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Five Burning Questions: Billboard Staffers Discuss Lil Nas X's 'Old Town Road' Tying the Hot 100 Record For Weeks at No. 1

Lil Nas X
Roy Rochlin/Getty Images

 Lil Nas X Visits Music Choice on May 1, 2019 in New York City. 

For the second time in under two years, history has been made at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. This week, on the Hot 100 dated July 27, Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road" spends its 16th week on top -- 15 of them alongside remix partner Billy Ray Cyrus -- holding Billie Eilish's "Bad Guy" at No. 2, despite a surge aided by a new remix featuring Justin Bieber.

That 16th week ties "Old Town Road" with Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men's "One Sweet Day" (1995-96) and Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee's Justin Bieber-featuring "Despacito" remix (2017) for the longest run at No. 1 since the chart was first introduced in 1958. Next week, the song will look to move into sole possession of that record, by becoming the only 17-week No. 1 in Hot 100 history. 

How do we explain the song's incredible success? And how do we feel about it potentially putting "One Sweet Day" and "Despacito" in its rearview mirror next week? Billboard staffers debate these questions and more below.

1. "Old Town Road" has now been at No. 1 for as long as any song in the 60-plus-year history of the Hot 100. Without thinking about it too much, what's your gut reaction to that sentence? 

Katie Atkinson: I didn't expect it. When it reached the 10-week mark, I guessed it would hit 12 weeks. (I was wrong.) At this point, I have no idea how far it will go. A few weeks back, Billboard awards editor Paul Grein wrote about whether "Old Town Road" would get any love at next year's Grammys, saying the question is if "voters will see the hit as a jokey novelty like 'Macarena,'" a song that spent 14 weeks at the top of the chart but wasn't honored by the Recording Academy. I would probably put "Old Town Road" in the same gimmicky category as "Macarena" and, having lived through the overwhelming 1996 dance craze, it's truly wild for me to imagine that Lil Nas X's hit is as pop-culturally dominant to its moment in time.

Tatiana Cirisano: Yeehaw! And also, holy shit! So many iconic Hot 100 artists are running through my head right now, from Britney Spears to The Beatles. And Nas beats all of them? If you had told me this four months ago, I would not have believed you -- in fact, I put my doubts in writing, and I stand corrected.

Stephen Daw: I love that sentence. With every passing week that "Old Town Road" has spent on the charts, I have only grown to love it more. Sure, that's partly because of what a meme the song has become, but it's mostly because it bangs from beginning to end.

Eric Frankenberg: Shocked! But simultaneously, it feels like a fit. The mega-pairing of mid-90s Mariah Carey with mid-90s Boyz II Men aside, Luis Fonsi, Mark Ronson, Los Del Rio, Santana, and many others dominated the Hot 100 without much warning or precedent. A newbie like Lil Nas X, with a catchy-AF sub-two-minute genre-smashing meme-hit like “Old Town Road,” makes sense these days as a 16-week chart-topper.

Andrew Unterberger: Still sorta bewildered, but not mad. I could tell pretty early that this song had already reached a level of momentum that wouldn't be slowed till it got to No. 1 -- but the fact that nearly four months later, that momentum has yet to really let up, was something I couldn't believe until I actually saw it happen. Now it has, and all I can do is tip my Gucci cowboy hat to the young man. He's earned it. 

2. Well, looks like for a second time, a Justin Bieber guest appearance proved insufficient to help unseat "Old Town Road." Of the many songs and artists Lil Nas X has kept one spot away from the top spot, which do you think is most impressive?

Katie Atkinson: Without a doubt, Taylor Swift's "ME!" Setting aside the quality of the song or where it ranks among her catalog, just looking at it as "Taylor Swift's first single since her 2017 album, PLUS music video, all of it teased over months of Easter eggs dropped weekly to a rabid fanbase," this seemed unbeatable. And yet, Lil Nas X beat it. By the time Swift's next attempt, "You Need to Calm Down," came along, I was a little more mentally prepared for the cowboy rapper to come out on top.

Tatiana Cirisano: Billie Eilish. At first glance, I wanted to say Taylor Swift -- given that she’s, well, Taylor Swift -- but I don’t see “ME!” or “You Need to Calm Down” specifically as hit material. Those songs didn’t stay near the top for long, and I imagine it was mostly our knee-jerk excitement over new Taylor material that jolted the songs to No. 2 in the first place, rather than lasting appeal. On the other hand, “Bad Guy” -- a dark and delicious slice of pop that’s arguably the superior song on this list -- seems to have had the best shot at earning No. 1 here. The hit has hovered steadily in the top three for almost two months! It was remixed with Justin Bieber, dammit! Eilish’s fans are notoriously obsessive, too. It’s not just impressive to me that Lil Nas X beat the teen star, but also a little bit shocking.

