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Tuesday, December 31, 2019

December 31, 2019: 2019 in Review: “Old Town Road”

[2019—it’s been real, it’s been good, but it ain’t been real good. Actually, I’m not even sure I’d say it’s been good, but it has definitely been eventful. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of major 2019 stories I haven’t been able to cover on the blog, leading up to a few predictions for what’s likely to be an even more eventful 2020.]
On three contexts for one of the year’s (and music history’s) most surprising smash hits.
1)      Black Cowboys: Yes, that’s the title of an underrated Springsteen song from his Devils and Dust album, but for once I’m not (mostly) talking here about Bruce. Instead, I’m talking about an even more under-remembered group of historical figures, the African American cowboys who constituted a striking percentage of that labor force (one in four!) yet remain nearly invisible in our collective myths and narratives. The wonderful, equal parts historical and mythic autobiography Life and Adventures of Nat Love (1907) offers one compelling way in to engaging with this largely forgotten American community. But so, in its 21st century way, does Lis Nas X’s “Old Town Road.” As much as the song is part of an evolving country music tradition (on which more in a moment), it is even more directly part of cowboy culture, right down to the stereotypical “Wranglers” about which I wrote in this post. A playlist that, yes, could start with an evocative pairing of “Road” with Springsteen’s “Black Cowboys.”
2)      Cross-Cultural Country: “Road” was already a hit before Billboard temporarily banned it from the country music charts for “not embracing enough elements of today’s country music,” but that controversial (and eventually rescinded) move certainly helped take the song to a new level of attention and popularity (and seems to have led to the remix featuring Billy Ray Cyrus that really sent the song into the stratosphere). I agree with takes that Billboard’s move was at least frustratingly discriminatory (if not outright racist), not least because many other crossover hits, such as last year’s Bebe Rexha and Florida Georgia Line track “Meant to Be,” have had no such challenges. But the decision was also historically misinformed, both to the long legacy of African American country artists and to the related and even more overarching reality that country music has always been an amalgam of many genres, sounds, styles, and cultural forms. For all those reasons, “Road” belongs not just on the country charts, but in the country pantheon.
3)      Out Artists: While the song’s success was a huge surprise, I think it might have been an even bigger twist (at least for those of us not initially familiar with Lil Nas X’s album or career beyond the song, which I have to believe was most of us) when Lil Nas X came out publicly as gay on the last day of Pride Month. We have of course come a long way from the days (only a few decades back) when an artist like Freddie Mercury had to keep his sexual orientation secret in order to avoid backlash (if not blacklisting), but I would argue that genres like country and rap (the two that Lil Nas X combines so potently in “Road”) continue to suffer from homophobia (although of course there are other openly gay artists in both those genres). In any case, for Lil Nas X to come out at precisely the height of his song’s popularity was a striking and bold choice, and one that added another vital context to the ground-breaking success of “Old Town Road.”
Next 2019 review tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? 2019 stories you’d highlight?

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