Why I Don't Hate "Old Town Road"
Lil Nas X captures our pop cultural moment.
I'm 43 years old, and I don't hate "Old Town Road." Repeatedly, I have been told by people my age, and just a little younger, that I am supposed to hate "Old Town Road." Why? Some cite how it combines genres that they assume don't belong together, country and hip hop, or because the song is overly repetitive and meaningless. Some cite the fact that the song features the oft-derided, and rightfully demeaned, Billy Ray Cyrus as a reason the song should be dismissed out of hand.
And yet, here I am, ready to write a full length defense of the song. Not that a song that has ranked number one on the billboard singles charts for twelve weeks (at this writing), defeating two Taylor Swift singles in the process, needs much defending. Nevertheless, I have let this go for months, while allowing friends and colleagues to demean the song while I avoided listening to it on the assumption that I would hate it, or perhaps not understand it.
Something strange made me give Old Town Road a chance. I was listening to The Beatles after seeing the new movie Yesterday, and I was thinking about what makes a song last for over 50 years the way so many Beatles songs have. It made me wonder what modern music sounds like today. So. I checked the Billboard charts and I was reminded that "Old Town Road" was still the number one song in America. I gave it a chance, and I was struck by just how the song, and especially the video from visionary director Calmatic, captures our pop cultural moment.
What does it mean to 'capture a cultural moment?' Rather, what do I mean when I say that "Old Town Road" captures a cultural moment? It means, that in less than five minutes, in the so-called 'Official Movie' of "Old Town Road," Lil Nas X, Billy Ray Cyrus and Calmatic have created a singularity of the attitude and aesthetic of the particular time in which our culture exists.
From the inspiration, to the disruption of the norm, the blasting away of the fourth wall, to the unique sense of humor and style, "Old Town Road" is original, and yet a product of a million different influences. These are influences that could only exist right now via the kind of cultural osmosis that happens maybe once or twice in a generation.
It is said that Lil Nas X was inspired to create "Old Town Road" after playing the popular video game Red Dead Redemption, a video game that has almost singlehandedly given new, and wholly different life to the western genre. I've never played the game, but witnessing the fervor over the game when it was released was quite a trip. That game itself has unique origins as it was, in part, inspired by HBO's Deadwood, a series also credited with reinvigorating the western in a temporary fashion.
These are bizarre influences that one would never assume would inspire hip hop, and yet here we are. And yet, none of the gruff, rough and tumble aesthetic of either Deadwood or Red Dead Redemption are anywhere close to the song or video for "Old Town Road." The only visual link are horses and guns in holsters. The attitude of the song is pure camp revisionism of the gaudy, country, and western music aesthetic of the 70s and 80s with the outfits covered in fringe and embroidery. It could not be further from its supposed inspirations, and yet here it is.
The most striking lyric in all of "Old Town Road" is the line "Can't nobody tell me nothing." This is the song's thesis statement. Lil Nas X is telling the world, on behalf of most of his generation, you can't tell me what to do, how to live, or how to exist. The line is delivered with this wonderfully rye smile on his face.
And what can't nobody tell Lil Nas X? First, you can't tell this young black man that he can't be a cowboy. Our culture has generally looked sideways at the idea of black cowboys. Think about, who is the most famous black cowboy? Laurence Fishburne's Cowboy Curtis? Cowboy Curtis, himself a one note ironic joke, make my point strange but true. The box of the pop culture cowboy is one that is purely white. A young black man in a cowboy aesthetic is subversion in appearance alone.
The video takes this a huge step further however by having not white people looking oddly back at Lil Nas X, confused by his appearance and aesthetic, but black people in a black neighborhood. The stunned shock on the faces of those who encounter Lil Nas X's country line dancing, and horse riding is a mixture of confusion and wonder. These witnesses can't decide if they are put off or impressed; they're dumbfounded and yet strangely accepting.
