For the past month, the biggest song in America has been about cowboys. If you’ve managed to avoid “Old Town Road,” the unlikely viral hit by rapper/country singer/Twitter personality Lil Nas X, here’s the quick summary — it clocks in at slightly less than two minutes (making it the shortest number one hit in a half-century), samples a Nine Inch Nails song from 2008, initially became popular through a meme that began on Gen Z video-sharing site TikTok, has a music video that is entirely composed of footage from the video game “Red Dead Redemption 2” and has a remix that features Billy Ray Cyrus, who last had a top 10 hit in 1992.
“Old Town Road” represents an oddity on the Billboard charts. It’s a debut single from a completely new artist— Lil Nas X released his first songs in 2018, the same year that “Old Town Road” was initially released— in an era where most hits come from artists who are known commodities like Ariana Grande or Drake or at least from the stables of major labels. In his sudden rise to prominence, Lil Nas X, born Montero Lamar Hill, resembles most closely a figure like Cardi B, who also parlayed social media fame into a number-one single and then into a position as one of the biggest rappers/pop stars in the world. But even Cardi had a few mixtapes under her belt and a stint on “Love & Hip-Hop,” as well as the approval of established names in the rap world like Migos. Lil Nas X had a song and two minutes of footage from a video game about cowboys.
The popularity of “Old Town Road” can partially be explained by the memes around it— mostly featuring white teenagers drinking “Yeehaw Juice” and being transformed into cowboys— and partially due to the fact that it is absolutely a banger. Producer Youngkio perfectly transforms the Nine Inch Nails sample from a burnt-out husk of industrial ambient music to a beat that is at once Atlanta circa 2018 and Deadwood, South Dakota circa 1873.
Over that beat, Lil Nas X works his magic, staying fully in character as an old western outlaw with a black Gucci cowboy hat who’ll “ride ‘til he can’t no more.” It is extremely strange and extremely committed to being about being a cowboy. From the song’s first lines— a triumphantly yelled “Yeah” and an epochal declaration that Lil Nas X has “got horses in the back” — there is no ambiguity to the purpose of “Old Town Road.”
In fact, that connection to the Wild West may play some role in the success of “Old Town Road.” in claiming the mantle of the cowboy, “Old Town Road” enters a long and illustrious American cultural tradition, one that stretches back from contemporary rappers in Atlanta, industrial musicians in Ohio, and game developers in San Diego all the way to circus performers and historians in late nineteenth century America.
Wherever you look in the American media landscape, it’s clear that the Wild West is having a moment. In film, Antoine Fuqua’s 2016 remake of “The Magnificent Seven” and Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight,” as well as contemporary set takes on the western genre like Taylor Sheridan’s “Hell or High Water,” represent a renewed interest in a genre that peaked in popularity in the 1950s and 1960s. In television, HBO’s remake of “Westworld” is not only a western in itself but a deft commentary on our cultural fascination with the Wild West. In gaming, the “Red Dead” series has sold over 30 million copies across its two most recent games, with 2018’s “Red Dead Redemption 2” making $725 million in its first 3 days.
Even in the world of pop music, where invocations of the old west have typically come from country and its subgenres, the cowboy has shown up in unexpected places. There’s “Old Town Road,” of course, but over the past year, works by artists like Mitski and Solange have also used the mythology of the cowboy to great effect. The former’s “Be The Cowboy” used the solitude of the west and, in Mitski’s words, the “arrogance” of the cowboy archetype to reflect on love and loneliness. Solange’s “When I Get Home,” and its accompanying visual album, taps into a greater tradition of Black cowboys, as well as the singer’s roots in Houston, Texas.
All three of these musical works, whether small and large, have sparked debate within the musical world about who gets to claim the legacy of the cowboy. Mitski’s reading frames her use of the imagery as subversive, a reclamation of an archetype associated with whiteness, while Solange treats it as a fait accompli— all the cowboys she knows are Black already. Lil Nas X mostly just seems to think cowboys are fun— although the reaction of the Billboard charts, which refused to place “Old Town Road” on the main country chart, reflects the dominant conception of country & western music as a mostly White province.
These debates raise questions about the mythos of the cowboy in the American mind, as well as the history of the American West in actuality. To help unravel these debates, I sat down earlier this month to talk to Professor Richard White of Stanford’s History department. Professor White is the Margaret Byrne Professor of American History and a 1995 recipient of the Macarthur Fellowship, and is widely known for his work on building a new history of the American West.
Central to his idea of the American West is a demystification of the cowboy. When I brought up the popularity of recent works about the cowboy to White, he quickly told me that the pop culture west “has nothing to do with the reality of Western settlement.” Historically, White said, the cowboy was just another “wage laborer” in a corporate old west, a job filled by poor young men of all races who quickly injured themselves into early retirements.
Despite these unheroic beginnings, the cowboy has become a core figure in American culture in the decades since the end of the Old West. According to White, this transformation can be traced back to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West shows, which began in the 1880s. In Buffalo Bill’s travelling shows, White finds the roots of the mythic west— brave cowboys as the vanguard of a civilized settlement of the wild. These ingredients— the wild and the civilized, with the cowboy somewhere in between— are constant throughout the history of the cowboy in American culture.
But the meanings of each part of that equation are constantly in flux from generation to generation. To White, the enduring power of the cowboy comes from how it “can mean pretty much anything that you want it to mean.” Cowboys have been lawmen, outlaws and antiheroes, not quite part of society but bound to it in some way. In some works, Native Americans are faceless villains, in others the heroes themselves. And that flux also means, according to White, that the Western is the shared heritage of all Americans. There were Black and brown cowboys, yes, but even without that historical backing there would still be a mythos to draw on. In fact, White sees the continued popularity and new uses of the western as more about the current moment than anything else: to him, it’s clear that westerns, from the classic westerns of cinema to “Old Town Road” are “always about the present, never about the past.”
Contact Jacob Kuppermann at jkupperm ‘at’ stanford.edu.