometimes, Lil Nas X's strategies are more direct. "wow this is amazing. stream panini to celebrate you guys," he tweeted when Billboard announced Old Town Road would hold the top spot for the 19th straight week.
The audio-only YouTube video of Cyrus's remix has received more than 370 million views since it was uploaded in April. An official animoji video for the same version has clocked more than 69 million views. Meanwhile, a compilation video of TikToks inspired by the song has been viewed more than 8 million times.
That's how many retweets the video that introduced Old Town Road to the world has received since Lil Nas X shared a snippet on Twitter in December. Before he started making music, Lil Nas X courted viral fame on the social media platform, and Old Town Road, in essence, debuted as a meme — serving as the soundtrack to a 29-second clip of a man dancing enthusiastically at a rodeo. "Country music is evolving," Lil Nas X wrote atop the video.
Lil Nas X paid just $30 for the song's instrumental, which had been uploaded to a digital marketplace called BeatStars. YoungKio, the Dutch producer behind the track, had never even heard of the band he sampled to achieve the song's substantial banjo presence: Nine Inch Nails. Old Town Road features 34 Ghosts IV, from NIN's 2008 album Ghosts I-IV. As such, frontman Trent Reznor and his frequent collaborator Atticus Ross share songwriting credits with Lil Nas X and YoungKio, whose real name is Kiowa Roukema.
Old Town Road's unprecedented 19-week reign on the Hot 100 marked the first No. 1 hit for Reznor and Ross, both veteran rockers. Cyrus achieved the same milestone — nearly 27 years after his popular 1992 single Achy Breaky Heart first appeared on the Hot 100, where it peaked at No. 4. It's also worth noting that Old Town Road managed to keep its history-making position despite new chart entries from some of pop music's biggest stars, including Ariana Grande, Shawn Mendes, Post Malone and, until the week of August 19, Eilish.
Coincidentally, 19 is the spot Old Town Road reached on the Hot Country Songs chart before Billboard determined that the song did "not embrace enough elements of today's country music chart to chart in its current version". (The company later told The Washington Post in a statement that "the song's removal was primarily based on the track's overall lack of country music instrumentation".) But fans of the song noted other (typically white) artists who endured on the country chart despite working primarily in other genres.
When Old Town Road surpassed 16 weeks atop the chart, the song bested a 24-year record held by One Sweet Day, the 1995 Mariah Carey-Boyz II Men collab that spent 16 weeks in the top spot. (Luis Fonsi's outrageously popular Despacito tied that 16-week record in 2017.) Carey congratulated Lil Nas X on his song's milestone in a hilariously photoshopped tweet that found her passing the torch to her successor.
But with more than two decades between them, Old Town Road and One Sweet Day had different metrics for success. In 1995, artists relied primarily on radio play and record sales. Lil Nas X's definitively modern achievement has prompted scrutiny of Billboard's charts and the shrewd ways artists — and their labels — can game (or manipulate, as some would say) the system.
To wit: Lil Nas X has released a total of eight Old Town Road videos — including one for each of the song's remixes and one titled Week 17 Version, which merely omits the original music video's Wild West opener, but still counts toward the track's weekly streaming totals. Same goes for the song's many remixes — an advantage that helped Despacito match the record in 2017 (thanks, in part, to a remix featuring Justin Bieber) and helped Bad Guy (also remixed by Bieber) usurp Old Town Road.
The 'official movie' (music video, if you're an aging millennial) for Old Town Road opens with Lil Nas X on horseback, clutching a cartoonish money bag — a nod, perhaps, to the song's lucrative success on a shoestring budget. The flick also features eight notable cameos: YoungKio; actor-comedian Chris Rock; rapper Vince Staples; Mason Ramsey, the preteen yodeller who wowed Walmart shoppers in a viral performance; rapper Rico Nasty; EDM producer Diplo; comedian HaHa Davis; and, of course, Cyrus. In one tongue-in-cheek Western scene set in 1889, Cyrus suggests he and Lil Nas X hunker down for the night.
"I don't know man, last time I was here they weren't too welcoming to outsiders," Lil Nas X tells him. "Eh," Cyrus says. "You're with me this time. Everything's gonna be all right."
In July, when Lil Nas X released Seoul Town Road, featuring RM of K-pop phenom BTS, Spotify joked that "the 80th Old Town Road remix is here". Actually, there are just four official remixes: Seoul; Cyrus's version; one with Ramsey and rapper Young Thug; and another with DJ Diplo, adding yet another genre element to the mélange.
Last month, Lil Wayne told XXL he had recorded a verse — which leaked online — for an official remix but didn't know if the label was going to use it. The rapper performed his still-unreleased contribution at Lollapalooza earlier this month.
Meanwhile, an unofficial (and extremely NSFW) remix from rapper CupcakKe has received just over two million views since being uploaded to YouTube in April.
Could there be more official remixes on the way? Lil Nas X tweeted that the RM collaboration would be the song's last remix, but he has previously teased potential collaborations with rising rapper Megan Thee Stallion, country legend Dolly Parton and Carey, who cheekily responded with a photo of herself in a cowboy hat (matte black, obviously) and a suggested title: "One Sweet Town Road!"
Other musicians including Blondie, Keith Urban and Miley Cyrus have taken another route to Old Town Road fame: covering the chart-topper. (It was a family affair when Miley performed the song alongside her famous dad and Lil Nas X at the Glastonbury Festival earlier this summer.) And while the elementary-school set certainly doesn't need another reason to love Old Town Road, the song has also been replicated by the bane of every parent's existence: Kidz Bop.
Three weeks after making history on the Billboard chart, Lil Nas X received a quintessentially American honour: the cover of Time magazine, which calls his breakout single "the defining sound of the year". In the accompanying story, the genre-defying pop star admits his meteoric rise to fame inspired another milestone — coming out, in a tweet, on the last day of Pride Month.
"I never would have done that if I wasn't in a way pushed by the universe," he told the magazine.
Even that tweet, praised by many, took fans back to his music. "Some of y'all already know, some of y'all don't care ... but before this month ends i want y'all to listen closely to c7osure," the rapper tweeted, sharing a link to a track from his EP. On that song he declares, "Ain't no more acting, man that forecast say I should just let me grow / No more red light for me, baby, only green, I gotta go."
The lyrics are vague but meaningful — like the words he set to the $30 track he bought last year. He was struggling then, living with his sister and at odds with his parents, who were upset he had recently dropped out of college.
"I literally had my dad paying my phone bill and a Twitter account," he explained in Genius' breakdown of his biggest hit. "I've gotta make something shake."