Video still from the music video for Old Town Road on YouTube.

How Lil Nas X started a Viral Revolution

It’s been a surprising turn of events for the runaway hit of the year. Previously, a song like “Old Town Road” may have become a media sensation based solely on its replay value in suburban SUVs, but “Old Town Road”—though just as catchy as many chart-breaking viral hits—has proven itself not like the others. 

On December 3 of last year, Atlanta native Montero Lamar Hill (a.k.a Lil Nas X) independently released a song about riding one’s metaphorical horse into the sunset. It was the perfect storm in the age of memes, positioning Lil Nas X and his magnum opus as the perfect experiment that America needed to examine itself in 2019. Previously, the public and mainstream exploration of the intersection of Blackness and the solemn cultural code of blue collar America may have been considered niche, but “Old Town Road” is an unstoppable force that does not show signs of stopping. The song, which only recently ended its 19-week reign at number one as the longest-leading Billboard Hot 100 track all-time, has ripped the country doors wide open and has sparked a viral revolution.

What is the song exactly? In some ways, it’s the perfect homage to country tropes. Its iconic banjo sample and X’s portrayal as a hopeful and aspirational cowboy immediately conjures the image of a modern version of legends like Glen Campbell (best known for the classic song "Rhinestone Cowboy".) As country as it is, the song also has that same hard hitting, headbanging element of trap, and as soon as the verses hit, it begins to sound like a trap  song with a southern twang.

“Old Town Road” is another example of how all-encompassing trap is as a genre. The Atlanta genre started out as a rhythmic and bombastic look into the life of making money on the street. Trap rap can have an element of violence and aggression as it pertains to that life and in some ways it still is (ie. Migos’s Bad and Boujee) but it’s also a platform for artists to express an even wider range of artistry. Trap can be hard, soft, introspective, playful, funny, serious, essentially anything it wants to be. The genre has crossed over, but in its original hip hop form its transcendence should not be overlooked. 

The song may ultimately be a joke, but it turned out to be the perfect addition to an online movement that gained more and more momentum this year.

An absurdly comical country-trap fusion with cowboy references is yet another way that artists are expanding trap for new generations, in much the same way internet culture memes and blurs the line between the abysmally normal and the absurd. 


It makes sense that X would be at the front of an internet sensation. Before his break out hit, X proved himself a master of meme culture on his notorious Twitter account where he (previously anonymously) poked fun at the record industry as a fan of pop music. To this day, his Twitter feed remains hub of humor and delightful sarcasm. Whether “Old Town Road” itself is primarily a product of that is still uncertain. However, the “Yeehaw Agenda” (coined by blogger, Bri Maladro) was having a moment on Instagram by March of this year, which laid the groundwork for “Old Town Road” to take off online. The aforementioned movement opens up cowboy aesthetic to more diversity, particularly by people of color. The song may ultimately be a joke, but it turned out to be the perfect addition to an online movement that gained more and more momentum this year. In a way, X’s career is the result of the audacious and radical nature of meme culture. 

Soon, the sticky chorus and fun lyrics were taking over the airwaves, and quickly building momentum. Then, like a thief in the night, ‘Billboard’ attempted to stop the party. 

In March, the song was kicked off the hot country charts, because it did not “embrace enough elements of today's country music to chart in its current version,” according to Billboard’s qualifications, which remain subjective throughout the ages. 

An absurdly comical country-trap fusion with cowboy references is yet another way that artists are expanding trap for new generations, in much the same way internet culture memes and blurs the line between the abysmally normal and the absurd.

The question of “is it country enough?” is by far the most baffling argument in music in recent years. Country no longer follows the rules of its legends. The traditional guitar and the fiddle solos found in some of the popular country to grace those same charts are now usually just the co - stars to the modern pop sounds (which ironically, have major trap influence.) No, “Old Town Road” is not authentic country, but country is no longer authentic country either.

And Lil Nas X did not by any means start this experimentation with the classic country sound—white artists have been doing it for years, and Black artists have been similarly shamed for playing along. While many argue Beyoncé’s country tune “Daddy Lessons” off of her similarly chart-smashing 2016 “Lemonade” is truly an homage to authentic country, some country fans were quick to dismiss her as an imposter for genre-experimentation as well. 

The tendency of the greater cultural landscape to take country as a white genre can actually, like so many other popular American styles of music, be attributed to the sheer appropriative nature of white supremacy. Heather Jones writes about this in her 2016 piece “Attention Racist Rednecks: Country Music is Black:” 

“Country music was created by African-Americans living in the rural South, employing elements of the blues (also created by Black people) and the banjo — originally an African instrument. Additionally, how did history become so whitewashed that we forgot that Ray Charles was one of the original country artists? Labeled as one the 100 most influential country singers in Life magazine in 1994, he also had one of the first country albums to sell over a million records."

