‘Old Town Road’: See How Memes and Controversy Took Lil Nas X to No. 1

Lil Nas X was an unknown, unemployed 19-year-old college dropout when he bought a slightly twangy rap beat from a Dutch stranger on the internet.

“Old Town Road,” the one-minute and 53-second song that he uploaded to SoundCloud and YouTube not long after, has since become an almost unprecedented cultural phenomenon, bringing together a cross-section of unlikely characters including Nine Inch Nails (whose instrumental track was sampled for the beat), Billy Ray Cyrus (who recorded a chart-topping remix) and the Texas Tech college basketball team (who wouldn’t stop dancing to it).

Along its path to ubiquity, “Old Town Road” also earned Lil Nas X a major deal with Columbia Records and sparked a controversy over race and the sanctity of country music when the song was removed from the genre’s Billboard chart. Nashville bona fides aside — Lil Nas X calls the track a hybrid: “country-trap” — “Old Town Road” is currently in its fifth week at No. 1 on the all-genre Billboard Hot 100, holding off no less than a comeback single from Taylor Swift.

Though the song came out of nowhere, it wasn’t quite a fluke. Lil Nas X, now 20, had been a student of online virality and a prolific amateur meme-maker, skills he put to use while marketing the song himself in its early stages. With a combination of imagery from the popular video game “Red Dead Redemption 2” and the wave of buzz around the black cowboy aesthetic known as the “yeehaw agenda,” “Old Town Road” became the soundtrack to a dance challenge on the social network TikTok and countless Instagram clips, priming it for a mainstream breakthrough.

In the latest “Diary of a Song” episode, Lil Nas X is joined by the producer YoungKio — who didn’t even know he was a part of “Old Town Road” until he heard it in a video meme — and Billy Ray Cyrus, who lent the song another layer of novelty and outlaw credibility. The video also features cameos by the influencers @nicemichael and @elitelife_kd, who were crucial to the track’s early rise.

Alexandra Eaton contributed reporting.

“Diary of a Song” provides an up-close, behind-the-scenes look at how pop music is made today, using archival material — voice memos, demo versions, text messages, emails, interviews and more — to tell the story behind the track. Subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Joe Coscarelli is a culture reporter with a focus on pop music. His work seeks to pull back the curtain on how hit songs and emerging artists are discovered, made and marketed. He previously worked at New York magazine and The Village Voice. @joecoscarelli

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