‘Old Town Road’: A lesson in art and innovation

Creatives should see Lil Nas X’s unique success as a pattern to follow in their own craft.


Being a creative is all about innovation. 

As a poet and a writer, I’m constantly searching for new ways to think divergently, to work outside of what’s considered normal, or even expected, in the poetic form. 

Although I’m not a musician, I often look to my favorite songwriters, like Frank Ocean and Bon Iver, for inspiration on how to experiment with the way I write.

My newest model to follow, however, is someone I’d have never expected to look to months ago: Lil Nas X.

Lil Nas X made history last month for the longest-running number one single of all time with  “Old Town Road (Remix),” a country-trap hit featuring country legend Billy Ray Cyrus. The popular song remained number one for 19 weeks, surpassing both “One Sweet Day” by Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men, and “Despacito (Remix)” by Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee and Justin Bieber.

The song, featuring contemporary hip-hop sounds alongside a notable country aesthetic, is a crash course in creativity for artists like me.

Victoria Leese, a senior media studies and production major and the general manager of WHIP Radio, Temple University’s student-run radio station, has seen the popularity of “Old Town Road” as a radio single. In her eyes, there’s one characteristic of the track, and of Lil Nas X himself, that explains its success.

“People like different, and if it’s different and it eventually grows on you, that’s what I think is the key to success,” Leese said. “That’s where ‘Old Town Road’ comes in. It’s country-trap, which is incredibly different.”

Creatives should take this cue and run with it. Whatever the type of art, we should take heed of Lil Nas X’s example and experiment with art forms in unexpected ways. Art evolves dramatically over time, and we should aim to be one of the catalysts for that change.

Sebastian Brennan, a senior international business major and full-time music producer and engineer, said the song’s unique approach to genre is what helped it skyrocket in popularity.

“The thing about ‘Old Town Road’ is that it’s genre bending, it blends trap drums with a country-sounding Nine Inch Nails sample, and that helps it stand out,” Brennan said. 

Eric White, a 2017 journalism alumnus, who works as the music director for Iowa’s KKDM radio, sees how standing out is the best thing an artist can do to be successful. 

“The first thing I was told when I got into radio is that you really can’t ignore noise,” White said. “If something is out there and it’s making enough noise, it’s hard to pass it by. ‘Old Town Road’ has ridiculously high streaming numbers and it benefits our ratings a lot as a radio station to put it out there.”

And Lil Nas X’s influence on the music industry is evident: hip-hop singer Blanco Brown’s country crossover “The Git Up” is currently number one on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart, and Billboard itself has directly traced his success to Lil Nas X paving the way for him months earlier.

“Experimenting with genres has been going on for a while now but with Lil Nas X, he pushed the envelope about as far as it could go,” White said.

Over time, I’ve been experimenting with poetry and slowly developing my own idiosyncratic style in my writing. But artists never stop breaking new ground, and after looking at Lil Nas X’s creative approach to genre in music, I keep looking for new ways to push my poetry forward, and I urge others to pull an “Old Town Road” experiment with their own art.

Innovation is vital and all artists should defy what’s expected. Who knows, maybe the next “Old Town Road” will come from one of us.

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