New country song sparks TikTok obsession

It all (allegedly) started with a Nicki Minaj stan account on Twitter. The account, entitled NasMaraj after rappers Nas and Nicki Minaj, was created in early 2014 and suspended for spamming in early 2019, after it accumulated over 170,000 followers. The account was best known for viral scenario threads, stolen memes, an adoration of Nicki Minaj and bringing us the chart-topping hit song “Old Town Road.”

Lil Nas X, creator of the song, has denied any involvement with the account. However, this isn’t entirely believable, given the Reddit account with the same name and profile of Twitter’s NasMaraj that was almost wholly dedicated to promoting Lil Nas X’s music, even before his music hit the mainstream; that the links to both NasMaraj’s email and SoundCloud match with those of Lil Nas X; and that the identification numbers in the URLs of several of NasMaraj’s now-deleted tweets now redirect to similar, if not identical, tweets by Lil Nas X.

In late 2018, Lil Nas X began making music, which he published through SoundCloud with the support of his Twitter followers. With “Old Town Road,” Lil Nas X hit gold for two main reasons: the popularity (and by extension, absurdity) of video-sharing app Tik Tok, and a resurgence of western styles and cowboy regalia, termed the Yee Haw Agenda.

Tik Tok was first released in China under the name Douyin in 2016, but didn’t reach out internationally until 2017, and didn’t really catch fire until October 2018, when it became the most downloaded app worldwide. Tik Tok allows users to share short videos, which often follow bizarre challenges and memes.

Its leaning toward short, snappy content and strange, often absurdist humor makes it the perfect space for the younger generations, who find their cultural hubs in social media sites, apps and chat rooms. In a decade where our climate is killing us, our president is a reality TV star and our humor involves drinking bleach and yeeting ourselves into a void, it’s safe to say the kids are not alright.

Modern music has responded appropriately to this change in perspective by filling the charts with slow, downbeat songs about stress, hopelessness and depression. The cool new drug of choice is Xanax, and judging by the various Post Malone-esque songs filling radio time, quite a few people are partaking.

Many of the big names of the early 2000s have fizzled out (see: Pitbull, Rihanna), exploded spectacularly and disastrously (see: Taylor Swift, Katy Perry), or stayed relevant by matching with the flavorless, droning nothingness that is today’s popular music (see: Maroon 5, Drake). They produced flashy, loud music with larger-than-life videos and personas to accompany it. They showed off their fame and excess, bragging about gold chains, popularity and wild parties, and they were proud of it all. The music was bright and upbeat to match the superficial joys of having everything.

Now, that life of excess is coated in a thick layer of depression and emptiness. Mike Posner, most well known for his 2010 song “Cooler Than Me,” expresses this wonderfully, if unintentionally, in his 2015 song “I Took a Pill in Ibiza (Seeb Remix).” He begins with a portrait of the life of a star, singing, “I took a pill in Ibiza/ To show Avicii I was cool/ And when I finally got sober, felt 10 years older/ But f*** it, it was something to do/ I’m living out in LA/ I drive a sports car just to prove/ I’m a real big baller cause I made a million dollars/ And I spend it on girls and shoes.”

However, the song quickly takes a more self-reflective tone. He opens the chorus with, “But you don’t wanna be high like me/ Never really knowing why like me/ You don’t ever wanna step off that roller coaster/ And be all alone.” Posner says, “And all I know are sad songs,” and few lyrics could better capture the mood of modern music.

In “Old Town Road,” Lil Nas X takes a decade of music about celebrating excess and half a decade of music about feeling empty inside and comedically flips it on its head. “Old Town Road” works best when you don’t think about it too much, as do most of the Tik Toks inspiring its success.

“Old Town Road” serves as the soundtrack to the semi-popular Yee Haw Challenge on Tik Tok, which displays teens participating in everyday activities, then transforming into cowboys (or more accurately, cowboy stereotypes) after the song’s beat changes. The Yee Haw Challenge may seem as strange and unprecedented as most of Tik Tok’s trends, but it didn’t exactly pop up out of nowhere. 2018 saw a resurgence in western regalia and cowboy-themed trends, from Kacey Musgraves’s “Space Cowboy” and Mitski’s “Be the Cowboy” album to That One Yodelling WalMart Kid (you know who I’m talking about) to Cardi B donning a cowboy hat in her early 2019 video for “Thotiana (Remix).” Numerous think pieces discussed the trend, from Pitchfork to Rolling Stone to Teen Vogue. In late 2018, pop culture archivist Bri Malandro coined the term “Yee Haw Agenda” to describe it.

“Old Town Road” could not have been more perfectly timed. After its popularity on Tik Tok skyrocketed, the country-rap genre-straddler hit the charts, peaking at number 1, where it still sits. Even when Billboard removed it from the country charts in late March, it only grew, thriving from the controversy. In early April, country singer Billy Ray Cyrus recorded a remix of “Old Town Road,” giving the world both an extra 40 seconds of “Old Town Road” and Cyrus attempting to rap about “living like a rock star,” neither of which were necessary.

Lil Nas X might be using the resurgence of western styles to comedically explore pop music’s culture of excess, but at the end of the day, he still rhymes “Gucci” with “boobies” and “tractor” with “bladder.” For what it is, it’s not bad.

The song has a catchy beat, and it sounds good, and if you really, really love it, you’ll never try to find out what it means.

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