Yea, you read the title correctly.
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past month or so, you would’ve heard the phenomenon by Lil Nas X called “Old Town Road.” Released back in December 2018, this song quickly became an internet sensation through Tik Tok and swept the globe reaching №1 on the Billboard Charts and №1 on the Country Charts. When Billboard took “Old Town Road” off their Country charts, saying that “it did not embrace enough elements of today’s country music,” Lil Nas X decided to invite country legend Billy Ray Cyrus onto the remix, which dropped last month.
Now the following statement may seem ridiculous and may just seem like one big conspiracy, but “Old Town Road” has changed the way we will hear future music, how long songs will go for and how we will discover new music. With that being said, let’s firstly talk about its genre.
For the sake of continuity, we will be focusing solely on “Old Town Road Remix” except when otherwise stated. “Old Town Road Remix” has meshed 2 completely opposite genres and created a new one: ‘Country Trap.’ I’m sure most of us know what Country music sounds like, but for those who don’t know what trap music is, it’s featured in the Hip Hop/Rap and Electronic (EDM) genres. To easily distinguish whether a song is Trap or not, listen out for the heavy 808 styled kick and bass, layered synthesizes and sub-divided hi-hats which all together give you that ‘look’ in your face.
Some classic examples of trap music are “Panda” by Desiigner, Rae Sremmurd’s “Black Beatles” and Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow.” With the immediate success that “Old Town Road Remix” had in the global music scene, we may start to see more and more new songs blending different genres to create a new wave of music.
“Old Town Road Remix” clocks in at 2.37 minutes, which is rather short for a song of its genre. Typically Trap songs last anywhere between 3–4 minutes but recently they have been shorter due to young people’s lack of patience and shorter attention spans. Making songs under 2.5 minutes could be due to shorter attention spans but could also be because they are being made by young artists like Lil Nas X who is only 20 years old. “Old Town Road Remix’s” structure is also extremely different to that of its genre. It starts off with an intro, chorus (which is kind of still the intro), verse 1, refrain, verse 2, refrain, chorus, verse 3, chorus. Compared this to other songs in the Trap genre, which almost always finish with the chorus at the end being repeated to make the song feel complete, you almost get a shock when listening to “Old Town Road Remix” as the song just suddenly ends after one final chorus. This ‘shock’ is due to the superior temporal gyrus in your brain which stated by Catherine Chauvel; “stores ‘templates’ of music that you’ve listened to recently.” So when you listen to “Old Town Road Remix,” it sounds a bit different to songs of its genre as the ‘templates’ in your brain have the chorus repeated at the end and also don’t have the Country element associated with the Trap genre.
So why do these ‘templates’ make this song so catchy and easily repeatable? Well, the science suggests that catchy choruses are due to a songs simple overall structure. As noted by Kelly Jakubowski, a researcher from the Department of Music at Durham University, songs need to be simple in order to be recalled easily, but they also need to have a uniqueness to them that makes the brain want to rehearse it over and over again. As “Old Town Road Remix” is a simple yet genre-defying song, it’s no question why this Country Trap song is so catchy.
As theorised by YouTuber “Alfo Media” in his video “How ‘Old Town Road’ Could Change Streaming Forever,” he addresses the fact that both of Lil Nas X’s songs have abused Spotify’s payout algorithms. In short, only listening to 31 seconds of a song is needed to be counted as one stream, and one stream pays the artist 0.0043 cents. “Old Town Road’s” first chorus just finishes at the 31-second mark, coincidence? I think not! This could be one reason as to why both songs are in the Top 5 Global songs (at the time of writing this).
So for example, extremely long songs like Kanye’s “Runaway,” which clocks in at 9.08 minutes, basically wasted resources and money as only 31 seconds is needed to earn a payout!
So for people listening to “Old Town Road Remix” and feel like they want a little bit more, they instinctively play the original to hear that catchy chorus one more time. So by only listening to essentially 3 minutes of music, “Old Town Road” has gained two streams when Kanye would only have gained one for “Runaway” which is three times as long. So for us as listeners, it can be possible that due to our shortened attention spans, artists will continue to release shorter songs that have their chorus after the 31-second mark, and also constantly change how their songs are structured to confuse our ‘templates’ into thinking it’s a catchy and cool song.
This brings us to the last section about how “Old Town Road” will change the way we find new music in the future. “Old Town Road’s” success is largely due to Tik Tok’s remix/meme culture, spreadability and produsage capabilities. Defined by Axel Bruns as how everyone can be their own media producer, ‘produsage’ offers Tik Tok users the ability to create their own videos based off of “Old Town Road.” Such videos included the ‘Yee Haw Challenge’ which I’m not even going to explain, but you can check it out here. With this produsage comes the remix culture and perception that these types of platforms offer “users the ability to repurpose, subvert and improve what is already there,” according to John Hartley. With thousands of videos of dances and memes being made about “Old Town Road,” it wasn’t long until people were sharing the videos on social media. By just the click of a button, Tik Tok allowed viewers to share the memes and dances of “Old Town Road” to social media and it just proves how free promotion is the best promotion.
Songs like Mans Not Hot, Baby Shark and even the Harlem Shake all go to show how memes and music go hand in hand and are the best way to promote a song. With this in mind, we may potentially see more meme songs in the future. Even Lil Nas X credited Tik Tok for his success and with this, Tik Tok could potentially take this as an opportunity for them to attract new artists to their app, granting them a possibility of their songs going viral. It seems highly possible that Tik Tok could become a huge player in the future success of music promotion and it could quite possibly be where we will find the next biggest hits of the year.
So that’s it, who knew that “Old Town Road” was so much more than a funny song. People will notice this song's success and we could possibly see a shift in future song genres, the structure and length of songs and Tik Tok’s involvement with the promotion of future music.