At long last, a song that is not Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” is No. 1 on this week’s Billboard Hot 100 chart. With Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” ascending to the top, the song’s record-setting run at No. 1 — 19 weeks at the summit, three more than any other song in the Hot 100’s history — has been snapped, slipping to No. 3.
As we celebrate the astonishing run of “Old Town Road,” while it begins its ride into the Hot 100 sunset, the music industry is undoubtedly eager to examine the unexpected smash’s historic success. How did this wacky song become the defining single of the entire year? Of course, “Old Town Road” remains incredibly singular, its hook impossibly catchy, and Lil Nas X genuinely charismatic as a new artist. But there must be more to learn, when it comes to performing an “Old Town Road” autopsy and figuring out how to replicate its success — or, at the very least, a fraction of it.
1. TikTok’s time is now.
In 2018, when Beijing-based ByteDance shuttered Musical.ly and migrated its users over to TikTok, the platform represented a music industry curiosity. Now, it has become a breeding ground for both memes and mainstream hits. TikTok has millions of users, skews toward a young audience, is easily shareable across social platforms and is a more freeform app than Musical.ly, which relied on lip-syncing videos. The opportunity to go viral is apparent, in both non-serious and serious ways: for every ephemeral running gag that requires a certain song to soundtrack its every variation, there are just as many opportunities for songs to gain traction on TikTok and then cross over into established channels like streaming and radio.
There have been multiple instances of TikTok playing a crucial role in breaking music in 2019: Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts,” released in 2017, gained new life thanks in part to its use in user videos, while Y2K and Bbno$’s “Lalala” hit the Hot 100 chart after being featured in enough TikTok clips. But “Old Town Road” — which was rising up the charts earlier this year thanks to TikTok memes, long before Lil Nas X had a record deal or corralled Billy Ray Cyrus for a remix — will forever be the app’s watershed moment. No one knows whether TikTok will grow into a platform with the longevity and cultural importance of a service like YouTube, but if it can help break a song that ends up becoming the longest-leading No. 1 in the Hot 100’s history, it has to be taken seriously.
2. It’s worth thinking outside the box for remix partners.
Prior to the “Old Town Road’ remix, Billy Ray Cyrus’ most recent appearance on the Hot 100 came 12 years ago — and that was because of his daughter, then-Hannah Montana star Miley Cyrus. Billy Ray himself had not been a star since his “Achy Breaky Heart” days in the early ‘90s. But that didn’t stop Lil Nas X from tapping the 57-year-old for a ride down “Old Town Road,” watching him spit some game about driving through L.A. in his Maserati, and effectively reviving his career, Tarantino-style, as one of the more unexpected delights in popular music this year.
Cyrus’ remix of “Old Town Road” was lightning in a bottle to a degree: Stumbling upon that combination of charm, novelty and thematic compatibility is easier said than done. Yet part of the reason why “Old Town Road” and its various remixes were successful can be chalked up to the creativity used in bringing disparate voices into Lil Nas X’s world. The “Achy Breaky Heart” guy absolutely crushing a guest verse on a cowboy-rap song in 2019? You had to hear it to believe it. Young Thug and Mason Ramsey getting added into the mix (more on that in a second)? It didn’t make much sense, but damn if you weren’t intrigued. RM sending “Old Town Road” into the K-pop universe? It had been months and months, but yup, had to play it at least once.
Instead of tacking on various A-listers that could coast by on name recognition, Lil Nas X greatly benefited by refusing to settle for the obvious when it came to recruiting “Old Town Road” guest stars. Now, if only that Dolly Parton remix was coming…
3. One remix might not be enough when a song’s on top.
Back in late May, when “Old Town Road” wasn’t even halfway through its run at No. 1, Lil Nas X tweeted this:
And, yes, Lil Nas X did release songs other than new versions of “Old Town Road” soon after; he even scored another top 20 hit with “Panini” upon the release of his 7 EP in late June. But the idea that “Old Town Road” was such a strong song that he could release the original version, then a remix, then another remix, then yet another remix — all while the song remained atop the Hot 100 — represents an interesting strategy for generating new interest in a song that has been out for months, but is trying to continue a fruitful chart run.
