Is That Country Enough For You: Old Town Road And The Gatekeeper Problem

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 [1].  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.

[1] See, for example:

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4 Responses to Is That Country Enough For You: Old Town Road And The Gatekeeper Problem

  1. Catharine Martin says:

    I guess that, in layman’s terms, one would call this gatekeeping a turf war. Artists in the music world are typecast in their own genres and are not allowed entry into others, much like actor are often stuck in playing certain type of characters and have great difficulty in spreading their wings. It does seem hypocritical that the success of a song depends on who sings it rather than the merits of the music itself. It’s as though the listeners are gatekeeping as much as the ones who decide to release the song or pull it from the play list. People will most often gravitate to the familiar sound.

    It is good that, in the examples you provided, the artists learned this lessons quickly. Hard-core country music legends were available and willing to unlock and open that gate for them and I hope that the issue of racism will become a thing of the past. It’s just that the face of country music has been constant for many decades. There is hardcore pushback against anything that blends with pure music because, they argue, it detracts and degrades the purity of emotion–pathos, melancholy, pain, etc. Rap within the core of country music doesn’t fit its purpose. In the end, it’s not about race, it’s about style.

    Lines are already blurred between easy listening and modern country music. Rap often ingests phrases from rock, easy listening or country music into their songs. Each genres take songs from others and fits them to their own style. It appears that the musicians of what they call “country trap” (a blend of country music and rap?) to be considered fully as country music. But is it really?

    • Yes, gatekeeping in general is another word for a turf war. I find such problems personally very fascinating. You are quite right that artists are generally typecast in their genre. When Sting made a country song, it wasn’t played on country radio because he was viewed as an easy listening artist or a pop artist, but when Toby Keith sang the same song with the same lyrics and the same instrumentation with Sting on backing vocals, voila, the song became a massive hit on country radio and sales. The reason I used both Sting and BeBe Rexha as examples is because both of them are white artists who have benefited from the credibility they have gained in having duets with country artists. At other times, country artists have found the genre confining and have sought success in the pop world (this happened with Dolly Parton in the early 1980’s, LeAnn Rimes in the late 1990’s and is happening with Taylor Swift right now), but when the pop sales dwindle for these artists, country is usually pretty quick to welcome them back when they return to making country music.

      I agree with you that the issue with trap country is about style, and the direction from which these people are coming. There is a greater willingness on the part of country radio to tolerate and accept country musicians who adopt rap elements (this happened with a variety of bro-country artists like Florida-Georgia Line and Luke Bryan over most of the 2010’s) rather than rap artists who adopt country elements, as has been the case in country trap songs like “Old Town Road.” Of course, the presence of Billy Ray Cyrus on the remix does give Lil Nas X some credibility that he would not have on his own. But again, this isn’t really about race. If Eminem tried releasing a country song as a single, it would likely have trouble getting on the country charts because Eminem is viewed as a rap artist. And that was the point of my own contribution to what is a very large musical controversy at present, that the world of country music is somewhat parochial, but certainly not outright racist. Biracial artists like Kane Brown, to say nothing of former Hootie & The Blowfish frontman Darius Rucker have no difficulty making country hits because they are recognized as country artists.

  2. Pingback: On The Ubiquity Of Gatekeeping | Edge Induced Cohesion

  3. Pingback: The Six Degrees Of Lil Nas X | Edge Induced Cohesion

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