“Old Town Road” Will Never Die, But You Will
There’s an outdoor pool up the street from my house, and the swim teachers there are pleasantly leathery middle-aged guys who like to play Eagles and Bob Seger songs on weekend afternoons. This weekend, though, “The Weight” faded out, and some familiar spindly guitar notes came in. The boy sitting near me — blonde, cornfed, maybe 12 — suddenly jerked his head up. About 100 yards away, some of his friends were playing volleyball. He ran over to yell to them: “Guys! Guys! ‘Old Town Road’!” He was right. He was hearing the opening notes of the Lil Nas X/Billy Ray Cyrus song that has ruthlessly ruled the pop charts these past few months. And hearing “Old Town Road” at the pool was an event. Those kids immediately dropped their volleyball and stampeded over. I watched a dozen middle-schoolers absolutely lose their shit at the prospect of hearing a song that they’ve probably all heard hundreds of times. It was breathtaking.
My kids were changing in the locker rooms, but they would’ve lost their shit, too. “Old Town Road” is inescapable in my house. My kids are constantly humming it to themselves, under their breaths, like a mantra. My six-year-old will shout random lines from “Old Town Road” whenever he gets excited: “Maserati sports car!” (He’s convinced that the one line of the song goes: “My life is a movie, your life is a boobie.” I will never correct him.) Lately, my kids have discovered a whole new genre of music: “Old Town Road” parodies on YouTube, sung from the perspectives of various Avengers: Endgame characters. They will watch these videos over and over again, and they’re now singing those lines under their breaths.
“Old Town Road” is this year’s unstoppable pop juggernaut, and it’s about as unlikely as an unstoppable pop juggernaut can be. A Dutch teenager samples a decade-old Nine Inch Nails instrumental and sells the beat online. An Atlanta teenager spends $30 on that beat and makes a goofy two-minute cowboy-rap song out of it. The Atlanta teenager relentlessly pushes the song online — something he turns out to be extremely good at — and succeeds in getting other teenagers to make memes out of it. As the song’s streams grow, the Billboard country chart briefly places the song, then removes it a week later. This becomes a news story. A faded 57-year-old pop-country star sings about Fendi sports bras on the remix. This becomes a news story, too. The song hits #1 on the Hot 100 on the day that the Atlanta teenager turns 20. And months later, the song is still #1.
Yesterday, Billboard unveiled this week’s Hot 100. Once again, “Old Town Road” was #1. “Old Town Road” has been #1 for 11 weeks in a row now. The last time a debut single was #1 for this long, it was 1996, and the single in question was Los Del Rio’s “Macarena (Bayside Boys Remix).” That song — the 1996 version of a viral craze — was #1 for 14 weeks. Because of “Macarena,” the following songs never got to #1: Keith Sweat’s “Twisted,” Quad City DJ’s’ “C’Mon And Ride It (The Train),” Céline Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now.” Donna Lewis’ incandescent “I Love You Always Forever” was the #2 song in America for nine weeks in a row, and it never got to #1. (Billie Eilish’s similarly great “Bad Guy,” which has been #2 for the past few weeks, sadly seems fated to become 2019’s “I Love You Always Forever.”) So “Macarena” did business. And yet Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus’ achievement is somehow more impressive.
Pop titans keep trying to dethrone “Old Town Road,” and they keep dying. Shawn Mendes came back with “If I Can’t Have You.” He only got to #2. Taylor Swift returned with the extremely hyped-up “ME!,” and that peaked at #2, too. (It’s the first time this decade that the lead single from a Taylor Swift album hasn’t debuted at #1. A former country star lost out to a current “country” star.) Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber, two of the biggest pop stars in the world, teamed up on “I Don’t Care,” and that, like “ME!,” seemed like a pop event. Another #2. Billie Eilish isn’t a pop deity like Mendes or Swift or Sheeran or Bieber, but she’s riding the same kind of gen-Z internet groundswell that powered “Old Town Road.” And she probably won’t overcome “Old Town Road,” either. I was slightly worried that old adversaries Chris Brown and Drake — both of whom have multiple #1 singles to their names — would threaten “Old Town Road” with “No Guidance,” the hyped-up new single where they bury the hatchet. Nope. Not even close. “No Guidance,” a legitimately forgettable song, debuted all the way down at #9.
