“Old Town Road” is still the number one hit on the Billboard Top 100 chart and it has been for 12 straight weeks. Right below it is Taylor Swift’s song “You Need to Calm Down,” and when she previously debuted her song “ME!” it also landed in the number two spot on the chart.
Much has been written about the massive success of “Old Town Road,” with a repeated emphasis on how the song is keeping other artists (Ed Sheeran, Post Malone, and Justin Bieber among them) but especially Swift’s songs from the top. The song has “prevented” Swift’s singles from reaching the number one spot and it’s “kept Taylor Swift out of the number one spot.” “If Taylor Swift can’t have a number one pop hit in 2019, can anyone?” Vanity Fair asks, which makes little sense. Someone already has the number one pop hit of 2019: Lil Nas X. The framing continually is that such a spot is not just home for Taylor Swift, but one she deserves even if her new songs aren’t great.
It is okay to feel incredulous about the success of “Old Town Road.” Critics and reporters have pointed out that Lil Nas X’s internet savvy for memes, creating high-engagement tweets, and navigating the murky waters of Soundcloud rap by tagging a song #country was in part responsible for the song’s virality; he told the New York Times he even created an SEO-friendly Reddit post pretending to be someone asking “what’s that song that goes ‘old town road’?”
The repeated implication is that the deliberate memeification of “Old Town Road” is sort of dirty, unworthy of a number one chart spot. But am I supposed to understand that Taylor Swift’s “You Need to Calm Down,” a deeply unfortunate turn in her pop catalog, with a video that essentially compares Internet haters snarking on her to the right-wing harassment and violence queer people face, is more worthy of the spot because she’s simply gotten there, time and time again?
Not that the charts reward great music anyway. They’re ripe for gamification, as we’ve seen with Post Malone’s label hacking Youtube streaming counts by uploading loops of a song’s chorus, as well as elaborate fan programs and merchandise bundles that boost sale numbers. We saw with “Hotline Bling” that a great video can solidify the success of a song (and given how streams work, solidify the success of an entire album even if people only ever stream that one song.) And yet many artists obsess over chart placement and fans are supposed to understand that it means something.
At the heart of the duel between “Old Town Road” and Swift’s songs is an anxiety over playing by the rules, one which Swift follows diligently but don’t work for her anymore. Hyping up premieres for videos bloated with Queer Eye members and an inexplicable Ryan Reynolds cameo is a strategy that might not work anymore when it comes to something as technical as chart-topping. To suggest that “Old Town Road” is blocking some other popular artist on the chart is to suggest that chart success is certain, especially for artists like Taylor, but nothing could be farther from the truth.