Stephen Daw: The fact that Lil Nas X boxed out Taylor Swift not once, but twice, is really surprising to me. Yes, Bieber has a better history on the charts than Swift, but he was the featured artist on "I Don't Care" and "Bad Guy," whereas Taylor is introducing her fans to her entire new Lover era. I think the fact that Lil Nas X managed to keep "Me!" at No. 2 is pretty impressive. That song had all of the assured signs of a chart success: a gargantuan music video with cameos and easter eggs and massive production value, a week-long tease of new music leading up to the single's release, even a feature appearance from a newly minted mainstream pop fixture in Brendon Urie. But it was all for naught, because as we've stated already, "Old Town Road" is a true bop. Period.

Eric Frankenberg: Based on combined star power and momentum in 2019, I was sure that Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber would debut at No. 1 upon the announcement of “I Don’t Care.” Both artists have set Billboard chart records in the streaming era. Both artists debuted at No. 1 with their last lead singles and both hit No. 1 again later in their respective album cycles. Two of those No. 1 singles topped consecutive year-end Hot 100 rankings (in 2016 and 2017). Bieber’s 2016 year-end chart-topper in was even co-written by Sheeran himself. On paper, it was a sure thing -- shout out to “ME!” as well -- but their (still impressive) No. 2 debut, along with those by Taylor Swift and Shawn Mendes, serves as a reminder that in the streaming era, you’re only as strong as your current hit... or at the mercy of the opposing hit dominating the Hot 100.

Andrew Unterberger: I'll say a combination of Bieber/Sheeran (about as powerful a teamup from within the pop aristocracy as you could ask for) and Eilish on her own (as electric a pop breakout force as we've seen in 2019) as being the most impressive, since it demonstrates that OTR was phenom enough to hold off both the Top 40 establishment and its insurgent new class. Also, let's not forget about Post Malone and Drake, arguably the two most indomitable Hot 100 forces of 2018, who've also had new songs kept outside the moat during Lil Nas X's reign as king of the castle. 

3. The 16-week mark of "One Sweet Day" stood tall for over 20 years, and now it's been tied twice in two years. Coincidence, or do you think there's something about the way the charts or pop music works in the late '10s that makes 16-week No. 1s more feasible? 

Katie Atkinson: We can't exactly adjust the Hot 100 for inflation like they do with box-office rankings, but I would be so curious to see how a song like "Macarena" would perform in this streaming era. Would it have spent even more time up top? Or would it have spent less time (or not even made it to the top) if kids could have just pulled up the video on YouTube and learned the dance in one hour and then moved on, à la the No. 3-peaking "Watch Me (Whip/Nae Nae)" by Silentó? Since three makes a trend, it will be interesting to see what that third megahit song might be and whether it can also coast to 16 weeks. Mariah will not be pleased if that's the case.

Tatiana Cirisano: I think the semi-recent trend of all-star remixes has something to do with it. Nowadays, the trick to maintaining a hit song’s momentum is simple: Add a new star, stir and serve. Just as guest Justin Bieber helped propel “Despacito” to No. 1, Lil Nas X called on Billy Ray Cyrus, Mason Ramsey, Young Thug and Diplo for various remixes to make sure fans keep spinning “Old Town Road.” It seems there are now more ways to promote a single than ever, whether through the artist’s social media (definitely a major factor for meme expert Lil Nas), a fan-led dance challenge, TV and awards show appearances or multiple music video versions. 

Stephen Daw: I think it absolutely has to do with stan culture. Back in 1995, fans weren't nearly as connected with one another as they are today thanks to social media. Now, with the evolution of online fandom being what it is, fans go out of their way to make sure that songs get as many streams and purchases as they possibly can by promoting them endlessly with one another. That, combined with the fact that fans have chart data and records more readily available to them at all times, means that these supporters have become more directly involved in pushing a song straight to the top of the charts.

Eric Frankenberg: “Despacito” and “Old Town Road” were and are phenomena and it would be unfair to say that their success atop the Hot 100 is simply a sign of the times. But... it’s also kind of a sign of the times. Of 38 songs that have topped the chart for 10 or more weeks (in over 60 years), 10 of them have happened since 2015, versus six between 2005-2009. If you loved Mariah Carey's 14-week No. 1 “We Belong Together,” you bought it once and that was essentially the end of your affect on its Hot 100 run. If you love “Old Town Road," you may still be listening to it constantly, forever increasing its stream count and ultimately, its chart position. It’s easy to imagine songs as overwhelmingly popular as “Yeah!,” “I Gotta Feeling,” and “Low” stretching their No. 1 reigns a bit further with the benefit of streaming, perhaps toward the 16-week mark.

Andrew Unterberger: Streaming definitely has a large part to do with it, as in the last six years we've generally seen Hot 100 records being approached, tied and broken at a level analogous to baseball during the peak of the steroids era. But I wouldn't rule flukiness out entirely, either: "Despacito" and "Old Town Road" were both the type of unpredictable, life-of-their-own phenomena that might show up only once or twice in an entire decade, and are never guaranteed to enjoy such unimpeded Hot 100 success. If you told me the next 16-week No. 1 happened two years from now, I'd believe it, but if you told me it took another 20 years for another to come around, I wouldn't be shocked either. 

