Lil Nas X's breakout smash "Old Town Road" was recently yanked from Billboard's country charts, despite the songs massive success, owing to the song's alleged failure to sufficiently embrace the genre defining elements of country music. Consequently, this raises the question: who gets to define what a genre sounds like?
Guest post by James Shotwell of Haulix
Viral sensation Lil Nas X has been removed from Billboard’s country charts for not embracing enough elements of country music, which raises questions about we define the genre.
No one saw Lil Nas X coming. The Atlanta artist released his breakout smash, “Old Town Road,” to Soundcloud on December 2, 2018. The song quickly found a following, and not long after became a go-to track for videos posted to the popular mashup app TikTok, which in turn grew its popularity. The song took off so fast, in fact, that radio programmers across the country had to rip the song from YouTube in order to get in rotation at their station.
Recently, the saga of the song’s bizarre rise through the world of music reached new heights when it simultaneously debuted on three Billboard charts — the cross-genre Hot 100 chart, the Hot Country Songs chart, and the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart.
Lil Nas X’s career on the country chart, however, did not last long. Rolling Stone reports that Billboard quietly removed “Old Town Road” from Hot Country Songs and informed Lil Nas X’s label, Columbia Records, that his inclusion on the ranking was a mistake, according to an insider with knowledge of the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Billboard did not publicly announce the change, but speaking to RS, a representative for the company said:
“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.”
After the publication of that story, a representative for Billboard provided a subsequent statement indicating that race did not play a part in the decision to remove “Old Town Road” from the country chart.
Not everyone believes Billboard’s comments about race not playing a role in their decision. The music business relies heavily on old-fashioned definitions of genre, which have always mapped on race — Billboard’s R&B chart, for example, was originally titled “race music,” while the Latin songs chart lumps together a myriad of genres and languages under one ethnic umbrella.
In recent years many caucasian country stars have leveraged elements of hip-hop to push their genre forward without being excluded from the charts. Sam Hunt, for example, was hailed by Billboard as the ‘white Drake’ back in 2017. Florida Georgia Line, another popular country act, went platinum with a single featuring Nelly. Tim McGaw did the same way back in 2004 with “Over and Over Again.” It seems that as long as a white musician is involved, Billboard has no problem with hip-hop influenced country music.
There’s also a question of how we define country music in the streaming era. Many songs gain popularity through services such as Spotify and Apple Music before radio or other mainstream outlets give them attention. If the country audience is vocal about their support of an artist, does that not make them — at least in some way — a country artist? If the country music audience supports Lil Nas X, who is undeniably using banjos and guitars and other traditional genre elements in his music, shouldn’t that be enough to classify him as a country artist?