Because I like to hear musicians play their instruments, I’ve never been a big fan of country or rap. I’ll always have a soft spot for some country music because of my family, and plenty of hip hop beat doctors (especially drummers) show sparks of real creativity. Both genres are also easy to underestimate, hiding long, dramatic histories behind usually simple three-minute tracks. But while both genres have gems of genius lyrics, they also have a bad knack for hiding real playing skill behind music machines and a thick foreground of words–but that opinion is just my own.
I should also make it clear that “Old Town Road” is my least favorite song of all time. There’s absolutely no competition. I first heard it when I was living in Isabel and the baseball team had it playing during the warmup before a game. I was reading Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway on my balcony for some class, which was already torment enough, when “Old Town Road” wafted over from the field like some kind of terrible musical fart. A jazz fusion rendition of Justin Bieber’s “Baby” would have been like a sweet kiss compared to the ear-piercing strains of “Old Town Road.”
That said, I’m glad that America was the birthplace of this Frankenstein’s monster, and I don’t think it’s a severe departure from country music. The song is garish, boastful, and hard to categorize–naturally, it belongs to us Americans. On top of that, country music has been taking a steady spin down the toilet for decades as the genre tries ever harder to become a parody of itself. Every track takes a studio packed with trained musicians and a writing credit line longer than a sports team roster. Singers scrape the bottom of the same shared barrel for unoriginal bumper-sticker lyrics to be sung in outlandish accents. Even the subgenres of so-called red dirt or outlaw country too often rely on copying a flat portrait of rural life.
This process is much, much older than “Old Town Road” or “The Git Up.” Tractor rap infected the genre years ago, and the pop influence crept in with the rhinestones. Waylon Jennings noticed back in the 1970s that old Hank Williams didn’t exactly do it this-a-way. Ever since Chet Atkins decided he needed to back up his guitar with a full orchestra, country music has fled slowly but steadily away from purity.
Rap is fresher than country because it’s newer, but like rock music before it, rap’s rebellious attitude will wane as its popularity grows. Between well-meaning activists trying to castrate the genre and suburban kids somehow making money off low-effort beats they manufacture in their spare time, it’s possible that process has already begun.
So what if the genres bleed together? Who says genres have to represent a flash-frozen portion of history? Besides, in some ways, “Old Town Road” represents a good chunk of our American world today. On my high school football team south of Dallas, almost every player, black and white, knew Busta Rhymes’ part from “Look At Me Now” word for word. A lot of those white guys also knew “All My Exes Live In Texas” front and back. If that doesn’t seem clean or cut-and-dry, that’s because people just aren’t. Only in college do we see people trying their hardest to abide by the racial lines others draw for them. I get that a lot of liberals who can’t get outside of their own politics are trying their damnedest to redefine Texas music, but they won’t succeed anymore than conservatives will because music–even bad music, but especially the best music–is a living, organic thing that we cannot pin down or contain. Because “Old Town Road” just plain sucks, the best of all genres, new and old, will grow and outlast it.