Well, not really.
But maybe . . .
In a way . . .
Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus seem to be conspiring to completely upend the music industry’s longstanding practice of separating American music into digestible categories to be consumed by specific audiences. Because for as long as anyone reading this can remember, there were “kinds” of music: country, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, classical, jazz, etcetera. And each one of those types had their own radio stations, their own deejays, and their own recording-industry silos.
But Lil and Bill have done something extraordinary. In 2019, Lil Nas X broke Billboard Magazine's record of weeks at number one on their Hot 100 chart with his song “Old Town Road.” But this success did not come without controversy. After three months on its country charts, Billboard had pulled “Old Town Road” from that list for “failing to incorporate enough elements of today’s country music.” The next month, country-music legend Cyrus recorded a remix of the song, and the month after that they made a music video of the remix together as an explicit rebuke of Billboard’s decision. Then, last year, Cyrus covered LL Cool J’s 1990 hip-hop classic, “Mama Said Knock You Out.” At this point, it’s a movement. With the success of “Old Town Road” and Cyrus’ LL Cool J remake, they both stand to re-invent the very concept of country music, and indeed, the entire racist musical-segregation infrastructure that is the foundation of the recording industry
Because the different musical categories always seemed a little arbitrary, didn’t they? My use of the term musical segregation was not accidental. The attempts by music-industry executives to keep the R&B out of country music has frightening parallels with the attempts of early day
white-supremacists to keep “black blood” out of “white blood”—otherwise known as
miscegenation. In fact, the rhetoric around “genuine” country music is so similar to
antimiscegenation rhetoric that I will be discussing Nas’ and Ray’s musical symbiosis in
conversation with Nadine Ehlers’ book, Racial Imperatives: Discipline, Performativity, and
Struggles Against Subjection. Dr. Ehlers does not mention country music at all in her
book. Yet one could write another book on the ways in which this book could have been
written about the attempts to keep country music “pure.”
From the very beginning, rock artists were crossing over into country, R&B artists were crossing over into jazz. No one seemed satisfied with staying in their lanes. Which is what one might expect, because these are artists. But the recording industry does not want artists. Even though it does them the honor of calling them recording artists, what the recording industry really wants is commodities: easily definable packages that they can sell to easily targetable segments of the music-buying audience. And from the very beginning of the recording industry, those packages have been race-specific. As a result, according to Ken Barnes in his article “Top 40 Radio: A Fragment of the Imagination,” the record-buying public has “been sliced and diced into dozens of minute demographically, psychographically, and sociologically fine-tuned targets.”
And one of the unspoken yet dearly held traditions in the recording industry was that R&B artists were black and country artists were white. As University of North Carolina music professor Jocelyn Neal writes in her article “Dancing Around the Subject: Race in the Country Fan Culture,” there is a “two-column classification [that] is implied [in most writing on music and racial identity: white music (the column in which country is housed) is separate from black music.” Sure, you have your
Charley Prides and your Darius Ruckers, your Snows and your Jon B.’s,
but with all of those artists, their novelty of being the “other” was part of their marketing appeal.
The industry doesn’t shy away from novelties -- they are important alternate revenue streams.
But the color consciousness in the music industry is undeniable. In
his article "Plugging and Programming: Pop Radio and Record Promotion in Britain and the United States,” University of London music professor Keith Negus’ holds
that there are “rigid categories of commercial marketing [that] treat
ethnicity as a discrete and finite entity and draw sharp lines between
black, white, and latin music.” New York Times writer and rock journalist Kelefa Sanneh is more
oblique: “Country music has a historical and mythical connection to rural Southern white culture,
even though today’s performers and fans are often neither Southern nor rural.” Here Sanneh
reiterates the fact that country music has long since left the back hills of the Appalachians and has become a multimillion-dollar-a-year industry. But, Sanneh concludes, “Country music remains, of course, an overwhelmingly white genre.”
This musical segregation was not done by accident. In fact, the racist backlash that had followed Beyonce’s performance with the Dixie Chicks on the Country Music Awards three years before the Lil Nas X controversy had itself only been an echo of a fraught musical history.
As early as the 1920s, record labels would expect early music producers to put their own artists into one of two separate catalogues: “hillbilly” and “race.” According to Dr. Kim Simpson in his article “Country Radio’s Growing Pains in the Music Trades, 1967 - 1977” one of the first instances to consciously silo country music came about as a result of the R&B inflections of a young Elvis Presley. Presley was originally a country music star, but his tendency “to introduce complicating factors” such as “racially color-blind music” sparked an uprising of “country-industry insiders” in 1954 to pressure Billboard Magazine in a letter to the editor “not to list any artists who were influenced by rhythm and blues music on the country chart.” Just like that, Presley, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lewis, and even the Everly Brothers, were off country radio. To be fair, the country-music industry has always struggled with “keeping its intake levels from [other] outside genres closely regulated,” according to Simpson. There have been reactions against the inclusion of pop and rock as well. But the absolute distinction from traditionally black music is clear, leading one Kansas City radio deejay in 1968 to call what country radio was doing an “effort to maintain their ethnic monopoly.” When new “cross country” stations began playing “artists like Simon and Garfunkel, the Beatles, and Percy Sledge in 1971,” a Music City News staffwriter called such stations playlists a “tutti-frutti concoction,” and “absolutely the worst thing that can happen to country music. . . . Country pop would inevitably lead to such unthinkable travesties as ‘soul country.’” Three years later, according to Simpson, a group of fifty established performers met at the home of George Jones and Tammy Wynette and organized the Association of Country Entertainment, whose main goal was to “preserve the identity of country music.”