Listening to music is more than just an auditory experience. Atwood Magazine’s Tunes & Tumblers column explores the way our senses mingle by pairing new and classic albums with cocktail recipes. We invite you to bring out your inner mixologist as we approach the music we love from a unique, immersive, and thoroughly delicious perspective. Put up your feet and enjoy a cold one on us.
Not since “Despacito” has a song taken the world by storm quite like Lil Nas X’s country rap conundrum “Old Town Road.” We take a long look at the young rapper’s sudden success over a couple of cold mugs.
Every generation has its phenomenon, that guilty pleasure that goes down like a bag of salt and vinegar chips. The first listen has you twisting your face in disgust, but ten minutes later the bag is empty, you’re covered in crumbs, and have no idea what happened. Who can forget the 3am pantry raid of “I’m Too Sexy,” “The Macarena,” or even the “Harlem Shake?” Each of these tracks crashed into pop culture like a meteor. “Despacito” might as well have been a zombie virus by how quickly it spread. And there wasn’t a wedding in late 2012 that didn’t have your whitest relatives doing the horse dance from “Gangnam Style.”
Speaking of horses (nailed that transition), we are currently in the midst of such another cultural meteor. I’m referring of course to the genre-bending chart topper that’s siezed every set of headphones from here to the moon. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, it’s time to emerge from you cave and lend an ear.
If this is your first trip down that old town road, you probably have a lot of questions. I know I did after my first listen, the first of which was “where’s the damn repeat button?”
Over a minimal banjo-plucking sample (from a Nine Inch Nails song no less) and a thick trap beat with tinkling hi-hats, twenty-year-old Atlanta native Lil Nas X taps into something both unexpected and primal. He bridges the gap between two of the biggest genres of popular music and does it with a wink and a smile. It feels like something that shouldn’t work, like the Venn diagram of hip-hop and country never actually intersects. But we all know that isn’t how it went down.
So what happened? How did this Soundcloud export that name-checks every country cliche in the book capture the world’s attention and wrangle Billy Ray Cyrus of all people for the remix? That rabbit hole goes deep. If we’re going to plunge into the inky darkness, we need sustenance for our journey. Lil Nas X created something novel yet enjoyable with his unexpected blend and we aim to do the same. Please ride (’til you can’t no more) responsibly.
- 3 oz of stout (we can’t say Guinness for copyright reasons, but what else would we be talking about?)
- 3 oz almond sparkling wine
- a splash of pear cider (for the remix)
- Fill a champagne glass halfway with stout. Pour along the side of the glass so you aren’t left with a ton of head.
- Float with sparkling wine, leaving enough room for that splash of pear cider.
- Remix it with just a dash of pear cider. Bill Ray would be proud.
We’re not breaking new ground on this one. Chances are if you’ve wandered through one of a thousand interchangeable college town pubs, you’ve dabbled with a black velvet or two. Its blend of sweet and savory is textbook culinary theory, tried and true if maybe not the first cocktail you rush to on the drink menu. But in a pinch, it satisfies your craving for beer, wine, and a trek off the beaten path.
Likewise, Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” finds itself scratching an itch for trap sensibilities and country window dressing. That sounds like it should mix like oil and water, but ends up landing closer to olive oil and balsamic vinegar. It’s an olfactory delight perfect for soaking up with a slice of bread. Though they technically don’t mix (fats are nonpolar, which don’t play well in polar liquids like water. This has been your chemistry class for the day, kids), the tartness of an acid (ie. vinegar) and the creaminess of a fat (ie. olive oil) behave as yin and yang. The right balance heightens the flavor of both, opposites working in perfect harmony.
Likewise the smooth, rich texture of the stout collides headfirst with the sweet, sharp edge of the wine, mellowing it slightly and adding complexity. The hint of pear cider imparts a subtle brightness that elevates the drink even further. It no longer belongs in a dingy pub with sticky surfaces. It’s worthy of a Sunday evening under a backyard trellis, Edison bulbs glowing in the fading light.
“Old Town Road” also feels like more than the sum of its parts. Squint and you can see the banjo sample, southern drawl, and name-checking of everything under the country umbrella. At the same time, the Soundcloud beat and triplet delivery mark it as something from the mainstream trap conveyor belt. Yet it ultimately isn’t either. It stands out because it winks knowingly at what we recognize, but manages to sound like nothing else out there. Maybe that’s why it so easily batted Taylor Swift’s been-there-done-that new single aside and maintained its crown.
