'Old Town Road' broke the Billboard record because it's nearly perfect for 2019

One thing about the song that gets overlooked in its hype is just how fun it is. Watching Lil Nas X enjoy his sudden fame has a similar quality.
Image: Lil Nas X performs at the CMA Music Festival in Nashville on June 8, 2019.
Lil Nas X performs at the CMA Music Festival in Nashville on June 8, 2019.imageSPACE / Sipa USA via AP file
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By Maura Johnston

This week, the Billboard charts' record books got their horses in the back: Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road," a slip of a track that went from TikTok sensation to country-radio controversy to Song of the Summer — upending notions of genre along the way — remained at No. 1 on the Hot 100 singles chart for the 17th straight week. That broke a record set by the Mariah Carey/Boyz II Men sing-off "One Sweet Day," which hit the 16-week mark at No. 1 in 1996; that was then tied by a Justin Bieber-assisted remix of Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee's sinewy "Despacito" in the summer of 2017.

The story of "Road" has a lot of elements that make it, if not a perfect song for our moment, at least one that ticks off a lot of 2019-appropriate boxes. Lil Nas X — born Montero Lamar Hill in 1999 — bought its beat (crafted by the Dutch producer YoungKio and sampling a track by industrial titans Nine Inch Nails) off the online marketplace BeatStars and released the finished track last December. It quickly gained popularity on the video-sharing service TikTok, where users upload brief clips of themselves set to music, as the soundtrack for the "YeeHaw Challenge," a celebration of the Stetsons-and-spurs aesthetic coming back into vogue.

"Road" debuted on the Hot 100 thanks in part to those videos — although the controversy over one of its other chart placements would help propel its ascent to, and stay at, the top.

In March, "Road," which had garnered enough broad interest that radio programmers were scrambling to place it in rotation, was on three of the Billboard charts: the all-genre Hot 100, Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs and Hot Country Songs. All three of those charts incorporate streaming, sales and radio-airplay data — but "Road" was eventually deemed to be not "country" enough and excised from that genre's chart in April.

That caused heated discussions over what made a song "country," the conservative nature of country radio playlists (which had already been stoked in 2015 when a radio consultant openly admitted that country stations were told never to play two songs by women back-to-back, a controversy known as "tomato-gate") and America's racial issues.

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"Road" hit No. 1 on the Hot 100 in the midst of all those discussions — and the ever-savvy Billy Ray Cyrus forced the resolution of the "is it country?" debate in the song's favor when he hopped on a remix of the track.

Since then, "Road" has proven to be endlessly malleable — a crucial trait in the streaming era, with its constant churn of new music for sampling. Its video, which came out in May, wrangled Chris Rock into the song's universe; the culture-vulture DJ Diplo, who also appeared in the clip, remixed the track; a remix featuring fashion-forward Atlanta MC Young Thug and "Walmart yodeler" Mason Ramsey came out in mid-July; and another remix, featuring RM ("Rap Monster") from the K-pop sensations BTS, was released at the end of the month.

Lil Nas X has said that mix, called "Seoul Town Road," will be the song's last, although Dolly Parton's response to his wish that the country legend appear on a remix might result in another version. It's been covered by musicians across pop's spectrum — New Wave pioneers Blondie, Aussie country star Keith Urban and Cyrus' daughter Miley are just a few who have taken it on.

In its 17 weeks at the top, "Road" has held off plenty of big-name contenders. In its first week, it hip-checked Ariana Grande's material-girl "My Favorite Things" flip "7 Rings" out of the top spot; in the weeks that followed, the pop bridesmaid role was played by Taylor Swift's brassy "ME!" and synthy "You Need to Calm Down," Shawn Mendes' bubbly "If I Can't Have You," Ed Sheeran and Bieber's antisocial bop "I Don't Care," Mendes' steamy duet with Camila Cabello "Senorita," and Billie Eilish's sinister "Bad Guy."

The latter got a Bieber-fied remix in July that seemed more designed for chart inflation than anything else — Eilish's weirdo aesthetic flips the teenpop script in ways that make the 25-year-old Bieber seem practically ancient — but "Road" didn't budge from the top.

One thing about "Road" that gets overlooked in its hype is how fun it is — an element that has been perhaps unsurprisingly lacking in pop as the 2010s have waned. Singing along with it in a car — hey, they have horsepower — is a delight; hearing it in public makes you notice others' tapping toes.

In May, Lil Nas X’s visit to an Ohio elementary school showed just how popular "Old Town Road" was with kids: When he walks onto the auditorium's stage, the reaction is Beatlemania-level, and it grows into a bouncing-off-the-walls frenzy when the kids, some toting cowboy hats, scream the song along with him. (It actually reminded me of the reaction to a recent show by Eilish, right down to the star-emulating outfits.)

Similarly, Lil Nas X is a pretty great pop personality. From his winking tweets to his matter-of-fact coming out at the end of Pride Month, he's possessed an incredulous yet appreciative air about his fame, with his graceful response to Mariah Carey's shoutout of her record falling an indicator of his charm.

Regardless of his charisma, whether Lil Nas X will eventually be a one-hit wonder is still up in the air. In June, he released "7," an eight-track EP meant to show audiences the wider spectrum of his talents. Two of its tracks are versions of "Old Town Road" — the Cyrus remix opens the album, and the original closes it — while "Rodeo" has a similarly windswept feel and a cameo from 2017's viral sensation turned pop star, Cardi B.

In the run-up to "7" coming out, Lil Nas X hyped "Panini," a gloomy rebuke of his pre-"Road" fanbase that has trap snares, mashed keyboards and a chorus that inadvertently echoes Nirvana's similarly world-weary "Nevermind" track "In Bloom." (Lil Nas X actually hadn't heard the alternative-era-defining album until people pointed out the parallels between his track and Nirvana's — "I'd always seen the cover [of 'Nevermind'], but I never actually listened to it," he told Beats 1's Zane Lowe in June.) That track is at No. 28 and rising on the current Hot 100; it peaked at No. 16 a few weeks ago.

But there is some history that suggests that even the most frothy summer hit can propel a band beyond one-hit wonder territory. Ten years ago, the hip-pop supergroup Black Eyed Peas owned the summer with two confection-like tracks: the taut "Boom Boom Pow" was No. 1 for 12 weeks from April to July, and the celebratory "I Gotta Feeling" took its place, holding down the top spot for 14 weeks. Whether "Panini" will surge and take the place of "Road" remains to be seen, but Lil Nas X's genre-melding and endless tinkering are surely a sign of the experiments that'll dominate pop in years to come.