New Town Road

September 16th, 2019

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The former editorial director of Billboard says “Old Town Road” represents “the democratization of the music industry.” Yes, but which type of democracy?

Disclaimer: I’d never heard “Old Town Road” until our grandson Rhodes started belting it out this summer on vacation. Disclaimer #2: You probably hadn’t either.

Lil Nas X recorded “Old Town Road” last fall. At that time, he was flunking out of college, living on his sister’s couch. He was also on the Internet, mostly making memes.

Then Lil Nas got an idea for a song—a genre-busting combination of country and hip-hop. He purchased a beat online for $30 and wrote “Old Town Road.” It was an instant online hit (streamed more than a billion times on Spotify alone). Billboard, which now includes streaming numbers, began to chart its climb up the country charts.

Then Billboard banned the song. In March, “Old Town Road” was removed from the Hot Country songs chart. Billboard claimed it did not have enough country elements to belong there. Kyle Coroneos, the founder of the website Saving Country Music, said, “The people inside country music aren’t even paying attention to it.”

Billy Ray Cyrus was. He heard Lil Nas wanted him on a remix. Billy Ray signed on. The remix shot all the way to the top of the Billboard Hot 100. “Old Town Road” is now the longest-running No. 1 song in history.

Lil Nas X is an outlier. He’s gay. Country favors straight singers. He’s black. Country favors white singers. That’s why Bill Werde, the former editorial director of Billboard, says Lil Nas represents “the democratization of the music industry that people were hoping for when social media first became available.”

Yes, but which type of democracy? There are two. Direct and indirect. “Old Town Road” represents direct democracy, what America’s founders deliberately rejected.

The founders recognized ancient Athens as the main historical example of direct democracy. Every male adult citizen voted in the assembly. There were no distinct executive or judicial branches. Yet this was the Athens that condemned Socrates to death, launched a disastrous pre-emptive war against Syracuse, and barely survived repeated coups before succumbing to undemocratic Macedonia.

From this, the founders concluded direct democracy was inherently unstable. It could lead to mob rule. A majority might oppress minorities. Representatives might legislate out of “passion.” The founders opted instead for indirect democracy.

Indirect democracy has elected representatives working within a structure that includes the separation of powers. Its robustness depends on mediating institutions—churches, schools, fraternal organizations, clubs, and professional associations (guilds)—“standing between the individual in his private life and the large institutions of public life.”[1] They form a bulwark between privatization on one hand and politicization on the other.

US states can establish either type of democracy. California chose direct. The result is initiatives have the potential to turn politics upside down. Since a successful initiative becomes statute, voters can become legislators. They can become founding fathers who amend the state constitution. Madison and Hamilton would have been horrified.

Few are horrified today. Most Americans have never heard of mediating institutions (ever heard your church described that way?). They live privatized lives. They hardly involved in civic affairs. If they’re Christians, they have a privatized faith. When Americans do get involved in public life, most are politicized. This includes Christians. Most have been shaped by social media (blogs, Fox, CNN), and most social media bypasses mediating institutions.

Example: We see about 5.8 million new blog posts every day. Few, however, abide by the practices of mediating institutions in journalism. 42 percent of bloggers “Hardly ever/Never” spend extra time verifying facts. 61 percent “Hardly ever/Never” get permission to post copyrighted material. 59 percent “Hardly ever/Never” post corrections. 41 percent “Hardly ever/Never” include links to original sources.[2]

This isn’t how we build flourishing societies. The music industry may not be a large institution of public life (I think it is), but “Old Town Road” completely bypassing Nashville’s mediating music institutions is a story worth paying attention to. The song ought to be titled New Town Road. Scriptures says flourishing towns are our aim (Jer.29:7). Cultures are depicted as paths, or roads (Jer.6:16). “Old Town Road” represents a New Town Road, or culture. I like the song but worry that social technologies are upending almost all mediating institutions. That can’t be good.

 

[1] Peter L Berger, Richard John Neuhaus, To Empower People: From State to Civil Society (American Enterprise Institute, 1996), 158.

[2] Pew Internet & American Life Project Blogger Callback Survey

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5 Responses to “New Town Road”

  1. Jerry S. Herbert says:

    “Oyez! Oyez! The Sovereign Individual has run amok [Thanks, Enlightenment.], democratizing civil society and hollowing out social institutions.” [Even families–“That 3 year old is entitled to choose their own gender.”] Not only are Hamilton and Madison spinning in their graves, so are Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Thanks be to God that Jesus isn’t, since he’s resurrected from the grave and reigning as King in real time, in blessings and besettings.

  2. Bob Ewell says:

    Interesting take, Mike. Question: how would you describe the Jesus movement in its first 250 years? If it had had to depend on “mediating institutions” it wouldn’t have survived.

  3. Bob Moffitt says:

    I’m not sure that Nashville (or the record industry at large) was ever a mediating institution. If that was ever true it was more than 20 years ago, and it was only because mitigating limitations such as the high cost of recording and distribution prevented labels from manufacturing and selling to the public at full scale. Costs were such that they had to be selective about what they were going to release. Given the seemingly insatiable appetite for music, as a capitalist, for-profit industry, record labels would have much preferred the elimination of those constraints to sell a much higher supply at a much lower cost. When the internet disrupted those limitations, the record industry ultimately began doing what any profit-incentivized institution would do – give the people exactly what they want, whatever it is, as much of it as they want, and whenever they want it. In the case of Old Town Road, the labels only responded and signed Lil’ Nas X after the song became a hit. They saw the demand, picked up the record, then did dozens of re-mixes with guest artists to keep it charting. So, I’d argue that the elimination of the industry as a ‘mediating institution’ is far more obviously the result of unmitigated capitalism than a fundamental ‘democratization’ of music and the disintermediation of an institution that somehow preserved the integrity of our system. “One hit wonder” earworms are nothing new – what’s new is the ability to make them and exploit them at the scale of the market that is the internet. I’d be more worried about what this phenomenon says about an economy and market that is morally agnostic (apathetic even) to the content that fuels its profits than what it says about a public that so willingly participates in its product.

  4. Kyle M says:

    Mike, the statement from this song, “Can’t nobody tell me nothin’, is one that stands out every time I hear the beat or song. The rest of the lyrics refer to various things that I’m unsure about, but this line has a very clear message. I have an 11 year old daughter that knows the song, both radio and “Avengers/Thanos” version, and I am struggling with communicating to her just how damaging a statement like that can do to how we interact with authorities in our lives. “Who are you again? Who put you in authority? Why should I listen to you?” Knowing how our brains wire themselves by repetitive actions, having these type of statements on repeat can dramatically shape our thinking. I am glad you brought this up to your readers. I have been exposed to this song for a while and it doesn’t look like it’s going to fade away anytime soon. This might have been a little off topic, but isn’t that the point to make our heads tilt just a little?

  5. Kyle M says:

    Something else…
    We know that there are countless studies on the brain and how it responds/reacts to various stimuli. The music industry aren’t fools. Who are we to say studies aren’t being done using these internet “beats” and marketing them based on their effectiveness within these brain studies? You just got me thinking for a moment that is all. Thanks for the opportunity to share my thoughts.

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