What was the Billboard controversy with "Old Town Road"?
Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road" debuted on Billboard’s Hot 100, Hot Country, and Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs charts, thanks in part to the rapper’s tireless self-promotion efforts. The song spread virally, but as it climbed the rankings, Billboard quietly removed it from its country charts. That decision sparked controversy, along with conversations about what “country music" really means in 2019.
In a statement to Rolling Stone, Billboard explained that “upon further review, it was determined that ‘Old Town Road’ by Lil Nas X does not currently merit inclusion on Billboard‘s country charts. When determining genres, a few factors are examined, but first and foremost is musical composition. While ‘Old Town Road’ incorporates references to country and cowboy imagery, it does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version.”
While “Old Town Road" incorporates rap, it also has elements traditionally associated with country music; the backing track features a banjo, after all. Some critics noted that mainstream country artists like Jason Aldean have released hits incorporating rap—why, then, was Lil Nas X’s song banned from the country charts?
Lil Nas X, whose real name is Montero Hill, marketed the tune as a country song when submitting it to streaming platforms like Spotify and iTunes.
“I labeled it ‘country’ on each platform,” he told Rolling Stone. “Country trap doesn’t even exist when you’re picking out the genres to upload, and I feel like it leans more towards country than trap.”
Trap is a subgenre of rap music that typically features bass-heavy beats, dark ambience, and crisp hi-hats.
Hill hasn’t gone out of his way to stoke the controversy, and he says he understands why some people want to label it a rap song.
“I wasn’t expecting so much support because I just thought it would be one of those things that nobody really would care about,” he said. “It’s a purist type of situation, where people have been seeing things one way and that is the way they would like to keep it.”
For what it’s worth, a number of artists have come to Hill’s defense during the controversy. Rapper Ski Mask the Slump God called Billboard’s decision “discrimination at its finest,” and country legend Billy Ray Cyrus contributed a verse to an “Old Town Road" remix in an effort to force Billboard’s hand.
“It was so obvious to me after hearing the song just one time,” Cyrus wrote on Twitter. “I was thinking, what’s not country about it? What’s the rudimentary element of a country and western song? Then I thought, it’s honest, humble, and has an infectious hook, and a banjo. What the hell more do ya need?”
In April 2019, facing mounting pressure to defend its decision, Billboard released a statement indicating that their staff may “revisit" the classification. Here’s part of their statement:
"Determining which chart a song lives on is an ongoing process that depends on a number of factors, most notably the song’s musical composition, but also how the song is marketed and promoted, the musical history of the artist, airplay the song receives and how the song is platformed on streaming services.
Billboard welcomes the excitement created by genre-blending tracks such as Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” and will continue to monitor how it is marketed and how fans respond.
Our initial decision to remove “Old Town Road” from the Hot Country Songs chart could be revisited as these factors evolve."
Regardless of its classification status, “Old Town Road" is a bonafide hit. At the time we wrote this answer, the song had tied the all-time record for most weeks in the No.1 position of Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. With 16 weeks in the top position, it has matched Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito" and Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s “One Sweet Day.”