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Will Lil Nas X Ever Run Out of Horses to Pull the Bandwagon?

The rapper’s breakout hit now holds the record for consecutive weeks atop the Billboard singles chart, thanks to some help from his friends. What will stop his reign?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

This, too, shall pass, but not now, and not soon. Congratulations to Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” which as of Monday afternoon has officially spent 17 consecutive weeks atop the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, beating the 16-week record held jointly by the 2017 Luis Fonsi–Daddy Yankee–Justin Bieber juggernaut “Despacito” and the 1995 Mariah Carey–Boyz II Men mega-jam “One Sweet Day.” The key to outlandish chart supremacy, it seems, is to make music with your friends. And what with all the gratuitous and delightful (?) and apparently endless (!) remixes, we’re all acutely aware by now of just how many friends Lil Nas X has.

Is he still your friend, though? How’s everybody doing? What’s the vibe out there? Anybody sick of this song yet? It behooves us, on this momentous occasion, to kick the “Old Town Road” bandwagon’s tires a bit, to assess whether that dreaded word backlash can ever possibly be applied to a phenomenon this daffy and disruptive and, yes, even now [grits teeth, but only for a second] delightful. Is there such thing as too dominant? Is a cultural heel turn inevitable when you’re dealing with something this ubiquitous? How many remixes, which is to say how many silly pictures of horses, would it take for resentment to take hold? And what’s the vibe gonna be if Lil Nas X’s stranglehold on the charts still isn’t broken by the premiere of, say, Monday Night Football?

Technically, Ariana Grande’s “7 Rings” ruled the first week of April, but you take his point.

The continued supremacy of “Old Town Road” is of course largely due to the existence of five distinct versions, a wacky and yet logical progression from cause célèbre to fluke hit to undisputed 2019 Song of Summer to quite literally unstoppable juggernaut. The evolution here—from the Nashville-antagonizing solo original to early April’s rapturously received Billy Ray Cyrus team-up to late April’s overbusy Diplo remix to mid-July’s surrealist Young Thug–Mason Ramsey situation to, finally (?!), last week’s “Seoul Town Road” excursion costarring RM of BTS—has been both hilariously random and blatantly calculated. The newest version is by far the most craven (shout-out the devoted and fearsome BTS Army) and least essential, though it does at least constitute the first no. 1 hit to feature a pun about Korean gardening tools.

Lil Nas X is aware of the fact that the whole remix thing is getting way out of hand; meme-driven self-deprecation is a central aspect of his appeal, after all. Yes, he will threaten to get Dolly Parton involved, but he will also (all the way back in May!) tweet something like this …

... or retweet something like this.

He remains, in short, a humble and massively appealing human, the exact combination of guileless and shrewd that exemplifies the internet at its best, a one-song pop star revered for all the other, more established but less deft hitmakers “Old Town Road” has foiled in their quest to top the charts as of late. These include Shawn Mendes, Ed Sheeran, and of course, most deliciously, Taylor Swift. A real person on the internet had triumphed over a bunch of carefully manufactured superstars in the music industry. Underdog stories get no goofier, and no more satisfying.

But Lil Nas X is hardly an underdog anymore, and now he’s an industry figure cowering in the shadow of his own historically dominant hit song just like everyone else on the charts. (It is a legitimate drag that “Old Town Road” will likely keep Billie Eilish, 2019’s other spectacularly winsome new pop star, from hitting no. 1 with “Bad Guy,” though in mid-July she shrewdly/cravenly unveiled a Justin Bieber remix, proving that two, for starters, can play at this game.) One can still wave proudly from the Lil Nas X bandwagon and yet feel utter indifference to his June mini album 7, which showed incredible restraint in including only two versions of “Old Town Road” but otherwise fluttered between genres (dig the pop-punk) and attitudes (dig the one-hit-wonder anxiety) to wan effect. When Cardi B shows up on “Rodeo,” she only crystalizes Nas’s dilemma: The trick now is to jump from the shock-hit ecstasy of “Bodak Yellow” to the equally shocking full-album command of Invasion of Privacy.

It is too soon, perhaps, to demand much of anything else from Lil Nas X, when what little he’s given us thus far remains so absurdly dominant. The unbroken reign of “Old Town Road” is in part a scathing indictment of the rest of pop music in 2019, which with few exceptions (Eilish, Grande, and Lizzo among them) feels inert to the point of comatose. Hate the game, not the only worthy player. But as we rumble ever close to the reality that the Song of Summer 2019 might be literally the only no. 1 song of the entire summer, it is worth asking what it would take for society at large to turn against him, or away from him.

We’re in uncharted and decidedly weird territory here, is the point. Lil Nas X as CEO of Twitter territory. Pete Buttigieg as a spurned collaborator territory. It’s exciting, but it’s volatile. A year from now, we’ll hopefully remember “Old Town Road,” in its many but blissfully finite variations, as a singularly incredible and joy-inducing spectacle. Then again, exactly a year from now, Nas might drop his 85th “Old Town Road” remix, featuring Erica from Stranger Things reading excerpts from the Mueller report.