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!