First removed from Billboard magazine’s country charts because it was “not country enough”, singer Lil Nas X’s Old Town Road has just climbed to the top of the overall charts. The initial controversy sparked by Billboard speaks volumes about the reluctance of the country milieu to open up, about redefining musical genres, but also about the eternal racial division in the United States.
Lil Nas X – Montero Hill of his real name – first became known through social networks. On his Twitter account dedicated to rapper Nicki Minaj, the 19-year-old has developed a large subscriber base. In late 2018, he released the Old Town Road title on Soundcloud, which quickly became viral. In no time, the song was ranked in the Hot 100 Billboards , but the 19 th rank of the country charts and 36 thrank in the R & B / hip-hop category. An illustration of the tendency to burst genres, more and more omnipresent in music in general. “Everything has been merging for 10 years. The musical genres have never been so volatile, “says Danick Trottier, musicologist and professor at UQAM. Being a hip-hop artist above all – a “fluid genre that can integrate all other genres” – Lil Nas X did “a very typical rap job,” he notes. However, the fusion of rap and country is still rather unusual, reports the professor, although hip-hop has already mixed with metal, rock and, obviously, pop.
Not enough country
Old Town Road has fizzled the list of the most popular country songs. At the end of March, Billboard made the decision to simply remove it from the country rankings, in all discretion, at the insistence of Nashville’s hard-liners. Billboard explained his decision to Rolling Stone magazine : “Although Old Town Road incorporates references to country and cowboy images, it does not contain enough elements of today’s country music to feature [in the ranking] in its current version. ”
Musicologist and lecturer at the University of Alberta, Natalie Boisvert considers it to be a country song. But she makes an important nuance. “It’s more of a juxtaposition than a mix,” she says, because while the chorus has almost everything in the country, the cover is much more rooted in rap. “He really plays with the limits of the genre. But if a pop music has an introduction that is a classic pastiche, we will not put it in the category classical music so far. In an interview with Time, Lil Nas X said that for him, Old Town Road is a country trap song. “She is not one kind more than the other. She is both, ”
The new country is not ready for anything
The country is very quick, in its contemporary form, to integrate pop and rock, explains Natalie Boisvert. What could have “offended some sensibilities” in the country, apart from the tones, it is first of all the values conveyed by the words, according to the expert. While country codes revolve around “white and Christian American values,” Lil Nas X talks about adultery, Porsche, and breasts. The rapper’s talk, which “sings shamelessly with an urban black accent,” also swears with the traditional country setting, notes Ms. Boisvert. “In the United States, they are very sensitive to accents, which are indicative of social class and provenance,” she says.
In the last few weeks, several voices have come to denounce Billboard’s choice to eject Old Town Road from the country rankings and to attribute this decision to pure racism. Billboard denied having based his decision on the skin color of the artist. But the experts consulted by La Pressebelieve that the racial factor must inevitably be taken into consideration. “In the United States, we can not put the element of racism aside,” says Natalie Boisvert. African-Americans do not make a point of seeing the genders get married, while they are much more protective of the country side. “Identity issues are very strong” and country music “seeks to preserve its values,” explains Danick Trottier. Faced with this hip-hop that “recycles” the country while relegating it to the background, “[the country environment] feels that one plays on its territory”. “This protection [of the genre] is a little out of date,” says the professor, adding that Billboard should rethink its musical categorization, while we abstain more and more
A boost from Billy Ray Cyrus
After the controversy generated by Billboard’s decision, a new actor came into this story. The country singer Billy Ray Cyrus, who was behind Lil Nas X when the controversy surfaced, lent his voice to a new version of Old Town Road , in which he sings the chorus and a verse.
Attracting even more attention to the song, this collaboration has allowed the title to climb this week to the top of the overall Billboard . “For some very unfortunate reasons, […] the presence of Billy Ray Cyrus made it all more acceptable,” says Natalie Boisvert. It reaffirmed the racial line. The “subversion” disappears and we no longer see a black artist trying to enter a genre that is denied. “Note also that the distribution platforms, the original Old Town Ro ad is ranked in the hip hop category, while e rem ix Billy Ray Cyrus is rather in the country label.