Music

The “Old Town Road” Controversy Reveals Problems Beyond Just Race

The debate about Lil Nas X’s No. 1 hit is only the latest sign that Billboard’s methodology is broken.

Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus
Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Columbia Records; Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for the Recording Academy.

Before I talk about the new No. 1 song on Billboard’s flagship chart—an irresistible pencil sketch of a ditty, the shortest No. 1 hit since 1965—we need to talk about the chart it’s not on … well, this week, at least. Follow me back in time to a little more than four years ago. This is the best way I know how to explain the socio-cultural pickle Billboard has gotten itself into—an own goal so messy, it has dragged the music-industry bible into headlines about race and genre in the mainstream press.

In late 2014, Billboard made a quiet but pivotal executive decision about a song that was climbing its charts and about to top the Hot 100: It was not going to classify Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk” as an R&B song or allow it to chart on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart. At the time, I found this decision bizarre. As I wrote for Slate in early 2015, “Uptown Funk” is an unabashed, top-to-bottom homage to turn-of-the-early-’80s R&B, from Rick James to Zapp to the Gap Band. It’s so indebted to that sound that the Gap Band’s members actually made a legal claim against Ronson and Mars and won themselves a belated writing credit. Speaking as a music critic, I thought not letting the song onto the R&B/Hip-Hop chart was almost indefensible.

Thinking like a chart analyst, however, I got why Billboard was making this category call—even if the reason seemed a bit cynical. Basically, “Uptown Funk” would have been No. 1 on the R&B/Hip-Hop chart for a ridiculous period of time. To be exact—based on my understanding of Billboard’s genre-charts methodology—had Ronson and Mars been allowed on that chart, “Funk” would have commanded it for 19 weeks, December 2014 through April 2015, an all-time R&B chart record. This run by “Funk” would have preemptively beaten future record-setter “One Dance” by Drake, an 18-week topper in 2016, and it would have beaten both “The Honeydripper” by Joe Liggins and “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” by Louis Jordan, each of which spent 18 weeks on top in the 1940s, when this chart was called—I kid you not—Race Records. When I checked with Billboard in early 2015, asking if it would retroactively allow “Uptown Funk” onto the chart, now that it was breaking on urban radio—in fact, by April 2015, the song actually ranked fifth at R&B/hip-hop stations—it affirmed it would not, saying it still considered the song “a pop hit that is crossing over to R&B radio.” Again, I could see why it was reluctant to grandfather it in: If it had reclassified “Uptown Funk” as R&B at that late date, it would have, bizarrely, debuted at No. 1 on the R&B/Hip-Hop chart, thanks to the thousands of digital sales and millions of streams it was piling up.

Keep this “Funk” anecdote in mind when you get your dander up about “Old Town Road” by Montero Lamar Hill, aka Lil Nas X, who on Tuesday turned 20. This week, “Road” hurtled to No. 1 on the Hot 100, No. 1 on Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs, and absolutely nowhere on Hot Country Songs, because it’s not (currently) allowed on that chart. The kerfuffle over whether Hill’s self-described “country trap” tune should be allowed on the flagship country chart bothers me too—but what angers me, as a chart analyst, probably isn’t what angers you. The controversy that gets my dander up is over what genre charts measure in the digital era, and who gets to decide what goes on them. “Old Town Road” may or may not be country, but there should be a way for the country audience to collectively decide that, the same way audiences clearly, organically decided “Uptown Funk” was an R&B song.

Let’s hold that thought for now, because this Slate series is about the Hot 100, not the R&B or country charts. And not only are there no genre limitations on the kinds of songs that can appear on the Hot 100, but at this point—blessedly—no one is up in arms that the Hot 100 is topped by this song.