This week, “Old Town Road” faces its greatest challenge. Taylor Swift, who is not accustomed to losing, came out with “You Need To Calm Down,” a song that conflates Swift’s internet haters with institutional homophobia. Whereas “ME!” and its video debuted all at once, Swift released “You Need To Calm Down” on Friday and followed with the video Monday morning, timing surely designed to sustain public interest and increase the song’s first-week streaming numbers. And it’s a splashy video, full of eye-grabbing queer iconography and cameos from stars like Ryan Reynolds and Ellen DeGeneres. At its climax, we see another hatchet-burying: old enemies Swift and Katy Perry, dressed as fast food, making cartoonish peace while a food fight rages around them. Taylor Swift is a proven master at turning her own narratives into pop spectacle. “You Need To Calm Down” is a big swing. It could finally get her past “Old Town Road.”
And there’s another challenger. Drake, who spent more than half of 2018 embedded in the #1 spot with one massive hit after another, released two new songs, “Omertà” and “Money In The Grave,” two days after his Toronto Raptors won the NBA Finals. He released them as a celebration of that victory, of course. But Drake was a loud, vocal, constant presence all through the Finals. Over and over, he transformed himself into a meme. He wore Steph Curry’s dad’s Raptors jersey. He barked at Draymond Green. He wore a crazy-expensive erotic watch. And now, with those new songs, he shows us exactly what he was doing the whole time. He made himself a part of his team’s story. And in doing so, he turned the entire NBA Finals into his own promotional platform. It’s frankly fucking brilliant and machiavellian, and it could work. “Omertà” is a dull song, but so was “God’s Plan,” which was #1 for 11 weeks last year. And “Money In The Grave,” with its clipped threats and its huffing Rick Ross verse, is one of the best Drake songs in recent memory. Either of those songs could get past “Old Town Road.”
I hope Taylor Swift fails. I hope Drake fails, too. These are probably the two biggest pop stars in the world, and I would dearly love to see them taken down by a fake-cowboy Atlanta kid who was a complete unknown a few months ago. He probably will take them down, too; my kids are probably not going to be chanting lines from “You Need To Calm Down” or “Money In The Grave” to themselves. Taylor Swift and Drake have both made music that I love dearly, but they are top-down rulers, trying to make events out of their single releases. “Old Town Road” is an organic phenomenon and a beautiful thing to witness. I love an underdog story. I want Lil Nas X to keep making big stars look stupid forever.
Sixteen days ago, Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus stepped onstage at the Hot 97 Summer Jam, surprise guests of headliner Cardi B. They sang “Old Town Road” with Cardi, who wore a cowboy hat. Ten days ago, Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus stepped onstage at the CMA Music Festival in Nashville, surprise guests of headliner Keith Urban. They sang “Old Town Road” with Urban, who did not wear a cowboy hat. I can’t be certain of this, but Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus are probably the only two people in the world who have performed with Cardi B and Keith Urban in the space of one week. On Friday, Lil Nas X will release 7, his debut EP, and the world will conclusively learn whether he’s capable of more than one great song. But does that even matter? Lil Nas X already made “Old Town Road.” He already did more than most of us can ever dream of doing.
If “Old Town Road” can withstand all comers and hold onto the #1 spot for another five weeks, it’ll tie a record jointly held by two songs: Boyz II Men and Mariah Carey’s “One Sweet Day,” from 1995, and Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, and Justin Bieber’s “Despacito,” from 2017. If it can hold on for six weeks, it’ll break those songs’ record. It’ll be the longest-reigning #1 single of all time. I think it has a chance. I hope it has a chance. We deserve a smash this ridiculous, this unlikely. We deserve something that can incite a middle-schooler stampede.
Back before “Old Town Road” hit #1, I wrote about it: “‘Old Town Road’ is starting to crest just as the weather is getting warm. We can probably expect to hear it a lot this summer.” If only I knew. “Old Town Road” is more than the song of the summer. It’s the soundtrack to this particular historical moment — one that’ll be a sense-memory trigger for decades to come. We will hear “Old Town Road” at weddings for the rest of our lives. We’ll hear it until we can’t no more.