What Is Musical Genre Exactly?

Billboard's decision to remove Lil Nas X's "Old Town Road" from its country chart exposes how artists' race and class—more than their sounds—have always defined genre.
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Lil Nas X.

Lil Nas X.

A rogue stallion galloped triumphantly through the well-worn path of Billboard's Hot Country Charts last month. As with many an outlaw stopover, if you blinked, you missed it.

The stallion in question is "Old Town Road," a gleefully genre-agnostic song by Lil Nas X that blew up in association with a meme on the Vine-descended social video app TikTok, before simultaneously taking respite on Billboard's Hot 100, Hot Country Songs, and Hot R&B/Hip-Hop charts. "Old Town Road" loops a banjo-inflected riff over a hip-hop descended drum track heavy on the hi hats and bass. Its horse-and-tractor lyrics are a pastiche of cowboy imagery—perhaps as indebted to the historical tropes of country music as to the recent popularity of what's been termed the "yee-haw agenda," a meme-friendly reclamation of Western imagery by people of color. Other lines draw from brags and allusions commonly found in hip-hop songs: lean, Gucci hats, Porsches, a possible Kanye reference.

The song's brief presence on the country charts may have been the result of its musical content, but also perhaps because X had marked the song as "Country" on SoundCloud. Shortly after the song's rise, Billboard removed it from its country charts, telling Rolling Stone "upon further review, it was determined that 'Old Town Road' by Lil Nas X does not currently merit inclusion on Billboard's country charts. When determining genres, a few factors are examined, but first and foremost is musical composition. While 'Old Town Road' incorporates references to country and cowboy imagery, it does not embrace enough elements of today's country music to chart in its current version."

The explicit gatekeeping sparked a vigorous discussion: Is "Old Town Road" country, hip-hop, or both? And do its hip-hop sounds transgress genre boundaries any more egregiously than many other popular country songs—specifically those made by white artists, unlike "Old Town Road,"—that have not faced chart excommunication, like Bebe Rexha's poppy "Meant to Be?"

Since the debate was over slippery, vernacular terms with flexible meanings, like "genre," little was settled. But to hear musicologists and music historians tell it, genre is the sorting of music, but it's often been about everything but the sounds. "Old Town Road" illustrates the thorny ways that race, class, and gender have always informed genre.

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Prior to recorded music, genre was mostly sorted by function, according to Robert Fink, a University of California–Los Angeles musicologist. Religious oratorios and liturgical music for mass were separated from secular music, which was identified primarily by its social geography: chamber music for palace chambers, opera in the court, and so on. There were some identity components too—the "low culture," popular music found on sheet music in parlors across the 19th century United States was often associated with its Irish and Jewish origins; classical music with wealthy, European whites.

But in the 1920s, with the creation of the record industry that followed the development of recording technology and the pre-Depression economic boom, genre began to shift from function to demographics of consumption. Genre became, in music industry parlance, format: defined by who was buying and listening to the record. Immediately, this demographic slotting took on explicitly racial dimensions. "There is a history of systemic racism in the way that the genres are defined for the public," says Jocelyn Neal, a professor of popular music at the University of North Carolina.

Three major popular music categories emerged early in the development of modern genres: Race records (marked as black), Hillbilly music (openly marked as white, especially rural and working class), and pop (white, but unmarked as so). Although the formats were obviously defined by race and class, their initial development "wasn't that different from the idea that you were going to release a series of records in Scandinavian languages for Scandinavians, in Yiddish for Jewish people, records in German for German people," Fink says.

Taking the demographic cue, Race records (and later the renamed rhythm and blues charts) were circularly defined as music that was being consumed in what were considered R&B music areas—essentially, black neighborhoods, Fink says. Musicians didn't have to be black to make the rhythm and blues charts, but black listeners did have to be listening to them. Still, pretty quickly the racially coded genres also became about who was making the music.

"There were African Americans involved in early country music, but it didn't really register in the labeling," says Maureen Mahon a New York University anthropologist who studies the construction of race and gender in music. "The way genre works is to create categories that are partly musical, but also have a lot to do with the perceived identity of the artists and the target market." According to Fink, the creation of segregated genres with the emergence of mass-music consumption technologies, like the record player, parallels the development of Jim Crow laws alongside the rise of modernized transportation and other industries.

Throughout this history, Billboard has generally been more of a taxonomist than a material decision-maker. Its most significant legacy is coming up with the names for "Country and Western" and "Rhythm and Blues" in the late 1940s, says Eric Weisbard, a professor of American Studies at the University of Alabama and author of Top 40 Democracy: The Rival Mainstreams of American Music. "The important other thing that Billboard does, even into the present, is make decisions about how to constitute its charts."

