It broke record after record after record on the top music charts and it would be almost impossible to find someone who was alive during 2020 that hasn’t heard about the song. Old Town Road by Lil Nas X featuring Billy Ray Cyrus was the biggest thing on the internet throughout the end of 2019. It seems like it was just another hit pop song by a big artist, but behind the scenes there were a lot of other factors that made the song skyrocket on the charts.
Lil Nas X’s meme abilities
To understand how Lil Nas X got so far on the internet we should start with his history on the internet. Lil Nas X started his online presence in 2012 on Twitter under the username @NasMaraj. He got more familiar with how the internet works by posting memes that were not necessarily his and growing a following. Because he was not always the original creator of the things he posted, he would be getting backlash every now and then for his behavior online. Dealing with this became an important part of his image throughout the years and we will explore this a little bit further in the rest of this blog post. Throughout the years his following started to become bigger and bigger and eventually he started making his way into the music business.
In December 2018 he created a song called “Old Town Road (I Got Horses in The Back)” and uploaded it on YouTube. It went viral and gained a lot of attention. It gained millions of views in just two months and eventually made its way to the then not-so-popular-yet social media platform TikTok. The song was a hit on that platform and was one of the bigger reasons why it got so popular.
An unlikely mashup of music genres
A mix of Trap, Hip Hop and Country music was very uncommon. So when the track launched itself to the number one spot on the country music charts, people started to doubt whether or not it belonged there. Billboard eventually removed the track from the country charts and there was a lot of controversy about that choice. People at found the decision to be racially motivated or a heavy case of gatekeeping. So what do you do when you face such criticisms? You lean into it even harder!
After gaining so much attention, Lil Nas X managed to catch the attention of the country music star Billy Ray Cyrus. Together, they created a remix that managed to make the song even more popular. Now that a well established country star’s name was attached to the song, how could it possibly not be regarded as a country song?
An unusual song structure
What played in the background to further improve the success of the song was something more subtle.
First of all, the song is just 2 minutes and 37 seconds long, which is shorter than the average pop song. The short runtime of the song could help with young people’s shorter attention span and make it less of a commitment to listen to. This also could be tied to the song’s popularity on TikTok.
Secondly, the structure of the song makes the song slightly addictive to listen to. The son starts of with an intro, followed by a chorus, verse, refrain, verse, refrain, chorus, verse and another chorus. Usually in other pop or trap songs the chorus is repeated twice at the end, but this song doesn’t do that. This makes the song feel unresolved an makes the listener want to replay the song quicker.
Lastly, the Spotify payout sytem was also taken advantage of by the song. As investigated by Jiyoung in the blogpost The changes in the music industry brought by music streaming services, Spotify pays artists and ranks songs per stream, but what is the minimum amount of listening time to warrant a stream? It turns out that the minimum amount of listening time is 31 seconds, which is just when the first chorus of the song ends. You could call this a coincidence, but it is very likely that this fact was the reason why the song was topping the charts for so long.
Another fun fact: Old Town Road was originally produced by a dutch teenager. Not bad for a 19-year old from Purmerend to create such a gigantic hit!
Thanks for interesting post! I really agree that something like meme ability becomes one of the important factors in the music industry. Also, song gets popularity by Tiktok. Just by short form challenge or funny videos, song becomes popular and easily spreads to the public. Like you said, I guess that some day, music will become much shorter!
Good post! Even now, Nas’s online presence isn’t just defined by banger music, but by his comedy and meme literacy. This makes him entertaining to follow even when his style of music isn’t your taste. It only shows that celebrities nowadays need more than just good music, but strong online presence. What do you think of the opininion that ‘tiktok is ruining the music industry’ since tiktoks focus on the bridge and chorus of songs without appreciating a full ‘well-made’ song?
While I understand why people are saying it, the phrase “ruining the music industry” irks me a little bit. In the end, music business is still a commercial business, and to make money the artists need to shape themselves to the context of their time to stay relevant. Every generation has seen changes in the music industry, which are not necessarily good or bad. Even if pop music starts to get too short for your taste, there will always be music you do enjoy if you look hard enough.
The only thing that annoys me with this trend of music getting shorter is that as a DJ, you need to prepare more music to fill the same amount of time if you are playing in a club where you generally play pop songs
Good post! Moreover, before now I had no idea how a song is typically composed. It was fascinating to observe the strategies employed by producers to increase the addictiveness of their music. I agree that a lot of platforms are succeeding because of people’s short attention spans. Moreover, I was shocked to learn the fascinating truth. I’m from Hoorn, which is a nearby city to Purmerend and I was unaware that a well-known song’s original creator was a Dutch teenager who lived nearby.
Thank you for this post providing insights in how the music industry operates and the ingredients for addictive/viral music. I looked up the producer and listened to Old Town Road for a long time in a while: the end of the song really made me want to start the song again.
The meme-factor is something I am seeing in more and more songs nowadays. Take for example Taylor Swift’s “Anti Hero”: the line “It’s me, hi, I’m the problem it’s me” is undoubtedly getting used in TikToks, reels and short videos.
As you pointed out, Lil Nas X’s following was gained in part through his meme-literacy. In my opinion this is also becoming a part of the skillset of artists demanded by their labels, the example of artists such as Florence Welch and Halsey admitting that their agencies are asking them to create viral content on social media platforms. What are your thoughts on these demands?
This is such a good analysis! The internet keeps reminding us that memes are the way to popularity nowadays. I wonder if the way the song is made up and this leading to success was just luck or if Lil Nas X really thought this through.