As Lil Nas X's Old Town Road becomes all-time longest-running Billboard No 1, a look at how it got there
File it under things you never imagined would happen. A seemingly obscure country-trap track by a relatively unknown rapper has just broken the record for the longest-running No.1 of all-time on the Billboard charts. “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X has now spent 17 weeks at the summit of the Hot 100, the all-genre ranking that’s widely considered the gold-standard when it comes to gauging a song’s popularity in the US.
“Old Town Road”, it should be said, is a global phenomenon and has topped the charts in over a dozen countries. (In India, the tune peaked at No.2 on Spotify’s weekly Top 200.) In a way, it’s fitting that Lil Nas X, whose real name is Montero Lamar Hill, has rewritten the pages of history in Billboard, the American industry bible that deemed “Old Town Road” ineligible for its country music chart because “it does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music”, a decision that drew allegations of racism. Lil Nas X responded by getting Billy Ray Cyrus, best known for his 1992 smash “Achy Breaky Heart” (and for being Miley Cyrus’ dad), to duet with him on a remix.
This reworked version, and its accompanying music video, helped “Old Town Road” break US streaming records and keep the song in the top spot, as did subsequent remixes featuring electronic music producer Diplo; rapper Young Thug and child yodeling star Mason Ramsey; and now in a bid for week 18, K-Pop band BTS’ RM (on the punnily titled “Seoul Town Road”). But the track shot to No.1 in its original avatar, and was propelled there by a series of “Yeehaw Challenge” clips on video sharing platform TikTok.
Over the last three months, it has fended off multiple challenges to its No.1 status from such pop superstars as Ed Sheeran, Shawn Mendes and Taylor Swift as well as current It-Girl Billie Eilish who couldn’t knock him down, even after enlisting Justin Bieber for a remix of her earworm “Bad Guy”. Bieber was fighting to defend his own record. Until last week, with 16 weeks each, the remix of Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito”, on which he guested, was locked in a three-way tie with “Old Town Road” and “One Sweet Day”, the 1995 duet by Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men.
The story of “Old Town Road” offers several insights into the state of pop music in 2019 and the unpredictably of what it takes to score a hit these days. It represents the importance of social media, of memes, of genre blending and of collaborations in breaking the clutter in an overcrowded market. Spotify, for instance, claims that over 30,000 songs are uploaded on to the service every day.
It’s also a tale of triumph in the most unlikely circumstances. Lil Nas X wrote “Old Town Road” when he was broke, living with his sister, and struggling to make it as musician. He was looking for inspiration on the internet when he stumbled upon a beat by a Dutch teenager known as YoungKio, which incorporated a sample of the track “34 Ghosts IV” by alternative rock veterans Nine Inch Nails, and bought it for US$30. The rest as they say, is history.
On the last day of June, which marked the end of Pride Month, Lil Nas X came out, which only resulted in making his newfound name — there are few openly gay artists in hip-hop — seem more atypical than it already was. The Atlanta native, who turned 20 in April, a week after “Old Town Road” reached No.1, knows that he might not be able to repeat its success. His debut album 7, which peaked at No.2, has not generated another top-10 hit. Already, there is speculation that it won’t be too long before another track surpasses “Old Town Road”. After all, “Despacito” held the record for less than two years. “One Sweet Day” had it for 22.
People have dismissed Lil Nas X as a one-hit-wonder and “Old Town Road” as a novelty tune that will soon be forgotten. I too have wondered whether it’s truly deserving of the place it now holds in the record books. It may not be as timeless as songs that reigned for far fewer weeks, but it’s undoubtedly a song of our times. Will future generations know “Old Town Road”? Maybe not. But just like that 14-week No.1 from 1996, “Macarena”, this generation will remember it as a moment in time for many years to come.
Amit Gurbaxani is a Mumbai-based journalist who has been writing about music, specifically the country's independent scene, for nearly two decades. He tweets @TheGroovebox
Updated Date: Jul 31, 2019 10:18:35 IST