SFJ: Genre is a way to form a cohort, assemble a playlist, get your recording misfiled, use your peers for a leapfrog, and mark change over time. What is going on with "Old Town Road"?
Jennifer Carroll Lena: Some context might help. Musicological genres (rock, rap, country) emerged and are sticky because corporations make money from them. In particular, Billboard invented (added, and revised) genre categories, collected data on format (single, album) and style (rock, dance) “performance,” and then sold that to market actors at a nominal cost, in a predictable format with consistent frequency. (See also Nielsen, best seller lists, and the College rankings.) These “market information regimes” convey the impression that the information is valid and vitally important for making sense of a marketplace. Market information regimes, like Billboard’s, emphasize their scientific data collection—their trustworthiness. So label heads and radio conglomerates use this data to make management decisions. Any ontological challenge to genre is a financial threat to virtually everyone making money from music.
SFJ: “Old Town Road” seems like some Reese’s-level synergy and that sounds like money. Why not have two genres tagged here? Who pushed back and why? Were we just all trolled into this Billy Ray Cyrus moment by his management team?
JCL: We get conflicting accounts from Billboard’s official statement. It both conveys the spurious assertion that their chart classifications were ever made on the basis of some rigorous assessment of musicological characteristics (“does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music to chart in its current version”), and says the decision was about organizational efficiency (“Billboard said that its chart decisions were determined by factors including the promotion of a song and its reception at radio and on streaming services”). So, why? I’m afraid part of the answer lies with the mostly analytically vacuous concept of “disruption.” Twenty million streaming listens, and source DNA from a track on BeatStars. Is Lil Nas X strategically capitalizing on the belief that mastery of digital life can undermine old media’s oligopolistic stranglehold, or is he a branding genius, or are those the same?
Joe Levy: The best thing I read on this was the Brian Feldman piece in New York Magazine detailing Lil Nas X’s background as a Tweetdecker known as Nas Maraj, and his management's efforts to deny and erase this past. He’s a master at meme riding and the manipulation of digital trends to gain audience. Which, Feldman reports, got Nas Maraj suspended from Twitter. You can look at Billboard's delisting “Old Town Road” from the country charts the same way: they're reacting to the gaming of the system. That's not a defense. I believe the audience has already validated this as a country song (which would be just the latest example of the audience being ahead of radio and labels). The TikTok meme that helped drive the song is very literal — you sip a drink (yee yee juice, yee haw juice or horse juice) and you turn into a cowboy. No one seems to take this seriously, but what else does pop music do except provide a space for collective acts of the imagination, or transformation?
SFJ: How much is race a factor? It seems impossible to not see this as a genre moment coated with race dust, though it could be country vs. hip-hop, which is not necessarily the same thing.
JCL: I’d say race is very much a factor and that is being played out as country vs. hip-hop, at least in this manufactured world of genre. There’s more racial segregation promoted by the labels and charts than most of us experience in our lives (which isn’t to say that any form is defensible); yet another piece of evidence that these genre terms are industrial, not social. They describe flows of money, not creative or listening communities.
JL: The Billboard record for most weeks on top of the Hot Country Songs chart was broken last year by "Meant to Be," the Bebe Rexha-Florida Georgia Line duet. That's a pop song. A good one, but straight up pop. It has zero “elements of today’s country music,” unless an AutoTuned drawl is a defining characteristic of today’s country music. (Okay — one element.) It’s a little too simple to say there’s your answer, since “Meant to Be” is a pop song featuring an established country act. But the banjo in “Old Town Road,” the mention of a cowboy hat and Wranglers, to say nothing of the horse? Those are more elements of country music than you’ll find in “Meant to Be.”
SFJ: But this discussion happens publicly, between the money players, in the language of aesthetics. What is actually happening is not in the press releases. If you had to work for the Death Star and were asked by a news outlet to describe what “country” “is,” how would you do the job?
JCL: I’d argue that country music—American vernacular music—is a big tent that can make space for lots of people and their traditions. If I’m in the business I have both financial and ethical incentives to encourage listeners to find more music and love it. Fences do not make good neighbors; they produce detentes. So I’m spending my ten minute interview name dropping Freddy Fender and Trevino; Kane Brown and Marvin Rainwater; Melissa Polinar and Matthew Tan; Chely Wright and Marsha Stevens; Bradley Walker and Mandy Harvey. I’d paraphrase Michele Obama and say that when other labels are selling to our worst, most protectionist and conservative instincts, I go high.
JL: It was never one thing (country and western). Nothing in American popular culture really is, and the mythologies that claim otherwise are constantly challenged by the power and freedoms of pop culture itself. But if I’m working for the Death Star, I’m launching a Voyager probe packed with music. Maybe my playlist will start with Faron Young’s “Just Out of Reach” and Solomon Burke’s version. Maybe it will start with Bob Wills’ “Ida Red” and Chuck Berry’s rewiring, “Maybelline.” This is a long conversation, so it will be a long playlist.