Learning With: ‘Lil Nas X Added Billy Ray Cyrus to “Old Town Road.” Is It Country Enough for Billboard Now?’

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Learning With: ‘Lil Nas X Added Billy Ray Cyrus to “Old Town Road.” Is It Country Enough for Billboard Now?’

Before reading the article:

Listen to the three-minute song, “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X, below.

(Note to teachers: This video contains depictions of violence. Please preview the entire video before sharing it with students to make sure it is appropriate for your class. You can find a lyric-only version of the song here.)

In which genre do you think this song belongs and why? Consider its musical elements — rhythm, beat, tempo, form, melody, tone, instruments — as well as the imagery and themes explored in the lyrics.

(For help categorizing, you might refer to this music map that describes the characteristics, history and genealogy of each musical genre.)

When Lil Nas X first released “Old Town Road,” the song made three different Billboard charts: the Hot 100, Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs and Hot Country Songs. Billboard then decided to remove it from the country chart. Why do you think they made this decision? Do you think it was justified? Why or why not?

Now, read the article, “Lil Nas X Added Billy Ray Cyrus to ‘Old Town Road.’ Is It Country Enough for Billboard Now?,” and answer the following questions:

1. Why did Billboard decide to remove “Old Town Road” from their country chart?

2. Why did Billboard’s decision to drop the song prompt a debate about race and country music?

3. Where did Lil Nas X get the inspiration for this song? What does he see it as a metaphor for?

4. Lil Nas X posted the song online in December along with an observation: “country music is evolving.” What do you think he meant by that? How is his song an example of that evolution?

5. Ben Sisario, the reporter, writes: “The blending of country music and black American forms is certainly nothing new.” What evidence does he give to support this claim? What does it add to the discussion about race and country music?

6. How did Lil Nas X’s collaboration with Billy Ray Cyrus on a remix come about? Why might the contribution of Mr. Cyrus’s vocals help the song’s chances on country stations and charts?

Finally, tell us more about what you think:

After reading this article, how do you feel about Billboard’s decision to remove “Old Town Road” from the country chart? What role do you think race played, if any? In your opinion, is the remix any more country? Why or why not?

This decision has stirred a discussion about race and music genres. In general, do you think white artists are given more leeway than artists of color to explore and find success in different genres? What examples from the industry can you offer to support your opinion?