Old Town Road
Lil Nas X
It's very easy to dismiss a catchy summer song by a new artist as a simply a new addition to the growing catalog of one hit wonders. Likely many have been anticipating that the song that is nearly impossible to avoid in the Summer of 2019, the country/rap single Old Town Road, will join this club. However, the artist behind the song, Lil Nas X has defied the odds with his newly released EP simply titled 7. Throughout the album's short duration, he showcases what garnered him attention in the first place. He is an artist largely unconcerned with fitting into any one category of music which only furthers the loaded debate behind the rapid rise and the mixed style of the lead single.
Old Town Road has ruffled feathers if only because it is not easily definable. It's a song with a country twang and a trap beat. It's been raising blood pressure since March 2019 when media group Billboard controversially decided to pluck it off of their country charts, releasing a telling statement stating that the song didn't have “enough elements of today's country music to chart” even though it had already reached the nineteenth spot. The move only drew more attention to the song and once singer Billy Ray Cyrus added his vocals to a remix, there was going to be no stopping its rise to the top, regardless of what chart Billboard was going to shuffle twenty-year-old Lil Nas X onto.
His new EP isn't likely to clear things up much. Not only does it represent a handful of genres, the short running time of only nineteen minutes gives the listener very little time to make a decision about what category of music it represents. Old Town Road and its unmistakable successor Rodeo (which features another social media sensation, the unstoppable Cardi B) are two nods to country. The other five songs borrow from contemporary hip hop, rock, and pop. All are remarkably catchy. It makes for the perfect summer album, not only because the songs go down easy and get stuck in the head, but because it feels like freedom. It's not trying to be any one thing, it's trying out everything. Some may claim that such a quality means it doesn't know what it is, as though this isn't the whole point. Dabbling in different styles and finding inspiration in the ocean of sounds available to young people these days makes Lil Nas X's approach feel more like the new normal than a groundbreaking innovation. He didn't invent the mashing up of genres, but he is helping to popularize it.
The debate brewing since Old Town Road was relocated on the charts has been multi-layered, but most frequently commentators on various platforms, ranging from country music fan sites to The New York Times, have been holding a magnifying glass to genre. On the surface, genre serves the purpose of classifying and creating dividing lines between art styles ostensibly to make things more orderly. With the ever-expanding offerings of art in all different styles, it seems natural to distinguish them all from one another by categorization. The problem arises when those classifiers begin to be seen as law rather than casual labels that help with the grander purpose of organization.
Genre becomes a tricky thing upon any kind of deeper examination than where to place a vinyl in a record store. Are there universally acknowledged defining factors of every genre? Is it the artist, the fans, or some other governing body that gets to determine the label art is assigned? And, most importantly for the case at hand, what about all those creations that fall somewhere in between established styles? When pushed up against a wall with such questions, genre defenders typically resort to a shaky explanation that includes the phrase “that's just the way things are.” Even if we like the current classification system, we cannot fail to acknowledge the real problems inherent in genre classification such as exclusionary practices and snobbery.
Many art forms have their own troubles with genre and its limitations. Most recently in the book world, literary fiction writer Ian McEwan put his foot in his mouth in an interview with the Guardian. He was noticeably dismissive of the well-established genre of science fiction even though, obvious to everyone but him, his new artificial intelligence novel Machines Like Me is a work that exists, at least partially, in the the style he snubs. One gets the sense that McEwan would shudder at the thought of being shelved anywhere near genre fiction, when really, his work would have only been made stronger with consultation of those books who wore down the path he now gets the luxury of walking down unimpeded.
If genre did indeed provide essential bold lines between art forms, there wouldn't need to be such debate about it. But since it is a classification system created by people and held up with flimsy framing, its flaws are obviously human and it collapses under pressure. Old Town Road has been slapped with the label “genre-bending” by every publication covering the meteoric rise of Lil Nas X as if straddling the line between genres also needs a classification. As anyone who has bought a label-maker to organize their home will likely tell you, the more labels you put on every surface of the place, the more meaningless and self-evident they become. The utility of categorization is determined by labeling only so much as it is useful and also by knowing when to stop.
What seems to become clear in any debate about genre is that it shouldn't be any one person or organization's call to define what a category should or should not include. In fact, it should probably be up to the consumer to define. If country music stations were responding positively to Old Town Road and it was making a measured rise up the country charts, then it belonged there. If readers associate stories of artificial intelligence with science fiction, then Mr. McEwan is in for some bad news. Regardless, the whole business reeks of the concept of genre being taken far too seriously. As the kids say these days, it's not that deep.
—Olive Fellows is a young professional and Booktuber (at http://youtube.com/c/abookolive) living in Pittsburgh.