Off the Charts

September 13, 2019
Andrew Chow for TIME, adapted by TFK editors
SURPRISE SHOW Lil Nas X performs “Old Town Road” at Lander Elementary School, in Mayfield Heights, Ohio, in May.
COURTESY LANDER ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

Most hit songs follow a formula set by the music industry. But streaming and social media have changed this. Rising stars can now find fans without support from the music industry.

No one understands this better than Lil Nas X. His first single is “Old Town Road.” It exploded online early this year. It’s been streamed more than a billion times since then. On July 29, it became the longest-running Number 1 song ever.

But “Old Town Road” is more than that. The song combines hip-hop and country in a new way. And it became popular after Lil Nas X himself posted and promoted it online. “Everything lined up for this moment,” Nas told TIME.

The Climb

To make “Old Town Road,” Lil Nas X studied popular songs. What traits did they share? Bold beats. Catchy lyrics. Short length. In October 2018, Nas bought a weird banjo beat for $30. He mixed it with hip-hop elements and wrote lyrics.

Nas made more than a hundred videos to promote “Old Town Road.” He posted them online. Why? “If you see something going around the Internet, people want to join in,” he says. Millions of people put on cowboy outfits and danced to the song. “Old Town Road” began to climb the country music charts.

Then something shocking happened. Billboard magazine banned the song from its Hot Country chart. It said the song didn’t sound enough like country music. Many people thought the song was banned because it came from outside the music industry. “People inside country music aren’t even paying attention to it,” said Kyle Coroneos, the founder of the website Saving Country Music.

But country music star Billy Ray Cyrus was paying attention. He helped Nas make a remix of the song. It shot to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

Lil Nas X is determined to make his success last. “It’s a good feeling,” he says.

COURTESY LANDER ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

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