Nothing better encapsulates our culture-wide reaction to "Old Town Road" better than this moment in the music video-official movie. Lil Nas X is in 1889 when he finds himself being shot at by a rancher. He dives into a mine shaft that becomes a portal for time travel to 2019. Here, Lil Nas X encounters a black neighborhood, and the reaction I detailed earlier: confusion, discord, and then a slow turn toward tolerance, and finally acceptance.
The official movie for "Old Town Road" arrived about three weeks into the song's run at the top of the charts, and that leads me to believe that the director, known only as Calmatic, was fully aware of the cultural reaction and debate over the song. That moment is followed by a shift in location to a specifically white and elderly space, which leads me further to believe that this video is not any kind of accident, but a deliberate adaptation of our cultural conversation, it began in the hip hop community, and then bled into what people like me, at my age, assume is the mainstream.
Much like how Lil Nas X lyrically dismisses your concerns for how he expresses himself aesthetically and otherwise, the video rejects the negative reactions to the song, and openly mocks the traditionalists, the scolds, and the cultural gatekeepers on all sides of the racial divide with a big bright smile, and a surreal sense of humor.
The humor of "Old Town Road," the official movie anyway, has a strong influence, intentional or otherwise, in the work of surrealists, Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim. Their Tim and Eric's Awesome Show Great Job was a late night comedy staple for a cult audience that specialized in the kind oddball, deadpan, weird for the sake of weird, that appears in "Old Town Road's" Official Movie in the form of the line dancing of the dead, weird country music inspired prom photos with elderly white women, and Chris Rock's non-sequitur reference to Nascar.
Billy Ray Cyrus himself is an example of surreal meta-humor in human form. A cultural walking punchline, Cyrus finds himself earnestly embraced by Lil Nas X, Calmatic and "Old Town Road." And yet, he remains hilariously anachronistic at the same time. He's still the "Achy Breaky Heart" guy, and Miley's dad, and a weird bit of pop culture product placement, i.e as an artifact or product of another era.
Just as Lil Nas X is assumed to be a flash in the pan, a culture-wide fad in human form, Cyrus was the exact same thing in the early 1990s. After "Achy Breaky Heart" debuted, Billy Ray Cyrus was everywhere, a major star whose greatest fame came and went in a flash. Cyrus was a one hit wonder, and everyone assumes that Lil Nas X will be as well. That Cyrus's involvement in the song was almost accidental, it came together over twitter, is like some kind of pop cultural flashpoint, a period where the future of popular music could have taken an entirely less entertaining and fascinating turn.
Just when you think that Gen-Z has become unable to use sarcasm and irony, along comes "Old Town Road" with a hybrid of sincere appreciation for a strange aesthetic, country, and western, and a shit-eating, gold tooth capped grin that invites you to laugh with it. I came away from "Old Town Road" The Official Movie believing that Lil Nas X genuinely enjoys this cowboy stuff, and yet subtly mocks it at the same time. That is a pop cultural trick that only perhaps Andy Warhol has ever pulled off before.
That's not to say that Lil Nas X is Andy Warhol, but perhaps he and Calmatic together make for one modern, Warholian mythos. It's as if together, artist and director, have managed to define a generation. This is a generation that desperately seeks to break down the barriers between the races, and embrace new and different influences, taking those influences, and conflating them into something new, a culture that belongs to them. A culture wherein a young black man is accepted while dressed as a cowboy, or as Conway Twitty on some long ago variety show.
It's a culture wherein a director and star can find influences in video games like Red Dead Redemption, comedy a la Chris Rock, and Tim & Eric, hip hop of the most modern brand, and country music of the old school, banjo-plucking variety. And it created a star out of a young man who grew up on the internet, and in the internet music culture that is fully integrated, Democratized, and united by a distinct lack of boundaries for what can be popular or considered good.
Perhaps the song "Old Town Road," on its own, is not all that special. But the song, and Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus, and this official movie all together create something that is wholly original and unique. The official movie captures the cultural conversation around "Old Town Road" and owns that conversation, takes it over and reframes it as a taunt, and an a statement of purpose for a generation that has finally found its form of unique rebellion.