It wasn’t just the controversy, the memes, or all those remixes.
In the nearly four months since I last had a new No. 1 hit to write about for Slate, there have been moments, I’ll admit, when I wondered whether Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” was a deep, real, culture-connecting No. 1 hit, or just a clever internet meme that got lucky. Ultimately, my last lingering doubts were dispelled sometime around the end of May, when this popped up in my social feed. Maybe this is the moment you realized “Old Town Road” was for real, too:
Eat your heart out, “Baby Shark.” The zeal with which this army of school kids sang—screamed!—every word along with Lil Nas X says more than anything I could write about the cultural resonance of “Old Town Road,” the song that, today, sets the all-time record for longevity atop Billboard’s six-decade-old Hot 100 pop chart.
Now in its 17th week at No. 1—16 of those weeks with credited support by country veteran Billy Ray Cyrus—“Old Town Road” breaks out of a three-way tie for longest run on top. Two years ago, 2017’s Song of the Summer, “Despacito” by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee featuring Justin Bieber, very nearly took the all-time crown with 16 weeks on top. Foiled in their would-be Week 17 by a headline-mongering Taylor Swift, the three-man team had to settle for a tie with a now-24-year-old song that, until this week, proved impossible to beat: the monster-melisma duet “One Sweet Day” by Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men, which also spent 16 weeks on top back in 1995 and ’96. Where Fonsi, Daddy, and Bieber couldn’t close the deal, X and Cyrus bring the horses home: “Old Town Road” finally shunts Carey/Boyz to second place, takes first place all to itself, and shows no sign of slowing down. At this point, 20 weeks at No. 1 for “Road” is not impossible to imagine.
Could anyone have seen this coming? Even if Montero Lamar Hill—who won’t be legal to drink until next year—never scores a major hit again, his place in the pop-song firmament will be secure. As secure as that of All-4-One, Los Del Río, and Robin Thicke, all chart acts with a single smash that spent months atop the Hot 100. Maybe you barely remember the artists, but you almost certainly remember “I Swear” (11 weeks, 1994), “Macarena” (14 weeks, 1996), and “Blurred Lines” (12 weeks, 2013). None of these acts came close to No. 1 again. So far, neither has Lil Nas X—his follow-up single, the Nirvana-interpolating “Panini,” already peaked at No. 16 a month ago (when “Old Town Road” was in its 13th week on top). But one doubts X is thinking about the dreaded follow-up as he’s popping Champagne today. His chart feat is stunning, and it’s real.
I feel I need to say this directly—“it’s real”—to stake a claim for Lil Nas X’s achievement and establish for skeptical readers that we should regard this moment as meaningful. In my years as a pop-chart analyst, I find I am often called upon to not only translate the charts and explain how they work but to reinforce that they mean something. You’d be surprised how often the final question I get in interviews is “Do the charts still matter?” Obviously I am biased—for most of my life, I have been deeply invested in the idea that they matter—so caveat emptor. But regardless of my opinion or yours, Lil Nas X has scored the longest-lasting No. 1 hit of all time because he either anticipated or leveraged several key factors that make a hit huge. In explaining how “Old Town Road” pulled this off, let’s break down five of those factors—some of which date back decades and some of which are very specific to the 2010s.
One thing you’ll notice right away about the three songs with the most weeks on top in Hot 100 history is none is by a single artist: Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men in ’95–’96; Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, and Justin Bieber in ’17; and Lil Nas X with Billy Ray Cyrus in ’19. Each single was perceived as a capital-e Event in its day, a coming together of artists from different corners of pop. And arguably, none of the three would have topped the chart for as many months as it did without that supersizing impact.
You can pretty much measure this numerically. Carey, for example, was already at the zenith of her imperial phase in late 1995 and topping the Hot 100 on the regular. (She still holds the record among solo artists for most chart toppers, with 18, which ranks second only to the Beatles.) Immediately prior to the arrival of “One Sweet Day,” Carey had just been to No. 1 with “Fantasy,” an up-tempo jam and the lead single from her Daydream album. “Fantasy” spent eight weeks at No. 1 when she dropped the Boyz II Men duet as Daydream’s second single. Boyz were themselves at an imperial high point, just one year past their own 14-week No. 1 song, “I’ll Make Love to You” and a string of follow-up hits. So it stood to reason that “Sweet” would spend literally twice as long on top, 16 weeks, as “Fantasy,” Carey’s immediate predecessor. Is “Sweet” twice as great a song as “Fantasy”? You be the judge, but two decades later, “Fantasy” is the Carey song you’re much likelier to hear on the radio: Broadcast Data Systems reports it got played on U.S. terrestrial radio five times more than “Sweet” last week (the ODB remix helps), and “Fantasy” also has higher streams at Spotify and stronger sales at iTunes than “One Sweet Day.” But in its day, “One Sweet Day” was the event single, and its run on top reflected that.
