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Cover art for the Lil Nas X single, "Old Town Road."  The picture was taken from thecurrent.org

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“Old Town Road,” and a new (old) kind of bipartisanship

April 11, 2019

Recently Lil Nas X’s country-trap smash “Old Town Road” has been the subject of much curiosity. Its country themes and lyrics set to a banjo twang and a trap beat make it hard to put the song in a conventional box. So hard, in fact, that Billboard removed it from their Hot Country Songs list, where it had been climbing up the charts.  The move sparked intense debate over whether or not “Old Town Road” is ‘country enough’ to remain on the genre-specific charts, and if the race of Lil Nas X, who is black, played a part in Billboard’s action. Meanwhile, the song has reached the top spot on the Billboard Hot 100, and a remix featuring Billy Ray Cyrus dropped on April 4th. The reason that a song without an identifiable genre can hit number one on the charts hints at a changing moment in American culture and politics.

Traditionally, in order to top the pop charts, songs from other genres have had to succumb to a mainstream influence. The 2017 song of the summer “Despacito” thrived in Central and South America and Mexico, but the Latin hit needed Justin Bieber’s vocals before dominating the American airwaves. Post Malone has forged many hit songs by blending hip-hop and mainstream pop, including

“Rockstar” and “Better Now.”  Taylor Swift’s album “Red” can be seen as a bridge in her career between country and pop. “Old Town Road,” on the other hand, follows a much different path to the top of the charts. Instead of being more moderate, and bending to the mainstream, it pulls from the extremes to provide something for everyone.  

Political bipartisanship is often thought of in similar, perhaps outdated, terms. Most bills that aren’t passed along party lines are diluted enough by one party to garner support from moderates on the other side. The 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act, a replacement of the No Child Left Behind Act, was passed on the back of wide bipartisan support. Most recently, the attempted overhaul of the Affordable Care Act was stopped when Republicans Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), Susan Collins (R-ME), and John McCain (R-AZ) voted no.  

But there have been signs that bipartisan alliances have begun to unite those on the fringes instead of the middle.  Both Democratic representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Republican Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), who represent the extremes of their respective parties, commended President Trump for pulling American troops out of Syria.  Back in 2016, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump both criticized trade deals like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

But just as the world of country rap is not entirely new – Nelly and Tim McGraw collaborated on the 2004 hit “Over and Over” – fringe-driven bipartisanship in the United States is also an older phenomenon.  Half a century ago, it was common to find liberal Republicans and conservative Democrats in the halls of Congress. According to Forbes, in the 1970s, party unity voting occurred only 60% of the time, compared to 90% today.  Politicians would have views and platforms that were more their own and less influenced by party, meaning that any given senator or representative could be expected to vote with the opposite party, depending on the issue at hand.

New or old, this shift could suggest that Americans are growing tired of the hyper-partisan age that we live in.  Even as Americans are subscribing to more extreme political ideologies on both the right and left, and becoming more polarized, there is also a growing number of people who identify as independents.  And while 81% of these independents do lean towards one party over the other, according to the Pew Research Center, it indicates that many Americans are becoming less allegiant to a political party. Recent public pushes (and campaign pledges by 2020 presidential candidates) to do away with the electoral college and superdelegates show that Americans want their vote to count directly, without a party or any other system in the way.  Furthermore, it can be taken to mean that there is a transition taking place right now to move beyond party politics – and maybe even the two party system – and into an age where individual voters have increased agency over who their government representatives are, and what opinions they hold.

Lil Nas X, with his unique perspective on country music, has created an improbable hit song.  But more importantly, he has put himself at the forefront of a cultural and political movement that could fundamentally change both music and partisanship as we know it.  A post-genre, post-party-politics world may not be as far off as we think, and hi-hats and banjos are leading the way.

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