Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’ breaks singles record

Lil Nas X performimg at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. His version of “Old Town Road” has been No. 1 on the Billboard charts longer than any other song. Jeff Wheeler / Minneapolis Star Tribune

The longest-running No. 1 single in the 61-year history of Billboard’s Hot 100 chart is not by Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Michael Jackson or Madonna.

And no longer is that record held by “One Sweet Day” by Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men, from 1995, or “Despacito,” the 2017 Latin smash by Luis Fonsi, with Daddy Yankee and Justin Bieber — both of which held the top spot for 16 weeks.

The new champion is as much a novelty song as it is a meme and an object lesson in the state of music marketing: Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” which — after its latest blast of remixes and videos — on Monday notched its 17th week atop Billboard’s flagship singles chart.

In its latest week, “Old Town Road” had 72.5 million streams in the United States and was played 7,200 times on the radio, according to Nielsen. Although the song’s lead has been slipping in recent weeks — Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” had 51 million streams last week, and twice as many radio plays as “Old Town Road” — it was enough to lead Lil Nas X to a historic run.

Since it first topped the chart in April, “Old Town Road” has consistently had huge numbers, often with two or three times as many streams as its closest competitor. Along the way it has blocked new songs by chart giants like Taylor Swift, Ed Sheeran, Eilish and Shawn Mendes from reaching No. 1.

And the song has been a pervasive cultural phenomenon for much of the year, with an endless series of online memes — many generated by Lil Nas X himself — and in-real-life moments that have then spread across social media. In May, for example, the rapper stirred up a gym full of Ohio schoolchildren; last week, the song even made its way into a Blondie set.

The rise of “Old Town Road” — and the week-by-week maintenance of its chart position — is in some ways a story of an old-fashioned one-hit wonder, and in some ways a primer on the latest and most effective ways that music is promoted.

Almost from the moment that Lil Nas X released “Old Town Road” late last year, as an independent act, it was an experiment in both genre and viral marketing.

Using a backing track he bought online for $30, Lil Nas X — a college dropout from Atlanta whose real name is Montero Hill — created a “country-trap” hybrid, with a boomy bass, plucked strings and cowboyish lyrics about “horses in the back.” (The beat was derived from a Nine Inch Nails track, so Trent Reznor and his partner Atticus Ross were added to the songwriting credits.)

Lil Nas X began generating social-media memes for “Old Town Road,” and the song first became a hit on the video sharing app TikTok. Thousands of young people made short clips mugging in cowboy hats and boots with Lil Nas X’s song playing in the background, tagging their clips -yeehaw.

“I promoted the song as a meme for months until it caught on to TikTok and it became way bigger,” Lil Nas X told Time magazine.

By mid-March, he had signed to Columbia Records and first hit the mainstream news radar after Billboard removed the song from its Hot Country Songs chart, drawing criticism about the conservatism of country radio and accusations of racism. (Billboard denied that race played any part in its decision.)

But what made “Old Town Road” a lasting hit was its steady and strategic drip of remixes. The first, with Billy Ray Cyrus, sent the song to No. 1 in April. Then came Diplo’s electronic version; another with rapper Young Thug and Mason Ramsey, the 12-year-old “Walmart yodeling kid,” who was summoned awake one night to record his verse; and RM of the K-pop group BTS.

Along the way were music videos, live appearances at the Stagecoach Festival and on TV award shows, and Lil Nas X’s constant feeding of the phenomenon with tongue-in-cheek tweets that rallied the audience to his side.

“EVERYBODY STREAM ALL 79 VERSIONS OF OLD TOWN ROAD!!” he tweeted two weeks ago. “LETS BREAK THE RECORD!!”

“This is a kid who understands how the web works, how culture moves in 2019,” said Matty Karas, the curator of MusicRedef, an online news aggregator. “He understands the magic of how to make something go viral.”

In one sign of the song’s status as a classic one-hit wonder, “Old Town Road” continued to rule the singles chart even as Lil Nas X’s debut collection, an eight-song EP called “7,” was a relative dud. It opened at No. 2 — bested by Jack White’s Raconteurs — five weeks ago and has hovered in the Top 5 since. This week “7” holds at No. 4 on Billboard’s album chart.

New York Times

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