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Why musicians are obsessed with cowboys right now

So, why are musicians obsessed with cowboys all of a sudden?

From Lil Nas X to Mac DeMarco, Kacey Musgraves and Cardi B, artists today are embracing all things yeehaw

Howdy, pardner. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you might have noticed the humble cowboy showing up in music a lot more recently. I’m not talking about a comeback from country music, a genre that’s ridden various waves of acceptability in pop culture over the decades, but artists from the pop, indie rock, and rap worlds all embracing their inner broncobuster. Lil Nas X just hit the top of the Billboard Hot 100 with his rootin’, tootin’ country-trap crossover “Old Town Road”. Cardi B dressed as a striptease stockman in both the “Thotiana Remix” video and on-stage in Houston at a venue called – what else? – the Rodeo. Solange paid tribute to the black cowboys she used to see growing up in Almeda, Texas, in the visuals for When I Get Home. Lil Tracy proudly owns the “goth cowboy” title. Mac DeMarco named his most recent album Here Comes the Cowboy. “Space Cowboy” singer Kacey Musgraves swept the Grammys, taking home prizes not just in the country categories, but also the coveted ‘album of the year’ award with Golden Hour. Madonna donned a cowboy hat in the teaser for her new album Madame X, although she’s surely seen this all before. That’s all in 2019 – and it’s only April.

Although it’s expressed itself primarily through music, this trend for all things yeehaw has spread far and wide, with varying degrees of sincerity. On the one hand, the proliferation of cowboy imagery in meme culturestan communities, and social media is straightforwardly campy and tongue-in-cheek. On the other, fashion’s black yeehaw agenda makes a more political point about the historical erasure of people of colour from cowboy and western mythologies. What’s interesting is seeing these different cultural trends coalesce at the same time.

Why now? On paper, a revival of these tropes could be interpreted as a reactionary drift – a desire to escape the present moment, to return to a grit and authenticity that’s been perceived as ‘lost’, to embrace America’s most enduring archetype of white, male authority. After all, the US president wants to Make America Great Again, and climate change anxiety is making people want to up sticks and pursue a simple life in the country. Maybe there’s an element of truth to this explanation, but something about it seems a little too neat. None of these artists are selling a revisionist fantasy, for starters, and while a lot of them are using these signifiers in a playful or escapist way, that doesn’t mean they can’t be making a more serious point about contemporary American identity at the same time.

“Being a cowboy has nothing to do with where you are from, or what music you make, or wearing a cowboy hat,” says Orville Peck, a masked balladeer who wears Stetsons on his head and croons about hustlers in the desert. “The cowboy ethos is about feeling intrinsically outside of things, but still finding the confidence to keep moving with your head held high. It’s about rebellion and finding power even within solitude or alienation. I know a lot of cowboys, and I can promise you that none of them have herded any fucking cattle.”

Peck’s music is in the ‘outlaw country’ vein of artists like Merle Haggard and Hank Williams, but it’s hardly traditional. He sings from the perspective of a queer man, an identity that has rarely been given much mainstream visibility in country music – this, despite the fact that cowboys are frequently, secretly fond of each other. One regularly recurring element of the recent cowboy revival is that many (though not all) of the artists participating come from LGBTQ+, PoC, or other marginalised backgrounds, and their use of this imagery asks just who gets to be the cowboy, to borrow a phrase from Pitchfork’s Michelle Kim.

It’s something that Solange elaborated on in a recent audience Q&A in Houston, discussing the inclusion of black cowboys in the companion film to When I Get Home. Between the 1860s and 1880s, a quarter of range-cattle workers were black, and going back further, Native American ‘vaqueros’ used to drive cattle for Spanish colonists in Mexico – for Solange, the film was a way to reintroduce black people into a narrative that had been white-washed by Wild West films and the mythology of the lone ranger. “Growing up here in Texas, in Almeda, you’re just going to see black cowboys on the street,” she said. “I don’t know John Wayne. I don’t know his story. I really don’t. We’ve had to rewrite what black history means for us since the beginning of time… It’s not just an aesthetic, this is something that we actually live.”