The origin story for “Old Town Road” is “Panda”-esque, with a sprinkling of “Bodak Yellow.” Lil Nas X, a onetime enlistee in Nicki Minaj’s fan army (something he denies) who built up a sizable online following, began issuing music on (where else?) SoundCloud about a year ago. “Road” landed in December—a song Hill built on producer YoungKio’s sample of “34 Ghosts IV,” an unusually twangy, but typically somber, 2008 instrumental track by Nine Inch Nails. (You can’t make this stuff up, folks: This is now Trent Reznor’s first No. 1 hit as a songwriter.) The charm of the song is its self-awareness, its pastiche—the lyrics sound like a first draft from a kid writing a cowboy ditty for a cultural studies class, dutifully checking off references to a horse, a cowboy hat, and cowboy boots, not to mention that old town road. Meanwhile, notwithstanding its thumping beat, “Road” is about as much a “rap” song as Drake’s “Hotline Bling” was: Hill sings through the whole thing. It is certainly, broadly, hip-hop. In an era when folks still insist on calling Post Malone a rapper, X/Hill’s descriptor “country trap” is actually pretty apt.

As with so many modern hits, digital consumption is what’s driven its rise, and radio is playing catch-up. Billboard reports that the airplay audience for “Old Town Road” is a decent, still-modest 11.9 million, too small to appear on the Radio Songs component of the Hot 100. Its download sales are a solid 22,000 for the week, ranking third on Digital Songs—although it must be said that, at $1.29 per MP3, the 1:53 running time of the original mix of “Road” must make it one of the priciest per-second downloads of the digital era. Far better to play it on a loop on Spotify—and sure enough, it’s on Streaming Songs, where the song is a blockbuster: 46.6 million streams last week, a leap of 60 percent from the week prior.

The story of the song’s virality is as strange as any word-of-mouth hit. It got a huge boost in January on TikTok, a Vine-like short-video service that built a #YeehawChallenge around the song. By March, that meme was infectious enough to get “Old Town Road” onto the charts, where it climbed into the Top 40, then the Top 20. But what has made it explode—leaping from No. 15 to No. 1 this week—is, it must be said, the widespread media attention over the song’s rejection by the Country Industrial Complex and Billboard’s chart-categorization controversy. “Road” has gone from a meme to a cause.

Here’s a recap of Billboard’s head-shaking head-fake. Because Lil Nas X had tagged the song on digital services as country, “Old Town Road” was allowed onto Hot Country Songs for a single week—it made a notably high debut at No. 19 the week ending March 16. This was, in my estimation, Billboard’s original sin: It’s fair to debate whether the song is country-qua-country, but if Billboard were going to deem the song ineligible, it probably shouldn’t have allowed “Road” on the chart in the first place. Far worse, Billboard then pulled the track from Hot Country Songs one week later, reportedly under pressure from Nashville-centric gatekeepers who didn’t buy it as country. Billboard’s official statement, repeated across the media, was that the song “incorporates references to country and cowboy imagery [but] does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.” Billboard added that its “decision to take the song off of the country chart had absolutely nothing to do with the race of the artist.” The media predictably went berserk, kicked into overdrive by a Rolling Stone article that whipped up the outrage while noting (deep in the recesses of the article) that the only country radio station spinning “Old Town Road” was L.A. station Radio Disney Country.

If you will permit me to throw a little shade: Goodness, has my chart-nerd world gotten crowded this month! Rarely have I seen so many armchair radio programmers and Billboard watchers offering their opinions on what country is (many of them outside of country music—as am I, to be fair) and triumphantly calling for the death of genre. Here are a few of my own opinions, none of which will make me popular: Radio programs itself around formats—which are similar to but different from genres—because listeners like it that way. Genres and formats are cultural, which is not simply code for “racial,” though of course that is a factor. In every era, the audience has a sense of what the format is supposed to sound like, and it evolves. Yes, country music is increasingly allied with Republican bromides—from the 2003 banning of the Dixie Chicks, to the recent, infuriating “tomatogate” controversy over the paucity of women receiving country airplay, the 21st century has not been great for country progressivism. But it is also, at root, a small-C conservative format whose boundaries are policed as much by its radio listeners (now better measured thanks to digital “PPM” technology) as by Nashville gatekeepers.

