Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” is one of the biggest hits in American music history. It has been number one song on the Billboard Hot 100, the influential US music chart used to rank the country’s most popular songs, for a record 19 weeks. The song is a sensation on US social media and popular with people of all ages.
Yet in the world’s other greatest hotbed of pop music, South Korea, “Old Town Road” hasn’t made a dent.
On the Gaon Music Chart, the South Korean equivalent of the Billboard Hot 100, “Old Town Road” has never appeared in the top 200 songs. At the same time, a number of other current US Billboard hits have made it. Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” is number 2 in the US and 13 in South Korea. “Senorita” by Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello is number 3 in the US and 23 in South Korea. Overall, more than 20 songs in the Gaon Chart are by American artists, but none of them are by Lil Nas X. This is even though BTS, South Korea’s most popular band, made a remix of the song called “Seoul Town Road.” This version didn’t make the charts of either country.
It’s not just South Korea, though. “Old Town Road” does not appear on the Billboard’s Japanese Hot 100 (which also includes “Bad Guy” and “Senorita”) and it is not one of the top streaming songs on China’s popular QQ Music streaming app by Tencent Music (“Senorita” is number 20). Over in Europe, the song is only at number 17 on the UK Billboard Hot 100, though it is doing a bit better in France and Germany.
Overall, the data suggests that “Old Town Road” is a peculiarly American work. This makes sense. It is a hip-hop song that traffics in nostalgia about the American West. The lyrics are about riding tractors and horses, which many other cultures may also identify with, but are not as universal as the subject matter for songs that typically translate to South Korea.
It also points to some of the cultural issues that may affect which artists become popular in South Korea. Quartz analyzed Western artists who made the most appearances on South Korean charts from 2010-2018, and of the top 15 artists, only Camila Cabello is a person of color.
US or UK artists with most appearances in the Gaon Music chart, 2010-2018
Hugely popular acts in the US like Beyonce, Rihanna, and Bruno Mars don’t make the list. Given that South Korean music is heavily influenced by hip-hop and R&B, genres created by black Americans, this is notable. Many black American hip-hop and R&B songwriters now even work on writing K-pop hits. Still, that has not translated into popularity for black American artists.
“Old Town Road” may be singularly American, but it also faces what appears to be a racial barrier. If Lil Nas X were to truly break into South Korea’s music scene, it would be another astounding feat for his wildly popular song.