Country fans call Lil Nas X a cultural appropriator. Is he?
Cowboy boots and 10-gallon-hats have reemerged as staple fashion choices. Kacey Musgraves' charisma and tight melodies beat out pop music kingpins Drake and Post Malone to clench Album of the Year at the 2019 Grammy Awards.
"Old Town Road," a debut from 19-year-old college dropout Lil Nas X, beat out a streaming record set by Drake and brought about a pop culture movement known as the "yeehaw agenda," which brings the idea of black cowboys and cowgirls into mainstream viewing. From Tyga and Cardi B to Mitski, Mac Demarco and Solange, a country music crossover revolution is in full swing. So why do Country fans continue to insist on exclusivity within their genre? The "yeehaw agenda" didn't unfold gracefully; country music fans resisted the genre's crossover into black culture at every conceivable turn, dismissing the trend as its own form of "cultural appropriation." Most recently, Wrangler Jeans came under intense scrutiny when they announced a collaborative line with Lil Nas X and were consequently accused of "taking the cowboy outta country." "Can't believe Wrangler stooped to that level," wrote a user on Twitter. "Stop trying to conform and stay loyal to your roots." In March, "Old Town Road" was removed from the Billboard Country charts because it allegedly "did not merit inclusion" in the Country charts. The song's removal sparked a debate surrounding racism in Country music and cowboy culture.
Despite popular culture welcoming the Yee Haw movement with (mostly) open arms, Country music as a whole still feels relatively inaccessible for those who don't religiously follow the genre and adhere to its strict guidelines. At last week's CMT music awards, Tanya Tucker and Brandi Carlile were joined on stage by multiple generations of Country women to subtly raise awareness for the lack of female representation in Country music. From Martina McBride to Carly Pearce, all 8 women on stage sang a rendition of Tucker's 1972 hit "Delta Dawn," which tells the story of a modern-day Mary Magdalene. Additionally, Zac Brown of the Zac Brown Band told his haters to "f*** off" after winning video of the year; the send-off was to comment on ZBB's alleged departure from Country music circles. In the past, Brown has called the genre "predictable" and is often criticized for collaborating with artists who aren't strictly country. Country fans' agitations also peaked when Beyonce joined The Dixie Chicks on stage at 2016's CMT Awards, and again a month later when beloved duo Florida Georgia Line appeared to be anti-police by refusing security backstage at a show in Wisconsin—as if being anti-police would've been a bad thing when "52% of all the years of life lost [in 2015 and 2016] at the hands of police were lost by nonwhite, non-Hispanic ethnic groups." But that's a different argument altogether.
"Country, as a genre, is obsessed with notions of patriotism, of purity, of some nondescript American-ness," wrote The New Yorker. Yet as Country fans attempt time and time again to shove artists into the cookie cutters of a strict list of dated archetypes, the genre has naturally evolved to incorporate pop and R&B with or without the traditionalists in tow. Kelsea Ballerini's top song is a progressive house collaboration with The Chainsmokers. Maren Morris, who performed at this year's CMT awards and was nominated for Best Video, infuses pop melodies throughout her debut album, Girl, with tracks like "Flavor" and "Gold Love" seemingly devoid of Country-influence. Chris Stapleton, one of Country's biggest breakout stars in recent years, continually borrows influence from R&B and Southern Rock. "Musically he understands that 'country' is an inclusive label," writes Pitchfork. "One that uses the bristly twang of 1970's outlaw as its foundation but also covers the excitable R&B from Memphis...as well as the blues-based Southern rock of the Allman Brothers and Lynyrd Skynyrd."
Yet all the artists listed above have often cited Country music icons as their heroes and influencers, acknowledging and respecting the confines of the genre, therefore fostering a connection with conservative country hot-heads. Meanwhile, Lil Nas X admitted in a Rolling Stone interview that he had to "google Western terms," that he had never ridden a horse, and that "Old Town Road" was engineered for virality rather than to be a country song. Kendrick Lamar, Drake, and Kid Cudi are his primary influences, and not once has he acknowledged that he listened to Country or was influenced by the genre. As shown by their brewing agitations, Country fans can only be so open-minded. "[The] country [music industry] is guarded," Lil Nas X said of the "Old Town Road" Billboard controversy. "You can have your country song with trap elements...if it's known by country artists, then it's allowed."
As Country fans continue to protest the genre's evolution, there is little they can do about the changing sound, with their protests mostly coming off as petty whining rather than concrete accusations of cultural appropriation. Whether the reluctance of country fans to accept the genre's crossover into black culture is due to racism or a simple fear of change, it seems there is little they can actually do to stop Country music from moving outside the tired confines of the antiquated genre.
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