In the age of the smartphone, when a good portion of the population are drawn towards their ever-present screen at any spare moment, it makes sense that one of the most important pieces of our culture, music, would bleed into another force in our lives: memes. Although Lil Nas X, the artist behind “Old Town Road,” may seem like he’s paving a road to fame with 10-second snippets, he is far from the first rapper to gain attention through internet humor. Another notable explosion in popularity for a track was Denzel Curry’s “Ultimate,” which racked up plays as a soundtrack for the bottle flip challenge. There is no doubt that his rap career was kickstarted by this meme, but it was not the center of attention. “Old Town Road” is different in that the song is the meme itself. It is at least equal in comedic focus to whatever video or image is presented with it. It blurs the line between meme and music so thoroughly that the divide may soon be washed away altogether.
Beyond threatening the formula of how a song becomes popular, “Old Town Road” has been the center of a controversy because of its exclusion from the Billboard Country Charts soon after it really started blowing up. Billboard issued the explanation that it did not embrace enough elements of modern country, which seems straightforward enough, until you start to wonder: what really defines modern country? It can’t just be the jangly acoustic guitar strumming because God forbid you find what sounds like an instrument in radio-friendly music, and it can’t really be defined by lyrics either. If we were to confine country themes to outlaw behavior and truck talk, many of the love-sick ballads of today’s country would have to be excluded. Lil Nas X has done his best to stuff his hit full of country themes: horses, outlaws, boots, cowboy hats, a tractor, bull riding and even cheating on your baby, all good country staples. “Old Town Road” is deliberately full of country elements, a large part of its comedic appeal. For all of these reasons, its exclusion from the country charts has raised suspicions of racial bias on the part of Billboard.
It would not be the first time that black country music has been kept from the mainstream while white artists are given leniency in how “country” their hits need to be to qualify. This access to the charts really does matter, especially for up-and-coming artists trying to prove themselves in a genre. Undoubtedly, “Old Town Road” is a hit whether or not Billboard wants to call it country. It even made the Country Airplay charts, which are defined by a song’s playtime on genre radio stations. Nevertheless, Billboard clearly needs to keep a level playing field for their definition of genre to allow unbiased access. Especially as other country mashups by white artists have remained in the charts.
As Lil Nas X gains some bystander fame next to his behemoth of a hit, one can’t help but wonder what can possibly keep him popular after the “Old Town Road” mania fades. And fade it will, as any hype based around memes eventually does, usually in around a month. So what can keep Lil Nas X in the limelight for more than his 15 minutes?
When Denzel Curry’s “Ultimate” exploded, it of course exposed him to a huge audience, but people remembered him for the joke instead of as an artist, leaving him to eternally battle the label of “meme-rapper.”
Can Lil Nas X fight the label and create successful songs with real artistic intention, or will he embrace the label and churn out catchy, goofy meme music? If he does the latter, what is separating him from comedic artists, and where will the potential popularity of his work be recognized? The era of memes in and around music threatens the definitions of parody and comedic songwriting, and the future for the relationship of the two interwoven pop culture staples is still uncertain.