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2019 Was the Year That… Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’ Put a Bow on the Decade

To recap the decade that was, Billboard is looking at one major theme from each year and explaining how it dominated that 12-month period. Below, we end with 2019, a year where one song dominated the…

To recap the decade that was, Billboard is looking at one major theme from each year and explaining how it dominated that 12-month period. Below, we end with 2019, a year where one song dominated the charts and the discussion in a way that no single previously had in the 2010s.

When you look at the credits section of the Wiki page for “Old Town Road,” you just have to laugh at the traveling circus the song amassed before all was said and done. Rapper and songwriter Lil Nas X and producer YoungKio, naturally, as well as Nine Inch Nails mastermind Trent Reznor and regular collaborator Atticus Ross as secondhand writer/producers. Then EDM star Diplo as a remixer, and country star-turned-pop-patriarch Billy Ray Cyrus, Atlanta rap innovator Young Thug, “Yodeling Boy” Mason Ramsey and K-pop star RM as guest artists. Even Jake Owen, one of Nashville’s biggest hitmakers of the early ’10s, is listed as a songwriter on Remix 3. It’d be a festival lineup that wouldn’t make sense in any context, a radio block that’d make your head hurt in three songs. And in 2019, it all added up to the longest-reigning hit in Hot 100 history, a song that summarized a lot about the past decade and likely predicted even more about the next one.

2010Turbo-Pop Ruled the Radio | 2011Adele Revived the Music Industry 2012EDM Infiltrated Everything | 2013Streaming Became Unignorable 2014Cultural Appropriation Dominated the Pop Music Discussion | 2015Canadians Ran Popular Music | 2016: Every Major Album Release Was an Event | 2017Latin Pop Took Over the U.S. | 2018Hip-Hop Took Its Victory Lap

The story of “Old Town Road” is a wide-ranging one that spans several genres, continents and generations, but it begins and ends on the Internet. That’s where the artist born Montero Hill decided to be a rapper in the first place (mostly to amuse his Twitter followers); that’s where he bought a dusty-sounding, Nine Inch Nails-sampling beat from a Dutch producer named YoungKio for $30; that’s where he released the two-minute, country-themed song (uploading it to SoundCloud, YouTube and iTunes) in December 2018; and of course, that’s where he promoted it, feeding it into Twitter memes and generating fake buzz for it on Reddit and eventually getting it to catch on and go viral through TikTok, the short video-sharing service whose booming popularity and impact was starting to spill over into larger pop culture. By the time Lil Nas X was signed to Columbia Records in March 2019, he’d already laid all the groundwork necessary for it to become a No. 1 Hot 100 hit — which it did, on the chart dated April 13 — just as an unsigned 20-year-old screwing around online and trying to not get kicked out of his sister’s house.

Viral hits were nothing new to pop music in the 2010s, from Rebecca Black and Psy becoming YouTube sensations at the decade’s beginning, to Twitter and Instagram driving challenges that propelled “Black Beatles” and “In My Feelings” to chart-topping success in the decade’s second half. But “Old Town Road” was something of a first in the way it was engineered from its very inception to be an Internet hit, actively pushed and promoted as such by its creator (who was then still far more practiced with producing viral content than he was with producing actual music) at every turn until social media had almost no choice but to let it take over. And while in past eras that naked self-promotion might’ve been gotten Lil Nas X branded as uncool or inauthentic, in 2019 — when labels are less omnipotent than ever, and artists are more responsible for shaping their own destinies than ever — it just made him a savvy DIY practitioner.

But there’s a difference between getting a song to No. 1 and keeping it at No. 1, and Lil Nas X was hardly content with the former: Three days before the song was announced as the top song in the country, the song’s first remix was revealed, with a well-known country artist as a special guest. Throwing out new remixes of a song in large part to goose stream and/or download totals and try to get a song over the chart hump was a well-established practice among artists nearing the Hot 100’s top in the 2010s, often with an exciting or headline-grabbing guest artist in tow. But Lil Nas X’s greatest inspiration came with the casting not of a particularly hip or timely country star as his supporting act, but ’90s proto-viral star and Hannah Montana dad Billy Ray Cyrus. It was a left-field choice that felt authentic to the Lil Nas X experience, and indeed was something that he had effectively wished into existence by tweeting about it months earlier. And rather than feel tacked on — as many guest remix contributions do — Cyrus’ verse fleshed out the song, made it feel complete.

