Book Review: Chris Molanphy “Old Town Road”

Duke University Press, 2023

Chris Molanphy Old Town Road Book Cover

It takes Chris Molanphy just 125 pages to brilliantly chronicle the twists and turns that made Lil Nas X single ‘Old Town Road’ such a phenomenon.

This book was published last November, a new addition to the Duke University Press series, Singles. The brief… “how singles change lives, reshape perceptions, bring people together, and drive them apart. What is it about a single that can pry open a whole world? That can feel common to all and different for each? How can something so little mean so much?” The pitch… “not just a lone track on an album, but a single: a song distributed to and heard by millions that creates a shared moment it is bound to outlive, revealing social fault lines in the process. By single, they mean not only a discrete musical track of great personal or social significance but a chart-busting, long-lasting song with mass appeal.”

Molanphy describes himself as a chart analyst and pop critic who writes about the intersection of culture and commerce in popular music. He’s a columnist for the online magazine Slate and writes their “Why is this Song No. 1?” series. The story of this song, that held the top spot in the Billboard Hot 100 chart for a total of 19 weeks in the summer of 2019: is in capable hands. Indeed, you can imagine the series editors glee when Molanphy offered ‘Old Town Road’. The book is a worthy stablemate to ‘Hound Dog’ and ‘Roadrunner’. Molanphy may have condensed the story into an enjoyable few hours of reading but the scholarly bibliography suggests he put the hours into researching the story.

Without giving too much content away: Montero Hill was a savvy consumer and manipulator of all things internet by 2018. Hill’s online moniker became Lil Nas X. He was comfortable in the world of accessing online samples and beatmakers. Stumbling on a beat in the audio marketplace it sounded like cowboy music. In other words: It sounded like a meme waiting to happen.

This meme waiting to happen and the single it generated (2019) shook the musical establishment and exposed some ground-in predjudices. The way hit singles got included in the Billboard charts had been slowly changing. Slow building analog formats were being replaced by instant digital sales and streaming. Genre specific charts were now being compiled from the same Billboard Hot 100. Radio airplay became insignificant… unless there were genre margin calls. It was going to get messy somewhere down the road. Here was a single that emerged from social media, tagged a country song, that bypassed the genre’s gatekeepers.

What Montero Hill didn’t know was that Old Town Road was going to become the centre of a debate around race, gender identity, genre, authenticity and the Yeehaw agenda. When Billboard removed the single from the country charts the song instantly went from a meme and a pop smash… to a cause.

Molanphy tells it better. He understands fandom, modern popular culture and the ever evolving internet. He says streaming most resembles that old standby, the jukebox. Instant gratification but no retention. Old Town Road reset the parameters by which hits were measured. Molanphy is a writer worth tagging. A small, pricey book but… a gratifying read.

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