In 2011, NPR estimated that it cost around $78,000 (£61,600) to make a chart hit – and that was without a video or promotion. Nearly a decade later, with the MP3 era a speck in the rear-view mirror, the way to create a streaming smash is both more open and more complex. But it’s not always as pricey. Lil Nas X shelled out just $50 (£40) to create Old Town Road, a cheering country-rap daydream that became the longest-running No 1 in US chart history, racking up 19 weeks at the top. It spent two weeks at the summit of the UK Top 40 in April 2019.
Despite the song’s ubiquity, it was difficult for anyone to truly hate. That’s largely thanks to Lil Nas X’s charismatic, gravel-voiced performance in which he raps about “bull riding and boobies” over trap beats and (thanks to a Nine Inch Nails sample) the loneliest-sounding banjo in the world. A year before Old Town Road’s release, he had been sleeping on his sister’s floor: his faux-flexing in the lyrics (“Cowboy hat from Gucci / Wrangler on my booty”) adds an absurdist yet autobiographical twinge to the song, evoking an underdog hustling for a life of greater means. But Old Town Road wore its creator’s struggles lightly and its straightforward, knowing silliness made it fly. It begs for choreography as much as a Steps song, and duly inspired TikTok’s viral #YeeHaw challenge (think plaid, lassos, and “Yee-Yee juice”). The dance app rocket-fuelled the song’s rise and cemented TikTok’s power to make trending songs into bona fide hits. (A year later, music’s A-list are catching up: Drake leaked his new single to TikTok, and Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj have remixed its biggest songs.)
A meme demigod with a bright smile, Lil Nas X didn’t plant Old Town Road on TikTok himself: it was first picked up by a user named @NiceMichael. But he turned out to be his own best advocate – for his music, online, and himself, when he came out last summer. As Old Town Road first started to climb Billboard’s country songs chart, the US country establishment closed ranks, excluding the song from the tally. Lil Nas X responded with philosophical grace (“I think people are just ready for something different, a change within the world”), but the move stands as a grim faux pas that seems racist and looks even more embarrassing in hindsight.
Old Town Road was unstoppable, with no apparent end to its appeal. Children rioted in their love for it. Its vast stable of remixes made it a genre-splicing Rosetta stone. It earned Lil Nas X a record deal worth $1.5m, a 30,000% return on his initial investment. But, as much as the song is an ur text in How To Go Viral (until the rules change again), Old Town’s Road’s magic lies in its affirming faith that a sunnier future is just around the next bend, designer Stetson optional. Especially when escaping to the open road feels like an impossible dream, Lil Nas X’s joy hits like a dose of vitamin D: a guy living life like it’s a movie, in two minutes where his feet hardly seem to touch the floor.