Why "Old Town Road" is the Best of Yeehaw Culture
By Zoe Huettl
Contrary to common media representation, the rough-and-tumble American cowboy has not always been white. According to a 2017 article in Smithsonian Magazine, one in four cowboys was black, flying in the face of traditional western imagery. Country music, which draws on cowboy aesthetics and southern culture, also has a dominantly white following. Priscilla Renea, a chart-topping writer-turned-country artist and black woman, notes in an interview with NPR, “it’s not an environment where black people feel welcome.” Prominent black artists like Solange and Cardi B have taken inspiration from cowboys and the rising yeehaw culture, a celebration of the cowboy aesthetic in new (and maybe more historically accurate) ways. Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” and the accompanying movie capture both this history and yeehaw culture in a way that still feels fresh, with all the fun of a kitschy aesthetic.
As a music video, “Old Town Road” hits a lot of great notes. With cameos from Chris Rock, Vince Staples and Diplo, the turns across time and different locations stay fun and engaging without ever becoming trite. Lil Nas X’s character is the epitome of the cowboy: a calm, resolute figure, full of confidence. He beats Vince Staples in a drag race, then glams up at a retro mall. The over-the-top looks for Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus for the climax at the bingo hall fully realize the aesthetic of Lil Nas’ cowboy and the movie as a whole. More could be made of the heist at the beginning of the movie, but the final sequence leans into the kitsch for a delightful finish.
The thematic center of the movie can be boiled down to Chris Rock’s quip as Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus escape on horseback, “When you see a black man on a horse going that fast you just gotta let him fly.” Nas’ freedom is the centerpiece to the movie’s plot–he seems just as comfortable in the bingo hall as he is in a street race. The dynamism of yeehaw culture, the way it complicates conventional understandings of what is cool and accessible, allows Lil Nas X to present alternative image of what musical and cultural innovation can be.
While Renea’s point about the danger of country music culture still stands, “yeehaw” seems to be something else entirely. Transplanting country from the toxic culture it carries into a sphere made by black people makes the aesthetic both safer and more fresh. However the larger media sphere hasn’t always recognized yeehaw culture. Billboard was heavily criticised for removing “Old Town Road” from the Country charts, though the resulting controversy may be enough to reinstate it, along with the song’s position as number one for ten weeks. The genre-bending is one of the song’s most notable features, as reflected by Youtube user Charlie Bent who commented, “respect to lil nas x for real. never would’ve thought a cross genre of hip hop/ country would sound this good.”
Lil Nas X weaves country and rap together, while also complicating some of the conventions and preconceptions of both. In the video, his wardrobe channels western inspiration while also expanding its limits; the historical brown outfit is much more classic and plain than the standard, while his bedazzled outfit is more flashy than the typical jeans-and-flannel of many country stars. On the hip-hop side, Lil Nas X’s kitschy aesthetic also takes the campiness present in streetwear and pushes it further. Had he been invited to the Met Gala, I think Lil Nas X would have brought more camp than most of the men (Billy Porter and Jared Leto might have given him some competition).
Regardless, Lil Nas X also challenges hip hop's aesthetic of success. His verses are steeped in the country-cowboy narrative, with images of horses and tractors (though with lean and Gucci thrown in for good measure). Billy Ray Cyrus’ verse shows a more conventional image of hip hop success, with mentions of Maseratis, diamonds, and Fendi. This reversal continues Nas’ pattern of complicating the trappings of both country and hip hop, which makes for an even more innovative song.