The song, like a black velvet, is the outsider. Maybe that’s the reason it’s so easy to be on. But what about its delicious, familiar, and yet distinct formula sent this sub-two-minute pseudo joke song to world domination? That’s not an easy question to answer. Let’s chug out black velvets for inspiration.
“Old Town Road”
Lil Nas X
Montero Lamar Hill — better known by his stage name Lil Nas X — didn’t get his start in the rap game. Before “Old Town Road” exploded like a viral supernova, the Atlanta native first came to notoriety through the now-defunct Twitter account @NasMaraj, where he posted dubiously-sourced memes and Nikki Minaj-related content. Through this platform, he experienced his first taste of celebrity and was then coaxed into making music by his followers.
Achieving renown on Twitter is no easy task (trust me, I’ve tried). Amassing a giant following takes a certain amount of savvy. At nineteen-years-old, Hill took this insight with him to create “Old Town Road.”
His first songs spoke to his own experiences growing up in Atlanta, name-checking video games and reaching into the Soundcloud playbook for the lo-fi beats that saturate the platfrom by the thousand. He tagged most of them with the expected #trap, #hiphop, and #pop. Then along came a little diddy he titled “Old Town Road (I Got the Horses in the Back)”. He dropped it to very little fanfare, but notably tagged it #country.
That’s truly where the story of Lil Nas X begins. After a quick rise on TikTok thanks to the Yee Haw Challenge, it made its debut on iTunes and the Billboard charts under the country header. And boy, were people upset.
Now the conversation regarding racial gatekeepers in country music is a long and storied one. If we were to really dig into it, we’d need a few more black velvets. Suffice to say that country “fundamentals” have always skewed white whether of not Nashville wants to admit it (to this day, airplay heavy hitters like Kane Brown still experience racism in the industry).
Country music and its fans sought to push Lil Nas X out. And they succeeded at least in getting the song pulled from the country Billboard charts.
But Hill had the last laught. For the past five weeks, “Old Town Road” has held the top spot on the Hot 100 and has broken the weekly streaming record set by Drake’s “In My Feelings” last year. He even landed Billy Ray Cyrus for the (arguably better) remix.
Whether or not the song is country is almost beside the point. In crafting the undeniably catchy tune, Hill seems to play with a simple rule: “If it looks like a horse and sounds like a horse, it’s a horse.” country music purists want to say their genre is more than cowboy boots, tractors, and twang. If anything though, Hill’s gambit proves that isn’t the case.
In his Make Happy Netflix special, comedian Bo Burnham points out the shift in pop country away from storytelling and toward vapid materialism. “The problem is, with a lot of modern country music, what is called stadium country music is that it is not honest,” he says. “Where instead of people actually telling their stories, you’ve got a bunch of millionaire metrosexuals who’ve never done a hard days work in their life… They figured out the words and the phrases they can use to pander to their audience, and they list the same words and phrases off sort of Mad Lib style. And every song is raking in millions of dollars from actual working class people.” He then bursts into his own parody song properly titled “Panderin'” that slices into this hypocrisy with a red hot poker.
“Old Town Road” isn’t far from this sort of commentary. It’s with a sly, winking self-awareness that Hill sings:
My life is a movie
Bull ridin’ and boobies
Cowboy hat from Gucci
Wrangler on my booty
It’s “Panderin'” updated for 2019 radio, a glorious middle finger and chuckle behind a co-opted rural Nebraska costume. Even the nods to luxury brands and excess pull back the curtain on country’s elitism, while embracing it wholeheartedly (“Masarati sports car,” anyone?).
Don’t take any of this too seriously, Hill seems to say. This music is all about having fun and no one has a monopoly on Bible Belt flavor. He explains in best in the pre-chorus:
Can’t nobody tell me nothing
You can’t tell me nothing.
He likes what he likes and makes it the way he wants. What more can we expect from the reigning king of the pop charts? Knock back that black velvet and don’t let nobody tell you nothing.
Have your own idea for a Tunes & Tumblers pairing? Let us know in the comments, or hit me up on Twitter.