The Transcendent, Inspirational, Irresistible Stupidity of Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus' "Old Town Road"
Like many music fans, I love all kinds of music, from free jazz to pornogrind, but I have a particular fondness for Hip Hop and Country. And while I self-identify as a secular Jew and Juggalo, my true Church, my real religion, is of course, pop music. I worship devoutly at the Altar of the Inescapable Summer Song. I am a devout acolyte of the Holy Temple of Top 40 Radio.
Yet for some reason I did not hear Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus’ record-breaking smash “Old Town Road” until it was already an inescapable pop culture phenomenon. Sometimes it takes me forever to get to a movie or TV show or podcast because it doesn’t seem at all like the kind of thing I would enjoy and I sometimes, paradoxically, put off experiencing some buzzed-about bit of pop culture because it matches my obsessions so neatly that it almost feels like it was made specifically for me, and I want to wait for the perfect context to take the plunge. The world being what it is, that perfect context has understandably not yet arrived.
Consequently I still haven’t seen Sorry To Bother You despite the rapturous praise it received and Boots Riley, its writer-director, being one of my all-time favorite musicians, songwriters and storytellers thanks to his main gig as the frontman for essential Bay Area Marxist rap group The Coup. One of my all-time favorite periods in film is the spooky, fantastical 1980s suburbia of Steven Spielberg, Joe Dante and Robert Zemeckis yet I’ve never seen an episode of Stranger Things.
But you can only put off being exposed to “Old Town Road”, one of the most popular songs in the history of American music, for so long and eventually I heard the unlikely anthem and it was everything I hoped it would be and more. It was catchy, it was insanely infectious, a true earworm, it was cheesy and it was incredibly stupid.
When I say that “Old Town Road” is incredibly stupid and cheesy I mean it as high praise. “Old Town Road” isn’t just stupid; it’s iconically, transcendently, unforgettably and irresistibly stupid, on par with such previous exemplars of transcendently idiotic pop songcraft as LFO’s “Summer Girls” and Shaggy’s “It Wasn’t Me.”
“Old Town Road” is everything. It’s black. It’s white. It’s country. It’s urban. It’s rap, sort of, and country, sort of, and one hundred percent American pop. It’s the lament of a world-weary cowboy talk-rap-sung by a baby-faced twenty year old black rapper in sparkly cowboy suits without a shit who looks and, for good measure, sounds a good five years younger than his age.
As a queer black rapper barely out of his teens with a fashion aesthetic that can be described as “barely legal male stripper working a midnight cowboy routine” Lil Nas X comes to country music from a unique and fascinating perspective. One of the many remarkable things about “Old Town Road” is how little it actually sounds like a country song despite the hilariously over-the-top preponderance of cornball country-western imagery and iconography: cowboy boots and hats, horses, old town roads, tractors, rodeos, an unfaithful, lonesome cowboy pondering his existential destiny.
Lil Nas X’s conception of country music and country living is decidedly heavy on fashion; it’s the clothes that make the man here and Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus are only slightly less brand name-conscious/obsessed than American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman. Gucci, Wrangler, Porsche, Maserati, Marlboro, Rodeo Drive and Fendi are all lovingly referenced by either Cyrus or X, two men who both seem like they could start taking off their clothes at any moment.
Lil Nas X is pretty much a kid himself so perhaps it’s not surprising that “Old Town Road” sounds like it was made for children like my four year old son, who is in love with it because in part it contains “naughty words” like “booty” and “boobies” and is perhaps the single catchiest song ever written.
The various remixes of “Old Town Road” featuring of course Cyrus and later Young Thug, Lil Wayne, RM of Korean pop sensations BTS and yodeling 12 year old Mason Ramsay make our culture seem more united, chill, and culturally evolved than it actually is.
“Old Town Road” is so inclusive, in the sense that seemingly anyone can hop onboard a remix without embarrassing themselves that when it was announced that Lil Nas X had rejected Pete Buttigieg’s proposal to collaborate on a live version of “Old Town Road” at a Buzzfeed live event the pairing almost made sense.
Honestly, I can imagine anyone excelling on an “Old Town Road” remix: Jerry Springer and Bobby McFerrin. John Mayer and Darius Rucker. Sir Mix-A-Lot, Big Daddy Kane and Billie Eilish. The Indigo Girls and Snoop Dogg. The Guy From the Police Academy Movies Who Makes Funny Noises With His Mouth and Justin Timberlake.
Alas, “Old Town Road” is deceptive in its portrait of an America where black and white, country and urban, young and old, can all come together for the life-affirming joy of the Perfect Pop Song. It doesn’t portray our country as it is but how we desperately want it to be.
In ugly, divisive, toxic times it’s a song of unexpected anthem of cross-cultural, cross-racial unity. Obviously I would prefer to introduce my son to country through, I dunno, Johnny Cash’s Live at Folsom Prison or Willie Nelson’s Greatest Hits and Hip Hop through De La Soul’s Three Feet High and Rising or A Tribe Called Quest’s Low End Theory but I’m excited that Declan loves a song that’s country and hip hop and pop in the most accessible, inclusive and infectious manner imaginable. We may still be hopelessly racially segregated in so many ways but for the last few months the number one spot of the Top 200 has been a joyously and unexpectedly integrated space.
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