Furthermore, country radio programmers and listeners have made judgment calls throughout the format’s history over what qualifies. They didn’t play any of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s 1969–70 hits, country-indebted though they were, because back then that was what audiences perceived rock music as sounding like. They didn’t play Boys Don’t Cry’s 1986 synth-rock cornpone hit “I Wanna Be a Cowboy,” which honestly is what “Old Town Road” reminds me of most, not that there’s anything wrong with that. They did play Lionel Richie’s clearly country-infused “Stuck on You” enough in 1984 to get it to No. 24 on the country chart—not bad for a visitor from pop and R&B. (If Lionel were white, would “Stuck” have gone Top 10 country? Sure, maybe—it deserved to—but country audiences will look askance at white carpetbaggers in their format too.) More recently, when an artist of color has performed music at the center of the format, country radio plays it: Since 2008, ex–Hootie and the Blowfish frontman Darius Rucker has scored eight No. 1 country hits. And just in the past year, Nashville and country radio embraced black singers Jimmie Allen and Kane Brown—they hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart back to back just five months ago.

I am not trying to conceal or excuse the country industry’s racist, sexist history: its blockading of Ray Charles in the ’60s, its hiding behind (the superlative) Charley Pride as a token excuse for the format’s overwhelming whiteness, its recent abandoning of any female singer who isn’t Carrie Underwood—and sometimes not even her. I also co-sign the many critics who have pointed out that country and rap have been on a production-and-genre collision course for about two decades—from Tim McGraw and Nelly to Bubba Sparxxx to Cowboy Troy to Jason Aldean’s “Dirt Road Anthem.” The fact that all of these artists and singles exist doesn’t, to me, offer incontrovertible evidence that “Old Town Road” is country. What I am saying is that I think any genre, whether R&B or country or Latin, should have its boundaries defined, as organically as possible, by the listeners who enjoy and consume it—not by outraged journalists, and not even, whatever its good intentions, Billboard.

That brings me back to the magazine’s 2010s genre-chart methodology, and back to “Uptown Funk.” Why would Billboard be nervous about letting it onto the R&B chart in 2015? Why would it be judging the song’s R&B-ness at all—any more than it would the country-ness of “Old Town Road”?

In October 2012, Billboard announced it was converting its genre charts—primarily R&B/Hip-Hop, Country, and Latin—into hybrid charts combining sales, airplay, and streaming, in a formula identical to the Hot 100. The magazine did this in a belated effort to modernize these charts, which got all the way into the 2010s without including digital data. The problem was, this meant the charts no longer measured the listening preferences of a genre-specific audience. Take R&B, for example: Through the 2000s, the R&B chart limited its sales component to black-owned retailers or stores that served a mostly black clientele; this was how Billboard determined that, say, “I Can’t Go for That,” among all Hall & Oates singles, was the one adopted by black audiences—it topped the R&B chart in 1982 thanks to its strong sales at black retailers and strong airplay in black radio. In the digital era, with most music retailers shuttering, this became impossible. So Billboard simply switched the chart to the same digital data pool it used for the Hot 100—and while it was at it, it switched the radio component from black or “urban” radio stations to all stations, in any genre. On the country side, Hot Country Songs was, for all of its SoundScan-era history, a radio-only chart, given the paucity of retail singles by country acts by the ’90s. After the 2012 conversion, Billboard added digital sales and streams to Hot Country Songs, but it made no effort to limit the data to core country fans. (There’s no such thing as an all-country iTunes, or a country-only Spotify.) The very first week of the conversion, Taylor Swift’s “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”—her first-ever Max Martin–produced pop-crossover single, an essentially twang-free track country radio wasn’t playing all that much—soared to No. 1 on the new Hot Country Songs from outside the Top 20 the prior week, because that’s what the digital-fueled formula said was now the top “country” song.

In essence, each of these revamped genre charts became a mini–Hot 100, with the same songs, in the same order as they are on the big chart—the only difference being Billboard would now make a judgment call about which songs qualified for inclusion and delete the rest. Followers of my chart writing may know this has been a soapbox issue for me for years now: I am a deep and abiding Billboard fan—often, a vigilant defender of its methodologies—but to me these post-2012, digital-fueled genre charts are an abject failure. They overcount the purchases, streams, and radio impressions of the great mass of pop fans—who might consume, say, one or two country singles a year, or a certain type of pop-friendly rap hit—and they no longer measure true crossover, the alchemy by which a song moves from a genre-specific audience to a larger audience over weeks or months. Meanwhile, in the other direction, they no longer measure how the genre audience collectively determines that a mainstream song, like “Stuck on You,” belongs in their format. (For a deeper read on this subject, here’s my 2014 #longread on the subject for Pitchfork.)

