From time to time I write about the problem of gatekeeping and some of the finesse it requires and some of the controversies that result from it . As long as there is prestige to be gained for being “in” and there are people who wish to keep others “out,” there will be quarrels about this sort of matter. Having always been on the boundaries of in and out, somewhere between a cynical insider and a social leper of an outsider, I am fascinated by these problems and so today I would like to talk about one of the gatekeeping problems that has been roiling the music press over the past week or so along with some recent developments and ponder what this particular controversy has to say about the issue of gatekeeping and how it is that people manipulate gatekeeping concerns and controversies for their own benefit. Let’s talk about “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X.
Some of you may not know this song, and that’s okay. “Old Town Road” is a song that approaches novelty status credited to a first-time charting musician with the rather bulky name of Lil Nas X. The song features a mixture of trap/rap and country elements with sampled banjos and was a prominent part of the marketing in the video game for Red Dead Redemption 2. Indeed, the artist himself marketed the song as part of a meme challenge that sought to position the song as a country trap song that was able to appeal to both Hip Hop/R&B and country audiences, and the song was rising on the Billboard Hot 100 (where it is currently a top 20 hit and still rising), Hip Hop/R&B and country charts before it was removed from the country charts before it would have become a #1 hit there. Needless to say, this particular decision prompted a great deal of accusations of racism, since Lil Nas X is a black artist and country trap music has been made by musicians like Young Thug and Lil Tracy and has attracted a lot of controversy because of the mixture of rap and country elements and its lack of popularity (at present) on country charts.
It is this last element that appears to be key to the problem. There have been many songs released that have country elements or even are written as country songs that simply have not charted on the country charts because they have not been on country playlists. This is not always a matter of racism–although it certainly has happened to many black artists, but is a matter of the generally parochial culture of the country music charts in the first place. Sting released the beautiful and melancholy “I’m So Happy I Can’t Stop Crying” song off of his beautiful “Mercury Falling” album and the song was a minor hit (#94 on the Billboard Hot 100) and didn’t hit the country charts at all. But lo and behold, he recorded a duet version of the song shortly afterward with Toby Keith and all of the sudden it raced to #2 on the country charts (and re-entered the Hot 100, peaking at #84), giving Sting his only country hit to date. Just last year, BeBe Rexha spent what seems like forever at #1 on the country charts (it was only a year, but still) with her song “Meant To Be,” where she had a duet with bro country duo Florida Georgia Line. The lesson is clear, that if you want to make noise on the country charts and you are not a country artist yourself, it helps to perform your song with a respected (!) country artist like Toby Keith or Florida Georgia Line.
This is a lesson that Lil Nas X appears to have taken to heart. Just this morning, I found out that a remix of “Old Town Road” featuring Billy Ray Cyrus had hit #1 on the daily Apple Music single charts thanks to the Chart Data twitter feed, and the remix appears to have been made to protest the removal of the song from the country charts. Is Billy Ray Cyrus, he of the notorious mullet and noted one hit wonder for “Achy Breaky Heart” on the pop charts himself, country enough to get the song added back on the country charts so that the song can earn a #1 there as it continues to rise thanks to both memes and controversy as well as its own merits? We shall see. It is not hard to understand why it is that Billy Ray Cyrus would be willing to hop on a remix with the aim of giving Lil Nas X some much-needed country cred. Lil Nas X obviously wants to make the statement that country trap deserves to be recognized as full-fledged country, thus allowing him and other artists in that genre to achieve greater chart success and visibility themselves. Billy Ray Cyrus gets the chance to jump on a chart hit and bolster his own chart success, which has admittedly been limited, perhaps even giving him a second hit on the mainstream charts to remove his one-hit wonder status. And, if the remix ends up being added to the country charts at #1, where it would go, then the people in charge of the country chart get to fend off those nasty (and false) accusations of racism. Here everybody has a chance to win, if you like listening to the song, that is.
 See, for example: