Horses in the Back: Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road signals a culture shift

By Phil Gillen

When 19-year-old Atlanta rapper Lil Nas X released his country/trap hybrid “Old Town Road” in December 2018, it was at least partially tongue-in-cheek, with lines like “Cowboy hat from Gucci / Wrangler on my booty.” The song’s rise to popularity through TikTok was also driven by the humor of juxtaposing the worlds of “urban” and “country,” with TikTok users parodying country life.

The song has taken on a life of its own, reaching multiple Billboard charts, including a short-lived tenure on the Billboard Country charts. Billboard caused a furor when they removed it for “not [embracing] enough elements of today’s country music.”

While the song’s roots may be in parody, Lil Nas X has embraced the intersection of hiphop and country/western, citing rapper Nelly and country crooner Tim McGraw’s 2004 collaboration Over and Over as precedent. Enthusiastic twitter listeners have responded, giving countrified memes and cowboy-themed dance videos thousands of likes and retweets. The super popular first official remix of the song, features Billy Ray Cyrus, who had earlier reached out with encouragement to the rapper. Cyrus sings a chorus and then provides his own verse, which is itself an over-the-top genre mashup, dropping lines like “Baby’s got a habit, diamond rings and Fendi sports bras / Ridin’ down Rodeo in my Maserati sports car,” with a country twang.

Billy Ray Cyrus and Lil Nas X

To some the song may be just a joke, but it signals a shifting culture, where the lines drawn between “urban” and “country” culture aren’t as meaningful anymore, reflecting a reality in which the American West, including Nebraska, is more and more made up by people of oppressed nationalities that less and less resemble the stereotypes or ideological image of a settler nation. While the heritage of exploitation represented by the frontier is not something to celebrate, many people of diverse racial and national background are finding new homes in the West and new ways of expressing themselves in country/ western culture. That should only be celebrated.

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