There is no other contemporary work of art that puts the notion of genre up for debate so publicly and ferociously as Lil Nas X’s and Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Old Town Road [Remix]”.
The song, which has blown up in popularity after being removed from Billboard’s “Hot Country Songs” chart after listeners and producers questioned whether it was even country at all has now garnered over 23 million views on YouTube alone and is still climbing.
For nearly two years, while I studied at the University of Waterloo, I worked as a research assistant classifying some of the 3.5 million quotations cited in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).
My full-time job was to investigate digital archives for hundreds of books and documents on a daily basis and determine what “genre” they might be classified as.
While I’m not an expert in music, I can humbly say that I’ve at least thought about the notion of genre quite a bit and “Old Town Road” is a perfect example of how the concept is not as easy as might first appear.
“Genre” as understood by most people is a word that invokes a lot of confusion. When defined by the OED, the first sense of the word means: “kind”, “sort” or “style.”
When most people think of the word “genre,” the first thing that comes to mind are book-store categories like: horror, mystery, adventure or romance.
But when you think about it further, the concept itself encompasses everything from simple advertisements, to letters, and reaches out to even encompass simple graffiti spray-painted on a bathroom wall. These are all “sorts” and “styles” of communication.
The concept of genre includes almost every art form or mode of communication known to mankind and is just as elusive as the problem of language itself.
When considering the song by Lil Nas X, we must ask: what makes it country and what makes it rap (or trap, or whatever the kids call it these days)?
In terms of content, the lyrics of “Old Town Road” barely differ from other songs on the country billboard, it speaks of stardom, partying and the cowboy life, but if content doesn’t make genre then what does?
Some people would point to the rhythm and beats per minute as evidence of the fact that the song discards the “style” which country music is often associated with, but when listening to Billy Ray Cyrus’ portion of the tune, this hardly seems the case.
Then what exactly is it? What has turned people away from the song, while also intriguing others to argue in its favour?
Is “Old Town Road” any different than the television show “Westworld” which is itself a combination of science fiction and western genre elements? Or how about the early 2000’s show “Firefly” which sought to do the same thing?
Even “country music” itself has gone a tremendous evolution as a genre and now incorporates many elements of rock and roll and electronic music, so why are people, especially corporate overlords, so resistant to the genre-bending nature of this song?
Like many things today, genre is a malleable thing, but it is also definable.
“Old Town Road” is a country song, but arguably it’s a new form of country music and it’s one I’m sure we will be seeing more of.
People must not shy away from new combinations. Remixing is good, especially for art.