All of this explains the pressure under which Billboard now has to determine whether a song qualifies for this or that genre chart. The magazine should not be in the position of making this call at all—but there is no longer an organic data pool of genre-specific fans: no core black fan base anointing the most soulful Hall & Oates hit via their purchases and radio requests, no core country fan base homing in on the twangy Lionel Richie single. Once a pop-leaning, periphery-of-the-genre single is allowed onto a genre chart, it can command that chart for months—as “Uptown Funk” might have, had Billboard allowed it onto the R&B chart in 2014, or as “Old Town Road” might, if Billboard reverses its position on it again. On the country side in particular, the methodology has become especially screwy and pop-driven. In the past seven years, since the formula conversion, the longevity record for most weeks at No. 1 on Hot Country Songs has been reset three times, all by Top 40–friendly country singles: Florida Georgia Line’s 2012–13 smash “Cruise” (24 weeks at No. 1), Sam Hunt’s 2017 “Body Like a Back Road” (34 weeks at No. 1), and, most absurdly, Bebe Rexha’s 2017–18 “Meant to Be” featuring Florida Georgia Line (50 weeks … yes, a couple of weeks shy of a year). Hot Country Songs has become unreliable enough as a barometer of credible hit status that critics and industry gatekeepers—including preeminent chart historian Joel Whitburn, publisher of a long line of Billboard chart books—now use Billboard’s Country Airplay, a chart limited to radio impressions on country stations, as their de facto flagship chart for the format.

But of course, all the outrage in the media over “Old Town Road” has to do with its exclusion from the chart Billboard presents to the world as its country flagship, the digital-fueled, Hot 100–hybridized Hot Country Songs. So … will Billboard pull a double-reverse and allow Lil Nas X back onto that chart, where its piles of pop crossover could put it at No. 1 for months? The last excuse not to let “Old Town Road” chart—country radio’s avoidance—is crumbling: This week, Billboard itself reports, the original mix of the single debuts at No. 53 on Country Airplay, a sign of for-real terrestrial radio traction. And in its earlier statement, the magazine did leave itself some wiggle room: Billboard said the song “does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.” (Emphasis mine.)

Enter Billy Ray Cyrus. The veteran, achy-breaky ’90s country star (and dad of Miley), never one to pass up a gimmick, threw his weight behind “Old Town Road” with a hastily recorded remix that grafts a couple of high-lonesome verses onto Lil Nas X’s original country-trap recording. (These additions take the 1:53-length track to a positively gargantuan two minutes, 37 seconds.) The remix dropped last Friday, the first day of the new Billboard tracking week—meaning it has actually not been a factor on the charts yet; “Old Town Road” got to No. 1 on the Hot 100 this week based on its original mix alone. Of course, Cyrus’ Billboard-baiting move has already generated piles of more headlines, and on Monday, the magazine will reveal the impact the Cyrus remix has had on the song’s chart fortunes. It will likely make “Old Town Road” an even more dominant No. 1 on the Hot 100, thanks to an even larger wave of digital sales and streams. But will Billy Ray’s vocal now make “Road” eligible for the country chart again, by Billboard’s definition?

The optics of that move would be terrible, and only further bolster the contention that the removal of Lil Nas X from the country chart was racially motivated. I am perhaps naïve enough to trust that Billboard—and country’s Nashville nexus—were not motivated primarily by race in removing the song, but that would become harder to believe if the addition of a white person’s vocal made the song country-eligible.

But to chart watchers, it would also reveal something else. Come next week, if Billboard gives “Old Town Road” the all-clear to return to Hot Country Songs, it would instantly debut on the chart at No. 1 (not unlike what would have happened to “Uptown Funk” in 2015 on the R&B chart if Billboard had grandfathered it in). This Nine Inch Nails–sampling, trap beat–riding, #YeehawChallenge-inspiring SoundCloud ditty will have gone from the 19th biggest country hit in America in March, to a country non-hit, to the top country hit in America in the space of six weeks. If that doesn’t point toward a methodology that’s broken, I don’t know what does.