The Billy Ray Cyrus-assisted remix of “Old Town Road” was the version that spent all those weeks at No. 1, the one that will go down as one of the biggest popular songs in history, and will be played at weddings and karaoke nights for years to come. Yet the lesser-known “Old Town Road” remixes still contributed to its epic chart run — first with Diplo’s spin on the song in late April, then with the odd-couple additions of Young Thug and Mason Ramsey (as the song attempted to fend off Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” remix with Justin Bieber at the top of the chart), and finally with BTS’s RM, as Lil Nas X tried to secure the all-time Hot 100 record. Say what you will about the musical value of “Seoul Town Road,” or how necessary it was to hear Young Thug’s croaking flow next to the Walmart yodeling boy’s wide-eyed warble; these remixes absolutely helped Lil Nas X as he tried to pull off the seemingly impossible in the chart world.
Deploying multiple remixes of a song is not a new strategy — remember how many different takes on Fat Joe and Remy Ma’s “All the Way Up” you heard three summers ago? — but the tactic was most effectively used by Lil Nas X as a means of perking up listeners and folding in fans of the artists hopping on the new versions. And if that blueprint can help keep an established hit at its chart peak for a few more weeks, others will embrace it moving forward.
4. The Event Music Video still exists.
In its eighth week atop the Hot 100, “Old Town Road” received a significant bump thanks to its long-awaited music video, which featured Lil Nas X and Cyrus as cowboy co-stars as well as cameos from Chris Rock, Diplo, Rico Nasty and Vince Staples, among others. The five-minute visual is titled “Old Town Road (Official Movie),” with an extended intro, and interludes that distinctly recall Puff Daddy’s classic turn-of-the-century video oeuvre.
“Old Town Road” was going to be a huge hit with or without a big-budget music video — two years ago, the “Despacito” remix with Justin Bieber endured atop the Hot 100 for 16 weeks without an official clip. But long after MTV stopped playing music videos and YouTube swooped in to gobble up that cultural real estate, the must-see music clip is still going strong. With over 270 million views, major stars co-signing the song from the inside, and an MTV Video Music Award nod for video of the year, the “Old Town Road” clip certainly kept the song’s momentum high during its run at No. 1 — the week that the video was released, the song scored its best overall streaming week since Cyrus was added into the fold.
(“Old Town Road” also isn’t alone in profiting from an event music video this year, either: Taylor Swift’s star-studded “You Need To Calm Down” visual, also up for video of the year at the VMAS, dominated the entertainment news cycle upon its release and helped secure the Lover single a No. 2 debut on the Hot 100 — behind, of course, “Old Town Road.”)
5. Think of the Children!
One of the most popular videos of Lil Nas X on YouTube is a clip of the artist visiting Lander Elementary School in Ohio in late May. You’ve probably seen it — the one where the kids absolutely lose their minds when “Old Town Road” starts playing, as if the ghosts of Beatlemania had been shrunken into adolescents and reanimated to be able to dab?
It’s a great clip, and speaks to one essential component of “Old Town Road’s” enormity: kids freaking love it. The song is danceable, easy to sing, non-explicit (depending on your tolerance of the word “boobies” and references to “lean”) and essentially a cowboy adventure that’s easily digestible for listeners of all ages. The most popular Kidz Bop Kids song on Spotify right now is their version of “Old Town Road.” Radio Disney — not exactly a longtime champion of hip-hop — has played it a good amount, too: over 1,200 spins through Aug. 18, according to Nielsen Music.
With streaming democratizing music and platforms like TikTok aimed at younger users, kid-friendly fare like “Baby Shark” and The Descendants have had lasting impact on the pop charts (not to mention our good friend Peppa Pig). “Old Town Road” was more than a kiddie phenomenon, but its success speaks volumes to how the industry should keep that demographic in mind moving forward.