Billboard's genres shared many sonic elements, resulting in plenty of confusion. "All of your associations with given instrumental sounds dissolve if you trace them far enough back," Fink says. The Allen Brothers, a white duo from Chattanooga, sued Columbia Records for reputational damage and $250,000 after their 1927 sophomore release was categorized as a race record instead of hillbilly music. "It would have hurt us in getting dates if people who didn't know us thought we were black," one of the brothers later explained. Canonical country musician Hank Williams often played the blues, says David Brackett, a McGill University musicologist and author of Categorizing Sound: Genre and Twentieth-Century Popular Music. But Williams was white, so he was considered country.

These emerging genre formats also didn't even properly capture all the music the musicians slotted into each category were making. Both ethnomusicologists and the commercial music industry were guilty of oversimplification, especially of black musicians. For example, the American black community had a vibrant banjo and fiddler tradition that was rarely captured on wax. "The musicians were interested in all different kinds of music," Fink says. "But these guys would go out and they would ask musicians to perform music that they thought would match the audience that looked like them," creating a self-reinforcing loop of what race and hillbilly records sounded like.

And sometimes, they weren't even considered commercially distinct. For 14 months in the mid 1960s, Billboard discontinued its R&B charts—amid the massive popularity of Motown and the Beatles—because the R&B and pop charts were too similar. "The answer was not that the music all sounded the same," Fink says. "It was that everybody seemed to be listening to the same stuff."

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Lil Nas X may have been trying to avoid being boxed into one category (hip-hop) by claiming another, in the hope of appealing to fans across genres. For decades, musicians who broke out of sonic segregation into the massive, unmarked pop sphere were considered "crossover artists." Sly Stone, whose music combined—and helped invent—funk, soul, and psych rock, was able to crossover in part because, in a prefiguration of X's self-labeling, he fought label executives to prevent being marketed as an R&B artist, Mahon says. But he's the once-in-a-generation exception that proves the rule: Stone had an easier time pulling this off than many black artists with pop dreams who arrived after the creation of black (now "urban") music departments at the major labels in the 1970s, which institutionalized the pre-existing biases. Prince's uphill battle against being pigeonholed as R&B is an emblematic post-'70s example.

The history of country, too, is one of crossover battles—both of country artists attempting to crossover into the mainstream, and ones focused on pop sounds leaking into country music. These clashes might be more pronounced in country music's big tent because it's "the one gigantic category of American popular music where the genre and the radio format have exactly the same name," Weisbard ventures. "So much confusion over the nature of country music has come out of that basic problem."

A recent skirmish occurred in 2014 when Taylor Swift released a single whose electronic production smelled more of mainstream dance pop than many of her previous country-ish pop tunes. Stepping up to speak for the genre, the Country Music Association tweeted her adieu: "Good luck on your new venture @taylorswift13! We've LOVED watching you grow!"

Now that pop's gone hip-hop—much of today's most popular music either is itself hip-hop or heavily hip-hop influenced—many of country's gatekeeping anxieties about pop creeping into the genre are playing out again, but with hip-hop as the new sound of concern. Of course, this brings a whole other racial dimension to the crossover wars, given the country's history—and its present.

"Southern working-class white masculinity has always been a strong identity component of the country music," Neal says. But, post 2008 recession, it's been especially acute. As mainstream culture has attempted to make more room for perspectives beyond that of the straight white male, a disaffected cultural revanchism has sometimes found a home in country music. Neal links this cultural development to the popularity of "bro country" and the recent exclusion of women artists from country radio—constituting only one artist in Billboard's 2018 Country Airplay Artists.

While acknowledging all that, Neal says components of musical style do generally play an important role in genre sorting, alongside aesthetics of presentation, audience, and the identity markers like race, gender, and class. She also notes that country places especial scrutiny on consistency of genre identity across a body of work. "There are lots of cases where you can find a track or a recording that has all the sonic markers of country music," she says "but the artist isn't presenting themselves as country, they're not performing in country venues, or talking the talk of country, they're not connecting that song to other aspects of their work. And so that track is seen as a novelty. It doesn't mean the artist suddenly becomes a country singer." This explains why Ween's aberrant country album didn't lead to embrace by country stations and fans. Similarly, Eminem's Aerosmith-informed "Lose Yourself" wasn't considered a rock song.

So, it's possible that Lil Nas X will set out to prove his country bonafides—a handful of country-forward albums and a Blake Shelton collaboration might do the trick. Or maybe he'll go back to making hip-hop that fits within the genre's pre-existing contours, and "Old Town Road" will find its ultimate stable: the novelty bin.

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