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Billboard, the Streisand Effect, Race, and the Other Ingredients of “Old Town Road’s” Record-Breaking Success

Lil Nas X's landmark achievement reflects how much - and how little - the pop music industry has changed.

They say records are made to be broken. But some are significant enough to require introspection even at the prospect of breaking them, examining our current cultural moment and the forces that allowed it to happen. The Billboard Hot 100 record of most weeks at number-one, held by Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s “One Sweet Day” for 22 years before Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee and Justin Bieber matched it with the remix to “Despacito”, is one such occasion. This week, rapper Lil Nas X logged a seventeenth week atop the charts with his country-trap smash “Old Town Road”. It’s a fascinating story: a rapper who was unknown twelve months ago breaks a two decade-old record that’s been out-of-reach for even the biggest of artists. How did it happen? Is it a fluke, or does signal an official paradigm shift in how music is deemed popular?

Or, is it both?

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The initial success of “Old Town Road” might be the greatest case of the Streisand effect not involving Barbra Streisand. The Streisand here was Billboard, the music industry bible and compiler of the U.S. music charts. In April, Billboard was dealt a dilemma that really wasn’t: a little ditty by a largely unknown young rapper that blended trap beats with traditional country guitar strings was pulling huge streaming numbers and impacting the country charts. Genre crossover hits are notable, but not uncommon: George Michael scored a #1 R&B single with 1989’s “One More Try” back when it was known as the Black Singles Chart (the name was officially changed in October of 1990), even though it was decidedly a pop song. Billboard didn’t extend that level of courtesy to Lil Nas X’s increasingly popular song; they announced that “Old Town Road” would be ineligible to appear on the Hot Country Songs chart, because of its heavy hip-hop influences. The backlash was swift across the board, raising the accusation that Billboard’s decision was at best narrow-minded and at worst racist. The wholly avoidable controversy only drew attention to the song, which had all the elements of an inescapable ear-worm: catchy, bouncy, a bit silly, and short enough to easily stream on repeat. Apart from that, “Old Town Road” came to represent a rejection of the institutional racism, hypocrisy and waning relevance of a music industry still grappling with how the digital revolution wrestled their power away. What might’ve been some streams on a Spotify playlist before became a clarion call, or a middle finger.

Billboard’s overreaction turned “Old Town Road” from a molehill into a mountain. With all of this attention, the song was bound to reach number-one eventually on its own. But everything changed when Lil Nas X announced that country singer Billy Ray Cyrus, famous for his own crossover smash “Achy Breaky Heart”, would feature on the remix in a show of inter-genre and generational solidarity. The surprise collaboration had all the trappings of a meme-culture touchstone: a hyper-viral smash song supported by a 90’s one-hit wonder (and Miley Cyrus’ dad). It was a wild-looking pairing but, as you could see during their first performance of the song at the BET Awards last month, it was crazy enough to work (plus, the irony of Billy Ray attaining the kind of Black acceptance that Miley desperately chased with half of the effort is delicious). Also, unlikely other shameless pop remixes, Cyrus’ Grizzly Adams-esque contribution actually added to the song’s likability. The week following the remix’s release, “Old Town Road” vaulted from #15 to the top, giving both Lil Nas X and Cyrus their first number-one singles.

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Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus performing “Old Town Road” at the 2019 BET Awards

Were “Old Town Road” just an oddball novelty, it probably would’ve topped out at 10 weeks. Lil Nas X’s longevity is a bit more complicated than that. I wrote last month, when “Old Town Road’s” challenge of the 16-week record was still nascent, that several songs by huge artists had attempted and failed to stake claims at Billboard’s summit. That number has only increased: Taylor Swift settled for second place again with her barebones political statement “You Need to Calm Down”, as did Shawn Mendes, who tapped Camila Cabello for the ostensibly steamy duet “Señorita” (complete with an are-they-aren’t-they romance), while Billie Eillish’s attempt at her own “Despacito” boost for “Bad Guy” with the Bieber-assisted remix fell short. Other efforts – Drake and Chris Brown’s “No Guidance”, Khalid’s “Talk”, and Post Malone’s “Goodbyes” – fell even shorter. We can debate the quality or artistic integrity of these songs for hours, but none had the blockbuster quality required to dislodge a multi-week number-one, as Celine Dion’s “Because You Loved Me” did to “One Sweet Day”, or Taylor Swift’s “Look What You Made Do” did to “Despacito”, nor could they match the broad-spectrum likability of “Old Town Road”. Within two particularly unremarkable pop music seasons, no one stood a chance of dethroning Lil Nas X. A couple weeks out from the tying of the 16-week record and no real challenger in sight, the question became not if Lil Nas X would break it, but how far he would extend it.

That’s not to say that Lil Nas X was a passive participant. The rapper has been an exuberant, affable promotional machine, using his rapidly-growing social media presence to jokingly tease remixes and encourage fans to stream the remixes he did release. Those remixes, with collaborators that range from Diplo to RM of BTS, could’ve been irksome and seen as chart rigging, but it’s hard to ding Lil Nas X for his spirited hustle and drive, and the tongue-in-cheek irreverence he possessed throughout his chart-busting journey. He treated his coming out as gay at the end of Pride Month – which added even greater significance to his impending chart feat – with a resounding “duh”. His lack of pop star polish, gleefully on display during a viral BBC interview, made him endearing and oh-so-easy to meme. His personality is so infectious that Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigeig tried to get in on the action (and was reportedly rejected). Lil Nas X could be the first complete, native star of this era in pop music, a social-first persona who’s crossed over into the mainstream in the biggest way possible.

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Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men performing “One Sweet Day” at the 1996 Grammy Awards

Despite the overwhelming power of streaming, social media and the other digital factors dictating the music industry, the anatomy of a record-setting number-one has changed little in the last two decades. Consider “One Sweet Day”: it was a juggernaut collaboration between two incredibly well-liked artists, with maximum mainstream appeal – adult contemporary and R&B were as potent a combination in 1995 as trap and country appear to be today – that no other song could match until the next calendar year. Although their starts were different, “Old Town Road” is, in a way, a spiritual successor to the song whose record it snatched, or it at least establishes a pattern of perfect circumstances for other songs to follow.

Now that the record has been broken, it will be interesting to see what the coming months will bring. What does this record mean in terms of real career longevity? “Despacito” hasn’t exactly elevated Luis Fonsi to sustained U.S. chart success (how important that is in an increasing global music landscape is another debate for another piece), and “One Sweet Day” isn’t even Mariah Carey’s biggest chart hit (that honor belongs to her 14-week number-one “We Belong Together”). It’s entirely possible that “Old Town Road” becomes both the most successful, and most forgotten, song of all time, or Lil Nas X could leverage this moment into a full-blown career. How it nets out will depend on how far he can break from the mold, transcending the limitations of this historic record and the music industry it ultimately reflects. In the meantime, it’s worth celebrating the unlikelihood of a young black gay rapper, with an assist from a middle-aged white country singer, having the most popular song in the country for 17 weeks in a row, most certainly longer. Whatever the journey, it’s a remarkable feat.

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