4. "One Sweet Day," "Despacito" (Remix) and "Old Town Road" (Remix): You have to listen to one on repeat on the way to work, play one at the peak of the next party you host, and perform one at your next karaoke function. Which do you choose for each? 

Katie Atkinson: Wow, the f---, marry, kill of music! OK, I'm prioritizing the song I play at my next party, because that's the one that most reflects on me and my music tastes. For that reason, I'm playing "Old Town Road" because it will make the most sense in the year 2019, whereas the other two would be truly hard to explain (and I'm following it up with Blanco Brown's "The Git Up," and then maybe some Bubba Sparxxx and just leaning into the whole country-rap theme).

Next up is karaoke, and since there's no chance I'm attempting to sing Spanish in front of a crowd, I'll pick "One Sweet Day." Hopefully I can recruit my husband to handle the Boyz II Men parts while I try to keep my head above water singing Mimi's high notes. Finally, I'm jamming to "Despacito" on repeat in my car, where I can comfortably belt out the "pasito a pasito, suave suavecito" part without judgment.

Tatiana Cirisano: “One Sweet Day” on repeat on the way to work (instant commute-stress-reliever!), “Despacito” at the peak of the party (the most dance-able of the three), and “Old Town Road” at the next karaoke function (although if I don’t, someone else surely will).

Stephen Daw: "Old Town Road" is definitely a commute song for me. It's upbeat and catchy enough to start energizing you before going into the office, but not so much that it's jarring in the morning. While "Despacito" has been played out, absolutely everyone will know it and start grooving to it on the dance floor, whether they like it or not. And "One Sweet Day" is the best kind of song to do at karaoke: if you're not great at singing, you can get a lot of friends up there to attempt those whistle notes with you for a laugh; if you're a great singer, then you get to show off just how great you are by hitting some fat trills at the end. 

Eric Frankenberg: “One Sweet Day” is the song I’d listen to on repeat. I take the subway to work but I’m imagining myself in my own car so that I can sing along at top volume without the rest of New York hearing (and judging) me. “Despacito (Remix)” will be for the party. The remix(es) for “Old Town Road” already feels like a karaoke classic. It’s short, it’s an easy sing-along, and there is no wrong choice of the four verses that can be split among friends.

Andrew Unterberger: Gonna go the slightly unconventional route here and say that while I'll do "Old Town Road" on repeat in the morning -- it's almost custom-designed to survive that level of replay -- I'll use "One Sweet Day" as my party song. Nothing wrong with a little group singalong as a party intermezzo, and if the experience is too intense for any of my guests (or, worse, they think the song is lame), I don't really need to be wasting drinks on them anyway. Then I'll try my hand at "Despacito" karaoke: a challenge for sure, but I'm willing to put in the leg-work ahead of time, and there's always the reassurance that no way could my version be as much of an embarrassment as Bieber's own

5. Allowing that none of us have any direct impact on the actual result, be honest: Are you rooting for "Old Town Road" to set the new all-time Hot 100 record next week?

Katie Atkinson: I think of Mariah as the unofficial Queen of Billboard, so the idea of her ceding one of her crown jewels has me a little bummed. But records are made to be broken -- even Mariah knows that, as evidenced by her cheeky Twitter response to Lil Nas X inviting her to be on an "Old Town Road" remix -- so we might need to start carving out some extra space in our Hot 100 Mount Rushmore for the 10-gallon-hat-wearing rapper.

Tatiana Cirisano: Definitely. It’s refreshing to see an artist reach this level of success by simply doing their own thing, tearing down stereotypes and peeling back the curtain on fame (as Lil Nas does with his must-follow social media accounts). To me, there’s also something hopeful and world-affirming about the support behind “Old Town Road.” I don’t mean to be overly simplistic, but if this song -- with all of its perceived contradictions -- can reach the top, maybe the world is less close-minded than recent headlines would have us believe.

Stephen Daw: Yes, 100 percent. I don't need the song to go on and stay at the top of the charts for much longer than that, but now that we've come this far, I need to see Lil Nas X complete his goal. 

Eric Frankenberg: Absolutely. As a lifelong chart nerd, it’s been a 23-year journey watching Eminem, Beyoncé, Elton John, and even Mariah Carey herself challenge this record. I would be thrilled to see a queer black cowboy-rap newcomer stroll, err, ride along to 17 weeks.

Andrew Unterberger: I always end up rooting against the 16-week Hot 100 record being broken, since that's the record I most grew up with as a chart-watcher and the one I consider to be Billboard's most sacred. But if it has to fall, this is the kind of hit it should be falling to: innovative and accessible, classic and new, and somehow both immaculately contrived and refreshingly organic. 

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