On May 23, 2019, Felecia Evans, the principal of Lander Elementary School in Mayfield Heights, Ohio, released a video of her students singing along to Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road,” at their fifth grade talent show. After seeing the video, Lil Nas X asked on Twitter, “when they want a free show.” When he eventually performed at the school, the kids were rapturous:
The story is heartwarming, but it also reveals a greater truth about the country rap song that has been the number-one song in the US Billboard Hot 100 for a record-breaking 17 straight weeks: “Old Town Road” is also a children’s song. This appeal to children is almost certainly one of the reasons for its lasting success. (The song broke the 16-week record held first by Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s “One Sweet Day” and later tied by Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito.”)
It is not easy to marshal evidence for this assertion. Streaming sites like Spotify and YouTube do not have data on the ages of non-adult listeners. If the 5-year-old child of a 40-year old demands to listen to Old Town Road repeatedly, there is no statistical way to identify that it wasn’t just the 40-year old listening. But if you take a look at the results for the Twitter query “#kids #oldtownroad“, it’s hard not to believe something unusual is going on here. If that’s not enough, just go ask any of your friends with a 5-to-10 year old. My survey of the Quartz newsroom suggests their kids are likely to be super fans.
One piece of data that suggests “Old Town Road” has a special appeal to children is that a cover by Kidz Bop, a brand that makes versions of pop hits sung by kids with lyrics modified for kids, is the number two song on iTunes digital downloads chart. It is the only cover of an “adult” song in the top five, and sits just below the wildly popular children’s song “Baby Shark.”
What accounts for the song’s appeal to kids? Certainly the lyrics imagining riding on horses and tractors is something kids can relate to, but there are also some musical characteristics about the song that are kid friendly, says musicologist Nate Sloan, one of the hosts of the podcast Switched on Pop.
Sloan thinks one reason the song has so many young devotees is that is very easy to sing. “[The song] only uses five distinct pitches, specifically the first five pitches of the G# minor scale. That’s a collection of notes that would feel familiar to kids raised on simple nursery rhymes—or those who’ve spent any time on beginner piano exercises,” Sloan told Quartz. “In fact the only note that deviates from this collection comes in the pre-chorus right on the word ‘me’ in the line ‘can’t nobody tell me nothing.’ It’s the high point in the song, and provides a welcome point of contrast. But even this outlier is a pitch we’ve heard before (G#) just an octave higher.”
Sloan also believe kids might enjoy the song’s repetitiveness. Simple melodies and phrases are repeated at a rate even greater than your typical Ariana Grande or Rihanna song. He thinks this makes it “well-designed to burn into young musical brains.”
One final factor that might make kids enjoy “Old Town Road” was suggested by an 8-year-old in California named Elizabeth I interviewed about her love for the song. Elizabeth liked that the song was “from the internet.” By this, she meant that she first heard about the song not from the radio or TV, but rather from social media. This gave “Old Town Road” a certain mystery because most young kids aren’t allowed to use social media like TikTok (where the song initially gained popularity) or Instagram. Even little kids love the taboo.