In the case of both “Despacito” and “Old Town Road,” the addition of a guest was vital to the song’s long command. Famously, Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s hit was a Latin-chart monster, but on the all-genre, primarily Anglophone Hot 100, it was unable to crack the Top 10, let alone hit No. 1, until Bieber added his English verse (and some passable phonetic Spanish) to the track. In the case of “Old Town Road,” let’s give Lil Nas X credit—he got the song to No. 1 by himself, even before Billy Ray Cyrus was brought in for the remix. But there is no question the addition of Cyrus magnified everything about “Old Town Road”: its notoriety, its runtime, its airplay, and, most importantly in 2019, its streaming totals. Speaking of which …
Streaming was not a factor when “One Sweet Day” was a hit. But in the late ’10s, the era of both “Despacito” and “Old Town Road,” streaming is not only a third component but the largest factor measured by the Hot 100. Streaming is a more finely tuned measure than the chart has ever had on what music Americans actively choose to consume on a regular basis. And it’s the single biggest reason “Road” has held the top of the charts this long.
When I last wrote about “Old Town Road” for Slate, the week in April that it first hit No. 1, I called its streaming total “blockbuster” at just shy of 50 million streams. I hadn’t seen anything yet. That was the song’s smallest week of streams in its four-month run on top. The week the Billy Ray Cyrus remix dropped—the song’s second week at No. 1—it set an all-time streaming record: a stunning 143 million U.S. streams, nearly 30 million higher than previous record-holder “In My Feelings” by Drake. But the monstrous streaming numbers didn’t end there. Since that week in April, “Road” has racked up eight of the top 10 all-time streaming weeks, including the entire top three, and it has never fallen below 70.5 million streams in a week. Many, including Lil Nas X himself, have noted that the song’s short runtime is optimized for the streaming era—but even after the 40-percent-longer Cyrus remix dropped, its streams have remained world-historically high.
What this has meant is that, for most of this 17-week run, the chart-points gap between “Road” at No. 1 and whatever has ranked No. 2 has been a ratio of at least 1.3-to-1, according to Billboard, and often much higher. (At least one week, “Road” had almost double the chart points of its nearest competitor.) X’s streaming numbers—plus digital downloads, where “Road” has also been a steady seller—more than made up for X’s less impressive airplay. The song never got past No. 2 on Billboard’s Radio Songs chart.
What this has also meant is Lil Nas X has been a regular giant killer. He’s vanquished would-be Songs of Summer from a battalion of pop titans, all of whom had to settle for a No. 2 Hot 100 peak, including Post Malone, Taylor Swift (twice), Shawn Mendes (twice—the second time with Camila Cabello), and, in another event collaboration, Ed Sheeran and Justin Bieber. The most frustrated has been 2019’s most-buzzed-about new artist, Billie Eilish. Her sly, sinister “Bad Guy” has been the sleeper hit of the summer, and it has ranked No. 2 multiple weeks. By herself, Eilish got “Guy” to the runner-up slot in June, after months of steadily growing streams and airplay. This month, just after “Old Town Road” scored its 15th week at No. 1, Team Eilish attempted its most brazen gambit: dropping a new remix of “Bad Guy” featuring a vocal by Justin Bieber. The Bieber remix boosted “Guy” by nearly 40 percent in streams and more than 60 percent in download sales, but it still wasn’t enough.
Of course, given its massive lead, “Road” might’ve remained No. 1 even if Team X had done nothing at all to fend off Team Eilish. But young Mr. Hill hasn’t been taking any chances, which brings up another chart factor that’s made a huge difference in its long life.
On the charts, remixes have been a vital component since at least the ’80s, when extreme makeovers by Chic’s Nile Rodgers and producer duo Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis turned second-tier album cuts by Duran Duran and George Michael, respectively, into No. 1 smashes. But Billboard has long wrestled with what kinds of remixes should count for the Hot 100. It is in artists’ and labels’ best interests for the original version of a song and its remix to pool their points together in a single chart slot. However, when Jennifer Lopez took a pair of singles to No. 1 from her 2001 J. Lo album, “I’m Real” and “Ain’t It Funny,” that were not just “remixed” but rerecorded from the ground up with rapper Ja Rule, Billboard set a new policy: Versions of the same title that are substantially different in melody or lyrics must chart separately. What this has meant in the subsequent 17 years is that the priorities of labels and, say, critics and DJs are quite different. Tastemakers admire remixes that wholly reimagine a track, whereas labels want a remix of a hit song to be just different enough to attract a new audience, but not so different that its streams, sales, and airplay won’t count for the Hot 100 together with the original cut.