Of course, Cyrus’ contributions to “Old Town Road” were as much spiritual as they were practical. From nearly the beginning of the song’s ascent, questions abounded about whether or not “Road” was, as Lil Nas X had initially tagged the song on SoundCloud and iTunes for largely marketing reasons, a country song. That discussion was largely ignited in March when Billboard made the call to remove the song from the Hot Country Songs chart, due in part to Lil Nas X’s lack of recording history in the genre, and an unclear promotion or marketing plan by Columbia to country radio and streaming platforms. Questions were raised about who in the industry gets to decide what is and isn’t a country song, about whether certain demographics were getting unfairly excluded in a genre largely dominated by white males, and about how genre should even be defined in an era where lines were getting blurrier every day. Regardless, Cyrus functioned as a sort of genre ambassador on the remix, both lending Lil Nas X his approval and helping him navigate the country space, almost rendering the entire argument over the original song a moot point.

Due to the combination of media exposure following the Billboard chart decision, and the higher plane of popularity the song reached following the Cyrus remix, “Old Town Road” reached a level of cultural omnipresence rarely seen in the 2010s. But rather than leave well enough alone with it and let the song continue to gather steam on its own, Lil Nas X and his team continued to push on it, recording several new remixes for the song that continued to keep it in the headlines, while garnering extra streams and downloads and to help keep it humming at No. 1 on the Hot 100. And when there wasn’t a new remix to debut, the rapper still found new ways to keep the song in the mix — a new video, the release of his accompanying 7 EP, a Twitter campaign — and prevent its momentum from ever sagging. In the meantime, several of the biggest pop stars in the world (Taylor Swift, Shawn Mendes, Ed Sheeran) released new songs, but each proved unable to knock Lil Nas X from his perch at No. 1, as his run on the chart started to threaten the same 16-week history Luis Fonsi & Daddy Yankee’s Justin Bieber-featuring “Despacito” had tied two years earlier.


Eventually, not only did “Old Town Road” pass the record for most weeks spent at No. 1 on the Hot 100 — tied by “Despacito,” but unsurpassed in 23-plus years since Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men initially set the mark with “One Sweet Day” — but it exceeded it by three, spending 19 weeks in total on top. It just went to show how wildly unprecedented the entire “Old Town Road” experience was: Never had a new young artist with zero chart history come out of nowhere to have such a stratospheric chart hit before, and certainly not one that they made happen virtually on their own, simply by applying heavy amounts of elbow grease to all the right Internet and social media pressure points. It was only possible in the streaming age, in a world with increasingly lax borders around genres, and a media era where narrative framing drives absolutely everything. Lil Nas X also came out as gay about halfway through the song’s run at No. 1 — something that would have had serious commercial implications for a rapper ten years earlier — and not only did it not materially affect the song’s popularity, it didn’t even really become one of the most-discussed things about the rapper. The whole thing really could have only happened at the end of the 2010s.

And while there may never again be a phenomenon quite like “Old Town Road” again, 2019 did see a couple other breakout stars who shared telling elements of Lil Nas X’s narrative. Billie Eilish was another under-21 sensation who had built a following through social media, broken a lot of genre barriers and just generally crash-landed into a U.S. mainstream that didn’t totally know what to do with her. While her creepy visuals, death-infatuated lyrics and occasionally grinding, industrial sonics certainly made her feel alternative, she also was very much just a goofy kid who grew up idolizing Justin Bieber and watching The Office, and despite her parents’-worst-nightmare roleplaying on her Hot 100-topping spook-pop smash “Bad Guy,” adults generally tended to get her almost as well as their kids did. Eilish set streaming records for debut album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? and was embraced at essentially all levels of the music industry; last night, she became the youngest artist to ever be named Billboard‘s Woman of the Year, proving just how alright the kids are moving into the next decade.


Meanwhile, Lizzo was another rapper who also crossed over so far into pop that it may prove tough for her to find her way back — and she also did so thanks in large part to TIkTok virality. Her triumphant soul-hop singalong “Truth Hurts” was well over a year older than “Old Town Road” by the time its “I just took a DNA test, turns out…” opening spread around videos on the service, but its 2017 release date didn’t stop it from becoming one of the biggest hits of 2019, topping the Hot 100 for seven weeks. Her follow-up was even older: “Good as Hell,” a 2016 affirmation rediscovered on streaming services in the midst of “Truth Hurts” mania — and following a couple award show performances and a gradual radio embrace, nearly as big a hit as “Truth,” peaking at No. 3 on the Hot 100 in November. The lesson of Lizzo’s success was clear: If you have the songs, keep putting them out there to be discovered, and the Internet will take care of the rest.

The world of popular music at the end of the 2010s is a wildly unpredictable one, where new stars are minted overnight and old ones can return at full strength seemingly at a moment’s notice, where genre’s overall collapse makes radio playlists and Grammy ballots close to impossible to properly fill out, and where the future of the genre seems to mostly be in the hands of a bunch of kids. As for Lil Nas X’s ongoing role in all that, he had a second top 5 hit with the bleating singalong “Panini,” but still seems largely undecided in terms of the scope and direction of his general artistry, and where he wants to go from here in his career. But once he gets all that together, well, he knows where to find us to let us know — and he certainly knows how to get our attention.