I recently became fascinated with “Old Town Road,” which has topped charts and become a sensation. I’d heard it played several times before I looked up the lyrics and was somewhat shocked. But the longer I thought about it, the more curious I became. And I came up with three ideas of what this song might be about.
A Good Ole Cowboy Song
The obvious, first listen interpretation is that it’s just about a cowboy hauling horses around in a trailer. He’s trying to get to “the old town road,” and he’s ready to ride him some horses. It’s got Billy Ray Cyrus; it mentions horses, a porch, wrangler jeans, hats, boots, bull riding, and a tractor. This is just a trap artist trying to work in as many feel-good, pop-country vibes as he possibly can.
A Really Shady Song
Secondly, I thought that this song could be really shady, everything meaning something else. This guy has got him some “horses” that he can’t wait to “ride” until he “can’t no more.” He’s got “lean” in his bladder (a drink that involves mixing prescription cough syrup, codeine, and promethazine). He states, proudly, that he’s cheated on his woman. His life is about “bull riding and boobies.” So this cowboy is pretty…less than noble.
A Protest Song
Lastly, I thought that maybe this song was written as a jab at hip, redneck culture – that it was taking a shot at pop-culture “cowboys.” I listened to a Broken Record podcast episode where Malcomb Gladwell interviewed David Byrne about protest songs. Byrne notes that sometimes these protest songs are big pop hits that no one understands. “They’re made in such a way that they blend in with other music…if you didn’t listen to the words, you might think it was a love song or a big pop hit…and then you listen to the lyric, and you realize Oh, this was about something else.
You don’t even know how badly I wanted this third one, the satire idea, to be true. That this song could have been a mockery of pop-cowboys, only to become the anthem of pop-cowboys, would have been wonderfully ironic. The vocals sound like a mockery of the southern drawl. He boasts about his black boots, matching hat (from Gucci), and a pair of Wranglers on his booty. He’s “riding on a tractor,” his “life is a movie” (about bull riding and boobies). He even croons, “Can’t nobody tell me nothing, can’t tell me nothing.” (that’s a triple negative).
I thought, maybe he’s just writing a song to make fun of rednecks who can’t be reasoned with cause they just want to ride their horses and wear their garb. No one could actually write a song this stupid and be taken seriously. And now it’s become an anthem of the ones it’s making fun of. How fun!
And it wouldn’t be the first time that’s happened. Gladwell’s podcast talks about a song by the punk band Black Flag called “TV Party.” According to Wikipedia, it was “a satire of boredom, drinking, and America’s obsession with television.” The song was supposed to be making fun of people who just wanted to sit around and watch TV all day. It said things like, “I wouldn’t be without my TV for a day, or even a minute, I don’t even bother to use my brain anymore, there’s nothing left in it. What actually happened was that crowds loved it – it was an anthem. They just wanted to scream about having TV parties.
After several days of wondering about the true nature of “Old Town Road,” I looked it up. And I found a video of Lil Nas X himself explaining the song. I was really disappointed. He said,
“It’s about getting to a better place than where you’re at and saying ‘forget you’ to everyone who doesn’t want to see you there…The horse is a symbol of not having much. Cause when the car came in, the horse is like obsolete. The old town road is like a path of success.”
He was serious the whole time. My hopes about this song being clever were dashed against the rocks of how incredibly pathetic our collective tastes can be. This song is actually about a cowboy who just wants to make money and cheat on his woman and wear Gucci. It turns out Lil Nas X bought the beat for thirty bucks from a guy in Europe, and he got the music from a Nine Inch Nails song (34 Ghosts IV). Essentially, he wrote a pretty ridiculous poem, paired it with some stuff other people made, posted it on Twitter, and became a sensation. This world is a strange place. Good luck with your newfound fame, Lil Nas X. But I had really hoped for more.