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What Makes 'Old Town Road' So Popular

'Old Town Road' by Lil Nas X has stayed at the top of the charts for longer than any other song.
Courtesy Photo
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'Old Town Road' by Lil Nas X has stayed at the top of the charts for longer than any other song.

“Old Town Road,” Lil Nas X’s country/western rap hit, is now not only genre-breaking, it’s record-breaking. It has held Billboard’s number one spot for 17 weeks, breaking the record previously set by the 2017 hit "Despacito" and, back in 1995, "One Sweet Day" by Mariah Carey and Boyz to Men.

What propels a song to that kind of popularity? In the case of Old Town Road, it may be the unexpected combination of rap and country music -- bass beats and lyrics about horses.  

“There's this great term in psychology called ‘optimal distinctiveness,’ and it's all about things that are sort of similar and different at the same time,” said Jonah Berger, associate professor of marketing at University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

Berger is the author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On.

“There are some benefits to sounding like things we've heard before,” Berger said. “At the same time, if something’s exactly the same as what we've heard before, it's not going to get any attention. There's nothing new about it.”

"Old Town Road" has the right blend of the familiar and unfamiliar that makes a song popular, he explained.

“We looked at baby names and we found that baby names are more successful when they're kind of similar and different,” he said. “When they have some sounds that have been popular in other baby names recently but are different in some names as well. So that mix of familiarity and difference really helps drive success.”

Remixes and audience participation keep a song like "Old Town Road" on the charts for longer, he said.

“When these things really catch fire, they build a broader movement,” Berger said. “They allow a larger set of people to participate and make that thing their own.”

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Web content produced by Elsa Partan.

Elsa Partan is a producer for Living Lab Radio. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.