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.” 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.
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.
 Peter L Berger, Richard John Neuhaus, To Empower People: From State to Civil Society (American Enterprise Institute, 1996), 158.
 Pew Internet & American Life Project Blogger Callback Survey