Off the Charts

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

Hit songs have typically followed a formula set by the music industry. But in the last decade, streaming and social media have changed the game. Rising stars can now find fans directly, without support from the music industry.

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

But “Old Town Road” is more than that. It represents a larger moment in our culture. The song combines two music genres, 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 to take me to this place,” Nas told TIME.

The Climb

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

Nas made more than a hundred short videos to promote “Old Town Road.” “People were like, ‘Where are these memes coming from?’” he says. “If you see something going around the Internet, people want to join in.” Sure enough, millions of people put on cowboy outfits and danced to the song on the video-sharing app TikTok. “Old Town Road” began to climb the country music charts.

Then a shocking thing happened. In March, Billboard magazine banned “Old Town Road” from its Hot Country chart. It said the song didn’t have enough country elements, though 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. When he found out Nas wanted him on a remix, he happily recorded a new verse. The remix shot to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart, which includes all genres, where it spent a record 19 weeks at Number 1.

Pop culture moves at light speed. But Nas is determined to make his success last. “Seeing digital numbers, it’s a good feeling. It goes so quickly, though,” he says. “You have to keep going.”

COURTESY LANDER ELEMENTARY SCHOOL

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