Musicians aiming for the next ‘Old Town Road’ are missing the point
In 1958, songwriter Ross Bagdasarian Sr. wrote and recorded quite a catchy Christmas tune.
Perfecting an audio technique he had tinkered with in the past, he pitched up his harmonised voice through a $200 machine, and released it as a novelty record. Although Ross Bagdasarian Sr. is quite the pop star name, he nevertheless decided to invent a cartoon band, name the three members after his record label bosses, and credit the record to Dave Saville and The Chipmunks.
The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don’t Be Late) was a smash, scampering to the top of the charts. It sold 4.5 million copies within seven weeks, won three Grammys, and remains the only chart-topper to feature the word ‘hula-hoop’ in the lyrics.
Within a few months, a suspiciously similar high-pitched vocal group named The Nutty Squirrels decided it would be nuts for them not to join in on the fun, releasing a similarly varispeed song that brushed the lower reaches of the Top 40. The Grasshoppers followed quickly, as did cash-in attempts by Saukki and The Squirrels, Three Little Squirrels, Alvin and the SquirTahneerels, Chippy the Chipmunk, Shirley & Squirrely, Charlie the Hamster, The Happy Hamsters, Woody the Woodchuck, Pepino the Italian Mouse (who at least exhibited sartorial elegance) and The Happy Crickets.
One recording, named Doctor and The Monks, flew so close to the wind that Bagdasarian sued the creators. He also filed a legal injunction to halt sales of The Grasshoppers’ magnum opus: “Sing Along With the Grasshoppers – Featuring the Chipmunk Song”.
The Happy Penguins and Kookie Kat at least stayed away from the cute woodland creature racket, but still used varispeed voices. Basically, it was a landrush. None of these singles were successful by any means, because the market wasn’t crying out for pop hits by adorable singing creatures – it just reacted to the novelty of hearing one, around Christmas, for the first time. Plus, in 1958, hula-hoops were the hippest new toy, which made Alvin down with the kids.
It might seem obvious to state, but novelty songs are named as such, because they succeed based upon their novelty factor. ‘Old Town Road’ by Lil Nas X is a novelty song. It is already one of the most successful novelty songs of all time.
It could also prove to be a one-hit wonder, and a passing fad, because lightning in a bottle rarely strikes twice for any one artist or any one idea. Yet, currently, there are countless artists trying to jump on the horse-wagon by attempting the same singular feat that Lil Nas X has achieved. Problem is, they are putting the horse before the cart, copying the style and not the substance.
A quick primer on ‘Old Town Road’: 19-year-old Montero Hill, which is arguably a much better stage name than Lil Nas X, randomly found the beat that would become the basis to ‘Old Town’ Road on YouTube, created by another 19-year-old, who leased it to him for non-exclusive use for $30. It contained an uncleared sample of a Nine Inch Nails banjo part, making Trent Reznor an unwitting participant in the biggest song of 2019.
Hill layered a goofy country pastiche over the trap beat, uploaded the song to a number of streaming services, tagging ‘country’ as the genre on Soundcloud. He also made a video clip comprising of animated scenes from the video game Red Dead Redemption 2, which had a suitable cowboy/desert theme. The song first hit the internet on December 2, 2018. Total cost so far: $30.
The next day he started creating memes around the song: tweeting a video of a cowboy at a rodeo, furiously dancing in a manner that is half B&S ball line dance, half mid-seizure Michael Jackson, with the hook from ‘Old Town Road’ overdubbed. He wrote above the video “country music is evolving”, adding a follow-up tweet with a purchase/streaming link.
Three weeks later he uploaded ‘I GOT THE HORSES IN THE BACK (MEME COMPILATION)’ on YouTube, 55 seconds of clips of horse-riding fails, video game clips, Woody from Toy Story doing a dance, Alvin and The Chipmunks, and, as a nifty bit of unintentional foreshadowing, Miley Cyrus as Hannah Montana singing at a good old fashioned country knees-up. It was packaged together to appear as if these were organic memes, all compiled into one video. He even used the lyrics as the title, perhaps guessing anyone who had heard the song online so far would be searching that string of words. Soon, others besides Hill took over the task of spreading his song, and ‘Old Town Road’ entered the world of TikTok, becoming the soundtrack to literally millions of memes.
Justin Bieber and Florida Georgia Line both shouted the song out on social media, Texas Tech basketball team did a victory dance to it during March Madness, Disney Country Radio started playing it, as did a widely syndicated country music morning show (starring a DJ named ‘Bobby Bones’, because that’s just what you’re dealing with in the world of country music morning radio DJs) – all this attention saw ‘Old Town Road’ crack the Billboard Hot 100. Total cost so far: Still $30.
The song soon entered the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart at #19, before being pulled the following week for not having “enough elements of today’s country music.”
This was arguably the biggest push the song could have received; the debate raged about what constitutes a country song in 2019, and whether race entered into Billboard’s decision to ban Lil Nas X from the chart. Billboard – who, by the way, once called their R&B charts the “Race Records” chart – claimed race wasn’t a factor.
Lil Nas X saved his most succinct statement on the controversy for Teen Vogue, telling the magazine: “You can have your country song with trap elements, but if it’s by known country artists, then it’s allowed. A black guy who raps comes along, and he’s on top of the country chart, it’s like, ‘What the fuck?’”