In April, we got a remix of the song featuring ‘90s country pop star Billy Ray Cyrus. The argument could be made that Cyrus was the great white hope for X’s crossover success—the only difference between the remix and the original is the additional verse by Cyrus, adding little to the track itself. He makes a strong contribution, but it wasn't needed to make the song “true country” any more than Beyoncé needed any of her collaborators to skyrocket her hits to the top. No, Old Town Road’s country merit stands alone. But despite any problematic politics, the song got another surge of popularity and catapulted both singers into the stratosphere. 


Naturally, a complete body of work from X was highly anticipated. His personality online had captured national attention, but there was still a question mark by his longevity as an artist to keep the hit from being categorized as the viral one hit wonder of the year. It's a one of a kind, lightning in a bottle composition that hit us at the right time. Could the novelty of the track be a curse for our hero? 

The brilliance of “Old Town Road” is certainly more apparent after hearing it on the EP. It’s the first song and it definitely sets the bar, successfully thrusting the listener into thrilling and jovial energy as X himself expresses a craving for adventure that is simply infectious.

On June 21, we got the EP 7, and that question still remained unanswered. 7 is an 18-minute project that barely scratches the surface of possibility, but still presents us with a surprising experiment in genre-melding. We learned, if nothing else, that Lil Nas X has more to offer than memes.

And the brilliance of “Old Town Road” is certainly more apparent after hearing it on the EP. It’s the first song and it definitely sets the bar, successfully thrusting the listener into thrilling and jovial energy as X himself expresses a craving for adventure that is simply infectious.

The second track, “Panini,” starts out with a whistling intro, that fits oh too well with the tone of the first. The drums in the backdrop are tinged with a hitting crescendo paired with X’s vocals. While not as fun as “Old Town Road”, it’s still catchy as hell. Like many times on the EP our hero seems to fall into a braggadocious trope. I, like I imagine many young listeners did, found this to be endearing. We as the public were able to see his slow building rise to fame. Admittedly, it’s fun to hear him celebrate his achievements considering the very public scrutiny he had to endure. However, it’s not as relatable as the everyman quality of his big hit. 

The second biggest highlight on the album is by far the song “Rodeo.” It’s the closest thing to a sequel to the blockbuster that is “Old Town Road.” It has a clever sample of Dick Dale’s “Miserlou” and that distinct country twang. The musicality is slow paced, but his charisma makes up for it. Then there’s an octane-fueled feature by Cardi B that adds a punch to the winding instrumental. Her feature is by far the biggest punch on the album.

Next, we have the song “Kick it”, a snappy tale about fake friends. Admittedly, the song is a bit mismatched. There is the unnecessary addition of a saxophone that does not go well with the voice modulation. However, the track does have a moving violin closing that adds a refreshing element to the cutting trap instrumental.

X even approaches a pop rock venture, that doesn’t feel quite developed yet. The song “Family” (feat. Travis Barker) is reminiscent of a 2005 bop from Barker’s previous band, Blink-182. Here, Barker’s drum work is superb as usual but X’s energy isn't quite high enough to sell the track. Overall, the song is amusing, but it lacks the angst that made those epic pop rock hits so cathartic. 

Many songs on the EP don’t have the playful lyrics of “Old Town Road.” However, it's clear that our summer hero has a lot more on his mind. Songs like “Bring You Down and “You like” express a sentiment of defiance. 

The lyrics for “You Like” go: 

True say, I want and I need

To let go, use my time to be free

It's like it's always what you like

It's always what you like

Why it's always what you like?

It's always what you like, huh


A week or so after the album dropped, Lil Nas X came out as queer on June 30, once again commanding our attention. The response was almost too predictable. It didn’t take long for people to sexualize the lyrics, adding new meaning to “ride till I can’t no more.” Once again X’s millennial humor served as a fun, but fatalistic lens to expose just how fucked humanity sees pop culture. What does it say about our country that people are quick to sexualize a song based on the artist’s sexuality? Society is clearly not ready to see queer people as people. It also begs the question, that if X was talking about sex with a man why is that considered to be repulsive? Thankfully, X did not take a silent approach. He tweeted a screenshot of the google search: “what does the horse represent?”

“The horse is a universal symbol of freedom without restraint, because riding a horse made people feel they could free themselves from their own bindings. Also linked with riding horses, they are symbols of travel, movement, and desire…”

Perhaps it was by design. 

There seems to be a question mark by viral ability as it relates to the musical landscape, but what is undeniable is the power of the medium. The fact that the biggest song of 2019 is a country, hip-hop fusion sung by a young Black, gay man who proudly wears wranglers is the most appropriate statement for the unwavering revolution of our times. The song now stands for more than we could’ve anticipated. It has its adversaries, but you cannot stop “Old Town Road”, and it's clear that you can’t stop Lil Nas X. I am curious to see if the effects of this phenomenon will continue in years to come.

  • About

    Maymunah Stroud A.K.A Luna. Is a writer, educator and artist from Atlanta. Her main focus is media and pop culture analysis through a queer Black feminist lens.