Lil Nas X has been a total master of this gambit. The Billy Ray Cyrus reboot of “Old Town Road” was a near-ideal remix: Cyrus’ vocals made the refrain catchier and added an all-new segment that became one of the hit’s best parts (the “Hat down, crosstown, livin’ like a rock star” verse), but the remix did not fundamentally change the bones of the song. If anything, it made you admire the sturdiness and adaptability of the two-minute ditty Lil Nas X composed in the first place. And of course, it all counted for a single berth on the Hot 100.
Lil Nas X probably could have rode that horse all the way to 16 weeks at No. 1, but when word leaked that Billie Eilish was planning a remix of her No. 2 hit that threatened a chart upset, X sprang back up into his saddle. Literally in the same 24 hours that the Bieber “Bad Guy” remix dropped, a third version of “Old Town Road” landed, with new verses from rapper Young Thug and 12-year-old “Yodeling Kid” Mason Ramsey. (Given the song’s huge prepubescent fan base, Ramsey’s lyric, “Hop up in my Razor” is, if nothing else, savvy fan service.)
Billboard has not added the names of Thug or Ramsey to the Hot 100, as the “original remix” with Cyrus remains the most popular, indicating the latest remix was not much more than a possibly unnecessary insurance policy. Still, having dispatched Eilish and Bieber last week, X celebrated with another audience-expanding remix dubbed “Seoul Town Road,” featuring South Korean rapper RM (“Rap Monster”) of K-pop sensations BTS. The reboots have come so fast and furious, the interwebs are starting to expect them and even poke some good-natured fun at Lil Nas X. For those keeping score, Billboard reports that the RM remix of “Road” dropped too late in the most recent tracking week to have much effect, and its full impact will be on the next chart (so brace yourself for Week 18 at No. 1). Lil Nas X himself claims that the K-pop remix is the “last one i PROMISSEE.” But something tells me the “Road” remixing may not be over: a shelved Lil Wayne remix has leaked, and X has openly courted country legend Dolly Parton for yet another version. If she takes him up on his invitation, I imagine X will rescind that “promise.”
In all cases, these “Road” remixes have one fundamental goal: reinforcing the adaptability and musical uncategorizability of a song that, when it landed last winter, Lil Nas X classified with the bespoke genus “country trap.” Which brings up another major factor in the song’s favor—the element that both made the song’s name and finally made it universal.
Back in April, the most notable thing about “Old Town Road” the week it rose to No. 1 wasn’t its catchiness or its unique construction. It was the way it had been insulted by the country-music industry, and Billboard’s ham-handed way of handling the controversy. As I wrote then, Billboard’s decision—under reportedly heavy pressure from the Nashville Industrial Complex—to yank the single from its Hot Country Songs chart was a PR disaster for the chart bible and a PR boon for Lil Nas X, causing millions of Americans to check out the song for themselves just to determine how country it sounded (or didn’t). Again, this was even before the Billy Ray Cyrus remix landed, but Cyrus recorded the remix largely to help X stick a thumb in the eye of the country-music establishment. Sixteen weeks later, this is no longer the headline about “Old Town Road.” It’s not just because the Hot 100, where “Road” has set an all-time record, is an all-formats chart. It’s that “Road” has essentially transcended this categorization, becoming bigger than any one genre.
For the record, not only did the Cyrus remix not compel Billboard to put “Road” back on the Hot Country Songs chart—which, as I speculated back in April, would have reinforced critics’ worst assumptions about the country genre’s racial essentialism—country radio programmers, the de facto gatekeepers of the format, never warmed up to the song. On Billboard’s Country Airplay chart, which measures spins at terrestrial country stations but does not limit songs based on genre, “Old Town Road” did appear for a few weeks but rose no higher than No. 50. I continue to believe that the exclusion of “Road” at country radio was half industry bias, half genuine audience preference (which is itself motivated by decades of racial and cultural bias, but we can debate that chicken-egg question until, to mix my barnyard metaphors, the cows come home). For its part, the country industry has moved on—Blanco Brown’s “The Git Up,” a country line-dance instructional with hip-hop flavor, has topped Hot Country Songs multiple weeks in the last month, fueled by the same genre-blind pop-friendliness as “Old Town Road” but with pedal steel and enough familiar genre elements that it’s already receiving some modest (but stronger than Lil Nas X) country airplay.
What is inarguable about “Old Town Road” is that it had genre breadth in its bones, the kind of multicultural ecumenicalism that makes its record-setting run at No. 1 seem inevitable. Its twangy sample was taken from an obscure Nine Inch Nails song (this 17-week Hot 100 No. 1 record is now co-owned by Trent Reznor as a songwriter, too); its beat was built by a budding hip-hop producer from the Netherlands calling himself YoungKio; its lyrics were Lil Nas X’s half-earnest attempt to satirize a cowboy ethos; its best lyrical hook (“Can’t nobody tell me nothiiiiiiin’ ”) alludes to a Kanye West lyric; and its most popular remix roped a genuine country veteran into vocalizing with a high-lonesome vibrato. Hip-hop, alt-rock, country, comedy—in an old-school music store with genre sections, an “Old Town Road” CD (if such a thing existed) would have to be filed in at least four or five places. Why shouldn’t X drop a K-pop remix?