By March, Lil Nas X had signed to Columbia Records, and a remix featuring country legend (and a crossover country/pop one-hit wonder in his own right) Billy Ray Cyrus was released, as if to solidify ‘Old Town Road’ as an internet sensation and a legitimate country hit alike. This achy breaky addition was enough to push the song to #1 in the US and nine other countries. The song is still number one in America, where it has remained for 12 straight weeks.
(Interestingly, at a scant 1min 53sec in length, it is the shortest American #1 single for 54 years, since I’m Henry VIII, I Am by Herman’s Hermits – quite the novelty banger itself.)
All of which is to say, it was a completely fortuitous and extraordinary set of circumstances that led to ‘Old Town Road’ being the biggest single of 2019.
Artists who are emulating its sound, or trying desperately to make an equally meme-worthy or wacky song are at the wrong rodeo, so to speak. There was absolutely nothing like ‘Old Town Road’ before it.
Of course, deep analysis will throw up a burgeoning trend known as the ‘yeehaw agenda’, which I won’t attempt to explain because this Pitchfork deep dive does a much better job of it. Anyone who has heard a Nelly song knows all about country grammar – and a quick trip to Nashville will show how many older country artists are adding hip hop elements to their song to appeal to the young whippersnappers.
But that’s beside the point. This song’s approach, its straight-faced yet ridiculous lyrics, the fact it samples Nine Inch Nails – all of these elements are completely original and unexpected. It filled a gap that nobody knew existed. Anyone planning to release a carbon copy will fail, because that moment has passed. Lil Nas X rode through that gap, then Selley-sealed it shut.
Of course, many are trying. We are about to see a flood of terrible trap beats affixed to even worse hillbilly references, as straight-faced idiots line-dance in sweaty nightclubs, rocking Supreme-brand cowboy hats and swearing blind they have “always dressed this way”, as you curse them and wipe the blood from your shin after accidental contact with their newly-affixed spurs. Both Vice and Forbes are declaring breathlessly that Blanco Brown’s ‘The Git Up’ will be the next ‘Old Town Road’. There’s a dance, and a glut of self-conscious memes desperate to find an audience – and it may very well be a successful single. But who wants to be Buzz Aldrin?
The next ‘Old Town Road’ won’t sound like ‘Old Town Road’. It will sound like something we haven’t heard yet, or that we haven’t heard for decades. It will be a blend of disparate elements. It will be an outlier. It might sample the 90210 theme or something similar. Crazy Frog sold a few million singles, and didn’t spawn a pond-ful of amphibian chart-toppers. Gangnam Style will never be replicated, and for that, we can be forever grateful.
Here is a selected list of some of the biggest singles of all time. All these songs are in the top 100 best selling songs ever, each selling between five and eleven million copies.
‘Kung Fu Fighting’ – Carl Douglas
‘Macarena’ – Los del Rio
‘Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep’ – Middle Of The Road
‘Barbie Girl’ – Aqua
‘The Ketchup Song’ – Las Ketchup
‘Pass The Dutchie’ – Musical Youth
Did you notice a theme. Be nice. Not that theme, another one. All of these songs came completely out of left field, serviced a musical need that nobody knew they had, hinged completely on novelty factor, were catchy as all fuck, and were completely unable to be replicated. They were novelties. They were shots in the dark that hit the target.
Here’s a hot take. You know what ‘Old Town Road’ is the ‘next’ version of? Gotye’s ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’.
Although not a novelty song, the Gotye hit completely came out of left field to rise through the ranks of the internet, meme-culture, celebrity shout outs, and land on top of the American charts. Like ‘Old Town Road’, it was also recorded by the artist, on the cheap, at his home studio.
The likes of Katy Perry and Ashton Kutcher tweeted out the artful video to their millions of followers, propelling it into the international spotlight. It was shared around, comedians rushed to parody it, the song was covered on Glee and American Idol back when both those shows were drawing tens of millions of fans, and an SNL appearance finally pushed it to #1 in America, where it stayed for eight weeks. This song was such a slow burner that commercial radio stations in Australia hadn’t even added it to their high rotation playlists when it hit #1 on the ARIA charts.
It topped 26 national charts around the world, sold 13 million copies, and was the highest-selling song in the world in 2012. Sonically, it sounds nothing like anything that was popular at the time, landing closer to Sting singing nursery rhymes at a local library as part of a community service order than anything that troubled the charts. It took ages to reach the chorus, and featured a glockenspiel as one of the main instruments.
Wally DeBacker has debacked away from the song’s commercial success, having not released a Gotye album in the seven years since, focusing instead on his beat-pop three-piece The Basics, launching two niche record labels, performing tribute concerts to electronic music pioneer Jean-Jacques Perrey, and looking after his baby, who turns one next month. This was a wise move, as nothing could have followed up that song.
Anyone looking to replicate the success of Lil Nas X should leave the Rivers clothing for now, and instead look towards his savvy use of memes to push his song, the way he created a hit single on the cheap, the way he used video game visuals in lieu of a proper video clip, and that he did something that nobody else was doing at the time – or rather, that nobody had done so completely.
Unless you’re Daryl Braithwaite, singing about horses isn’t going to make you go viral in 2019. The only way to score this type of breakout hit is to take the world by surprise. The only way to take the world by surprise is to be novel. Be daring, be silly, don’t be cynical, and don’t expect anything at all.
Only then, will you be ready to ride off into the sunset.