Every Friday, New Times culture editor Doug Markowitz writes about whatever's on his mind. Follow him on Twitter @DougMarkowitz.
On March 27, Billboard made the very strange decision to remove a track called "Old Town Road" from its Hot Country Songs chart. On paper, it seems like the perfect storm for a country hit: The lyrics are about a black-booted, Wrangler-clad, two-timin' rider hitting the road with "horses in the back," the instrumental is dripping with banjos, and the song has gone viral thanks to thousands of videos on TikTok.
There's more, however. The artist behind "Old Town Road" is Lil Nas X, he's a rapper, and he's black.
Billboard, of course, firmly denied any racial motivations for pulling the song, instead declaring the song simply wasn't country. "When determining genres, a few factors are examined, but first and foremost is musical composition," they told Rolling Stone. "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."
Racist or not, the move reeks of gatekeeping on the part of Billboard and calls into question exactly what elements they would require for the song to chart. For the record, the industry has long been accused of setting arbitrary standards — back in the '70s, David Allan Coe famously lambasted the establishment when he declared the perfect country song must include lyrics about "mama, or trains, or trucks, or prison, or getting drunk."
Not much has changed. Anyone can turn on the radio and understand how awful today's country music is, a bunch of stupid, pandering, disgusting garbage, even as artists slowly incorporate modern fixings such as Auto-Tune and electronic beats. Take Florida-Georgia Line's "Cruise," one of the worst songs of the decade and a massive, number one hit on the Hot Country Songs chart: dumb lyrics about trucks, and getting drunk, and also some lame sexual come-ons; an irredeemably ugly instrumental; and they even got Nelly for the remix, because even country music can admit that you can't have a hit nowadays without a rap verse.
Meanwhile, Lil Nas X, real name Montero Lamar Hill, has defended the song as legitimate. As he explained in an interview with Time , "Old Town Road" came together after Hill quit school to focus on music. Faced with the disappointment of his parents, he wrote the song in defiance, using the road as a metaphor for the path to success. If there's anything more "country" than trucks and drinking, it's being down and out and feeling you've got nowhere to turn.
Lil Nas X isn't even the first to attempt to fuse country and hip-hop. He freely admits to being inspired by Young Thug, the chimerical Atlanta rapper who fused country and trap on his 2017 album Beautiful Thugger Girls. I still remember the memes from when it dropped, where skeptical hip-hop fans were suddenly turned into cowpokes the moment Thug says "Yeehaw!" on "Family Don't Matter." And Thugger isn't the only rapper to see the appeal of the country: Kanye West may not have released a country record, but he did record and hold a release party for his 2018 album Ye in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
Hill doesn't believe himself that there was any racism or bad blood involved in the decision to pull the song. He told Time, "Whenever you’re trying something new, it’s always going to get some kind of bad reception." But he's also adamant that his unlikely hybrid song should not be excluded from either chart, country or hip-hop. "The song is country trap. It’s not one, it’s not the other. It’s both. It should be on both."
At least one person from the country establishment has come to Hill's defense: Billy Ray Cyrus, who features on the newly released remix. This might sound weird until you remember that Hill's demographic knows Cyrus — who was in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive, so he's clearly no stranger to undefinable artistry — as Hannah Montana's dad, which makes it a very smart business move. Cyrus referenced the song in an Instagram post: "Don't try and think inside the box. Don't think outside the box. Think like there is no box. #HorsesInTheBack"
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This is the essence of the matter: According to the country establishment, black people are welcome to make profitable guest appearances on songs by white artists, but when they're making the music, when they're the ones in full control, it's suddenly not country. If all it takes for a song to be a hit is a few lines about drinkin' beers and cruisin' down the road in a truck, it doesn't make your genre look good. It makes you look comfortable with mediocrity and stupidity. It makes you look like you think your audience can't take a little color in their music.
It also raises another question: Who does "country" belong to? Many would say that the aesthetics and sounds of this culture are "the real America" and that the legacy of the settling of the American West — the tales of cowboys and Indians, outlaws and riders on the wide-open plains that form so much of our cultural lineage — forms the primary stock of our national myth. But too often, rather than include the rest of us in that legacy, these people use it as a cudgel of superiority to beat minorities over the head with. Obviously, these people are almost always white and Christian.
Who does this culture belong to? Who does America belong to? I can think of at least one non-country artist who has been asking these questions lately: Mitski, the Japanese-American singer-songwriter whose last two albums have illustrated her struggle to feel accepted in America. Her last album is called Be the Cowboy, and at least one interpretation of that title presents it as a metaphor for the unreachable standard nonwhites must reach in America. For the record, there have been plenty of notable black cowboys, both actual — U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves inspired The Lone Ranger, and there are museums in Denver and Rosenberg, Texas, dedicated to black people settling the West — and fictional (like Sheriff Bart in Blazing Saddles and Lenny from Red Dead Redemption 2). But for the most part, the cowboys in our national myth have been white, and the industry selling that myth back to us has been keeping it that way, all the way up to this latest disgrace.
Who does America belong to? Who gets to be the cowboy? We all know what the answer should be.