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'Old Town Road' is killing pop music, and it's all kinds of wonderful

Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus performed their number one hit "Old Town Road" at California's Stagecoach Festival last month.
Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus performed their number one hit "Old Town Road" at California's Stagecoach Festival last month.

The hit single's runaway success could spell trouble for conventional pop stars.

By KC Hoard

Three weeks ago, Taylor Swift, noted chart-topper and mega-pop star, dropped a massive single. The song, called “ME!,” is decidedly synthetic; the production is bland, the lyrics are lifeless, the message is tacky. Yet, as all Swift singles seem to go, the song is unnervingly catchy.

Swift’s commercial appeal, combined with the bulletproof, albeit boring hook (“Me-ee-ee-ee, ooh-ooh-ooh ooh”) led the song’s pastel music video to garner more than 65 million YouTube hits in its first 24 hours — the biggest debut for a female artist and for a soloist in the history of the video streaming platform. Swift promoted the song with an elaborate performance at the Billboard Music Awards. Eight million people viewed it live, and a YouTube version of the performance has won an additional 23 million viewers thus far.

It seemed engineered to become the world’s biggest hit, trumping Swift’s five previous number one Billboard Hot 100 singles. But “ME!” failed to reach the number one spot on the Hot 100, the chart that lists the most popular singles based on a combination of streaming numbers, Youtube views and radio airplay. It peaked at number two .

One week later, Canadian pop sensation Shawn Mendes dropped “If I Can’t Have You,” another irresistibly catchy, but painfully mediocre single. The song gave Mendes his best Youtube debut ever , and quickly became his biggest hit.

But the song’s success and Mendes’s adoring fans weren’t enough to land “If I Can’t Have You” the Hot 100’s top spot. It also peaked at number two .

This week, Justin Bieber and Ed Sheeran’s behemoth hit “I Don’t Care” scored 11 million streams in its first day on Spotify, breaking the music platform’s all-time daily streaming record .

And yet, it couldn’t muster the numbers to become the number one song on the Hot 100 this week.

All three singles were incalculably defied by the most anomalous musical juggernaut in recent memory: a remix of “Old Town Road,” the genre-bending, Nine Inch Nails sampling, country-rap hybrid by Lil Nas X, featuring 1990s country singer and Hannah Montana star Billy Ray Cyrus. The song has been number one on the Hot 100 for seven weeks. It boasts the biggest streaming week in Spotify history, besting Drake’s 2018 smash “In My Feelings.”

In its original incarnation without Cyrus, “Old Town Road” clocked in at one minute and 53 seconds, making it the shortest number one single since 1965. It’s the first country song in 20 years to reach number one on the Hot 100, not counting Swift’s 2012 song “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together,” which was released during her country days, but contains almost no country elements.

Moreover, “Old Town Road” is Lil Nas X’s first commercially released song, and it’s received almost no promotion outside of social media. Its surreal, spaghetti western odyssey of a video was released just last week — six weeks into its reign.

At face value, “Old Town Road” should never have been a hit. It’s too country to be mainstream, not hip-hop enough to penetrate the zeitgeist. It’s too short to be a proper pop song — far shorter than the three minutes usually afforded to radio hits. Lil Nas X shouldn’t be established enough to prevent pop titans like Swift and Sheeran from piling up number ones. And yet, there it is. The song’s wild success signals a new era in music: The death of the monolithic pop song, and the advent of a more democratized popular music landscape.

As streaming platforms like Spotify and Apple Music grow in popularity, once-mighty radio stations become increasingly irrelevant in determining the popularity of songs. “Old Town Road” is a prime example of this. The song might be dominating the Hot 100, but on the Top Radio Songs chart — a separate list run by Billboard that is based solely on radio airplay — it’s only peaked at number three.

The success of “Road” demonstrates the growing autonomy of the music listener. No longer satisfied with having their hits spoon-fed to them by radio stations and record labels, listeners are turning to streaming services to curate their own musical experiences and, by extension, cultivate their own smashes.

Streaming platforms where users have the ability to play any song at any time have effectively democratized the music industry. Radio DJs were once pop music’s gatekeepers — now the gate has been flung wide open, and anyone with a SoundCloud account and a certain degree of social media savvy can enter. Lil Nas X’s success can also be heavily attributed to his song’s uncanny ability to permeate Internet culture. The song first popped up on the popular video service TikTok in late 2018, with users making videos of themselves transforming into cowboy garb as the song played in the background.

The virality of “Road” led to Columbia Records signing the fledgling artist, and the wide commercial release of the song. The song’s popularity ballooned online until Lil Nas X earned an assist from Cyrus last month . That move put “Old Town Road” at number one on the Hot 100 — a spot it has occupied since.

Lil Nas X’s little song is proving that it’s no longer enough for record labels to sink money into gimmicky songs aimed at the lowest common denominator. If labels want chart-topping singles, they’re going to need to craft music that will breed virality, even if that music defies every possible pop convention. “Old Town Road” is proof positive that lifeless earworms simply won’t cut it any longer.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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