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Social Justice Series: Music Writer Explores Charts, Genres, and Identity

Social Justice Series: Music Writer Explores Charts, Genres, and Identity

“Old Town Road” spent a record number of weeks on the Billboard “Hot 100” chart, was a viral sensation, and made Lil Nas X a cultural icon. But those were not the main reasons Canterbury graduate Chris Molanphy ’89 wrote a book of the same name about the hit song.

“The story of ‘Old Town Road’ is also the story of our cultural history, and that is why I wrote the book,” Chris told his audience in the Steers Center Ragland Commons as a guest speaker for Canterbury’s Social Justice Series. “You can track a whole lot of American culture through this song.”

Chris wears a variety of media hats—he authored Kurt Cobain: A Pictorial Biography, hosts the Hit Parade podcast, writes the series “Why is This Song No. 1” for Slate magazine, and is Senior Writer and Head of Corporate Finance Communications at Ernst & Young. So he was an ideal candidate to contribute a book to Duke University Press’s “Singles” series of books—each devoted to a single song—that turned into Old Town Road.

In his presentation, Chris focused on three areas surrounding Lil Nas X’s song: charts, genre, and identity. Before discussing the cultural significance and controversy surrounding “Old Town Road,” he first wanted to explain Billboard’s chart rankings system and how it has evolved. Previously, songs were ranked according to singles sales and radio airplay; more recently, streamed songs have been included.

In addition to the “Hot 100” chart, songs were also ranked on separate charts according to genre. “Old Town Road” spent 19 weeks on the former, which still stands today as the all-time record. However, the question of what specific musical genre the song fit into became complicated.

“What genre is ‘Old Town Road’? A rap song, country song, pop song, comedy song? The answer to all these questions is yes,” Chris explained. “It is all of these things. That turned out to be a complicating factor when it started charting on Billboard because the question was, ‘How do you categorize this song?’”

The controversy ensued when “Old Town Road” appeared on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart at number 19 in mid-March 2019—then was pulled from that chart after one week. It continued to appear on the pop chart and the R&B hip hop chart, but it never appeared on the country chart again. Many people questioned the reasoning behind the magazine’s decision. Then, Lil Nas X decided to add country singer Billy Ray Cyrus, who is white, to the song, writing extra lyrics just for him. After that, the song went “super-nova,” according to Chris, but Billboard still did not put it back on the country chart. “This was a source of much debate in the music industry,” Chris said. “What makes a song ‘country,’ and is it a racial designation? It is an issue that country music is still wrestling with today.”

The discussion turned to identity—how does our music shape us? How does it represent us? These questions are an important part of the “Old Town Road” story, Chris explained. “Lil Nas X himself enjoyed acting as a cowboy, but he felt that his song should be embraced across all genres. Then, while his song was number one for weeks, he picked the last day of Pride Month to come out as gay,” he said. “Lil Nas X is now a gay icon; he is not shy about his identity and is very bold in the way he presents himself. And today, his song has a strong legacy. We have seen numerous hits in the last five years that exist in a world that ‘Old Town Road’ helped create.”

Chris also felt it was important to let students know that his time at Canterbury helped lead him to create a book like this. “I wrote a lot here as a young Canterbury student,” he recalled. “I learned how to write here. I figured out how to structure an essay. I wrote for The Tabard, including music reviews. So I was writing about popular music even when I was your age. If you are passionate about something, do not ever give up that passion—you will find a way to make it a part of your life.”