So: Billboard’s biggest hit ever was bound to be a crossover monster, especially with a rising cohort of music fans who scarcely concern themselves with genre. But there’s one last way Lil Nas X has reflected the ethos of his generation. Really, it was the first way.
I’ve spent most of this article running down the music-industry data—radio, sales, and especially streaming—that have made “Old Town Road” such an enduring hit. But we should #NeverForget that none of these more old-fashioned mediums (even streaming is antiquated in this context) are what broke “Road.” Its origin story involves a video game, a video-sharing app, and a meme. That would be, respectively, the game Red Dead Redemption 2, the app TikTok, and the #YeeHawAgenda meme. The #YeeHawAgenda, a celebration of black-cowboy culture, predated “Road” and first cropped up on social media last fall. It cross-pollinated with the near-simultaneous release by Rockstar Games of the Western-themed RDR2, whose imagery supplied the footage for Lil Nas X’s first “Old Town Road” video (and arguably helped inspire X’s song itself). And of course, as has been well-chronicled across the media, the short-video app TikTok, a kind of gamified successor to Vine, was instrumental in not only popularizing “Road” but the #YeeHawChallenge meme that rose alongside it, long before radio stations were playing X’s future smash hit.
These were all important elements of what broke “Old Town Road” in the first place. But what’s remarkable about the song’s 17 weeks at No. 1 has been X’s uncanny ability to keep the virality going long after the public might have moved onto something else. Some of these brand extenders have come from the world of the old-school star-making machine: The May release of the song’s official, big-budget music video (dubbed the “Official Movie”), complete with cameos from everyone from rapper Vince Staples to producer Diplo to veteran stand-up Chris Rock, gave the song another jolt of rocket fuel when it was in its eighth week at No. 1. (Massive YouTube views of the clip gave the song its second-highest weekly streaming total.) The release of the grade-school performance video a couple of weeks later provided another boost. X himself was a steady supplier of tweets, many hilarious, expressing delight or defiance or determination to keep his smasheroo at the center of the cultural conversation. Even his late-June, last-day-of–Pride Month semi-announcement of his own sexuality—not to diminish such a momentous personal revelation—came off as a happy depth charge of virality that made a whole segment of progressive America that much likelier to root for him.
Of course, the aforementioned string of remixes can be regarded as further nitro boosts to the song’s virality. The fact that the third and most pre-hyped version of the song included vocals from a 12-year-old who became famous yodeling on the internet indicates that X conceived these remixes for their memeability as much as their radio potential. This thirst for social notoriety at any cost is what makes folks of my generation most cynical about this song’s endurance as a hit. But as I argued in a Hit Parade episode last year about the history of the music video, critics have been bemoaning the influence of visuals, fashions, and social fads since at least the MTV era, if not decades before. (Feel free to entertain yourself sometime exploring the bemused, derisive newspaper articles that greeted a foursome of head-shaking, ooh-ing mop tops when they visited America in 1964.) Yes, it was those videos and games and memes that first made “Old Town Road” and first made it a hit. But what kept it a hit was the public’s insatiable desire to buy it, stream it, and hear it on their radios all summer long.
And at this rate, it might just be all summer long. Your guess is as good as mine what will finally dethrone “Old Town Road.” It could be well into August or September before it succumbs. The fact that a Justin Bieber remix of the No. 2 song in America couldn’t lift that Billie Eilish song to No. 1 suggests that it will take some new phenomenon—a song that isn’t on the charts yet, maybe doesn’t exist yet—to evict Lil Nas X from the chart penthouse he seems determined to occupy forever. And by the way, to preempt this question that flares up from time to time, no, I don’t think X’s long reign indicates the Hot 100 is “broken.” Unlike the blinkered genre-charts methodology Billboard adopted this decade that led to the exclusion of “Uptown Funk” on the R&B chart and “Old Town Road” on the country chart, the Hot 100’s methodology is still genre-inclusive and remains relatively adaptable to new phenomena, from the perpetual evolution of radio formats to the technological shift from downloads to streams.
And Lil Nas X, too, proved adaptable to all these new phenomena. He decoded the zeitgeist across all the metrics that make a megasmash—virality, genre-blindness, remixability, stream-friendliness, event-worthiness—and whatever its (considerable) artistic merits, “Old Town Road” caught on because it is truly unique and irresistible. In other words, Lil Nas X didn’t “game the charts” so much as play the game of the charts better than anyone. He’s gonna keep on riding, till he can’t no more.