Late last month, Billboard removed Lil Nas X’s viral sensation “Old Town Road” from its weekly Hot Country Songs chart. A representative told Rolling Stone, “While ‘Old Town Road’ incorporates references to country and cowboy imagery, it does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.” Though the move was controversial and wrong-headed, it has only helped the “cowboy trap” hit. Last night, the song, which was No. 15 last week, dethroned Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings” to top the Billboard’s Hot 100 and become the No. 1 song in America.
For Lil Nas X, who was born Montero Lamar Hill and is celebrating his 20th birthday today, his chart victory is notable for a lot of reasons. Because Billboard tracks sales and streaming numbers from Friday to Thursday, “Old Town Road” hit number one without the help of Billy Ray Cyrus’ already-ubiquitous remix which dropped Friday, April 5. However, if (or rather, when) the song repeats its chart performance next week, it’ll be Cyrus’ first Hot 100 No. 1 as his 1992 single “Achy Breaky Heart” only peaked at No. 4. Since “Old Town Road” samples banjo from Nine Inch Nails’ 2008 track “34 Ghost IV,” the song marks NIN's Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross first appearance at No. 1 as writers and producers. The song has also topped Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs and Hot Rap Songs charts. Had Billboard not removed “Old Town Road” from its country charts, the track would’ve certainly topped it this week.
The undeniable success of “Old Town Road” has coincided with increased criticism against Billboard’s exclusion of the song in its country charts. Lil Nas X has defended the song, telling TIME, “The song is country trap. It’s not one, it’s not the other. It’s both. It should be on both [charts].” Several artists have supported Lil Nas X and spoken out against Billboard like Moses Sumney, who wrote on Twitter, “Lil Nas X's country chart removal is discriminatory considering how hip hop production is appropriated in today's pop-country; white artists like Sam Hunt top the charts with it. Once again the message to black artists is clear: we can have y'alls shit, but y'all can't have ours.” Country singer singer Meghan Linsey added, “That is some BS. It’s got plenty of “country elements” and [it’s] as “country” as anything on country radio, tbh.”
As NPR’s Ann Powers points out in an excellent Twitter thread, this isn’t just a country music issue: “I appreciate the work happening to make people aware of the black roots of and connections to country. BUT labeling every black Southern/Western legacy artist "country" risks delegitimizing the crucial genres they also represented. Sam Sanders, host of NPR's It's Been A Minute, chimed in, saying, “who decides what is or isn't country music is very subjective. Lots of folks are saying 'Hey, Billboard, Hey, country, You allow white artists to get on these charts with songs that aren't quite country all the time.’” Considering Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line’s “Meant to Be” topped the country charts with similar sonic elements as “Old Town Road,” Sanders has a point.
Cyrus said in a statement, “Country music fans decide what they like. Not critics or anyone else. I’ve always said, don’t think inside the box, don’t think outside the box. Think like there is no box.” Given his appearance on the remix, Billboard may soon reverse course. In a statement over the weekend, Billboard opened the possibility of reversing its decision: “Our initial decision to remove “Old Town Road” from the Hot Country Songs chart could be revisited as these factors evolve.” While Cyrus’ remix is a welcome addition, here’s hoping artists of color don’t need to enlist white pop-country mainstays in the future to prove their genre bonafides. Listen to both versions of “Old Town Road” below.
Disclosure: The writer of this piece occasionally writes for Billboard’s print magazine.