“I think people are fed up with shit and most days they would rather get on their horse and ride off into the sunset. I know I would” – Orville Peck

Oakland-based musician and vocalist Tia Cabral, better known as SPELLLING, explores this idea in the cover artwork for her new album Mazy Fly, in which she’s photographed on a ranch in cowgirl attire. “SPELLLING, as a project, often draws from mythological themes and a lot of times investigates America’s dark underbelly,” Cabral says. “The cowboy has come to be such a specific figure of western iconography, of the ‘American Dream’, the greatest myth of all time. My ancestors were the original cowboys of the land, vaqueros, who came to be from a complicated and violent history of Spanish colonisation.”

Catalina Xavlena, who collaborated with Cabral on the album art, shares this ancestral background, and says that her work reflects this decolonial vision, rather than an ironic nod towards Americana. “While many believe the ‘cowboy’ is the quintessential white western American archetype, this archetype was brought directly by Spanish colonisers and forced upon native peoples in what was then Mexico, now the western US,” says Xavlena. “Later, once Texas became part of the US, black slaves were a large part of the population and became the primary cattlepeople. This tradition amalgamated into a dazzlingly unique culture that would not exist without the influence of Native, black, and mestizo Mexican folks. For me, this iconic ‘look’ is for people of colour to reclaim, to gain power from, connecting to our ancestors, connecting to the animals we share the earth with. I like to see this cover as the opposite of a ‘cowboy’ image.”

Other artists have sought to complicate the notion of ‘Americanness’. While SPELLLING is reengaging with a decolonised history, the US songwriter Mitski reappropriated a white straight male image of power for herself with her 2018 album Be the Cowboy. As she previously told The OutlineBe the Cowboy was not intended to evoke “the real working cowboy that exists today”, but instead “the Marlboro commercial cowboy”. She rejects the cowboy as a figure of tradition, and instead adopts it as a metaphor for self-confidence as an Asian-American woman: “Whenever I was in a situation where maybe I was acting too much like my identity, which is wanting everyone to be happy, not thinking I’m worthy, being submissive, and not asking for more… (Whenever I was) doing exactly what the world expects of me as an Asian woman, I would turn around and tell myself ‘Well, what would a cowboy do?’”

To put it another way, she treats the cowboy as a meme. On an aesthetic level, the rich and well-established imagery of the Old West – the sheriff, the gunslinger, the lone ranger – makes it attractive subject to satirise, subvert, or otherwise reimagine in today’s pop culture. That’s perhaps why ‘yeehaw’ has become such a fixture of stan language. As Lilian Min writes in The Outline, the phrase is often used in online fandoms for artists as distinctly non-American as Harry Styles and BTS, by fans who are themselves often non-American, showing just how divorced from its original meaning the word has become. A BTS/Dolly Parton collab would be as yeehaw as it gets.

It’s not just music that the Old West has made a comeback in, but visual media, too, from TV shows like Westworld or Godless to films like The Sisters Brothers and The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The video game Red Dead Redemption 2 goes to great lengths to capture the aesthetic feel of the Wild West, but its depiction of subjects like violence and gendered roles, speaks more to 21st century anxieties (it also provided Lil Nas X the visuals for “Old Town Road”). It’s an idea that’s represented sonically, with Woody Jackson’s score deliberately subverting the Ennio Morricone pastiche that you might expect from a Wild West game for more traditional Appalachian sounds – and even this isn’t so simple. Far from a rootsy throwback, the music is disrupted by moments of modernity: some of the additional contributors to the soundtrack include Venezuelan experimental musician Arca, Indonesian metal group Senyawa, and avant-garde saxophonist Colin Stetson.

A recent live performance of the score took place for Red Bull Music Festival Los Angeles at Goya Studios, a Hollywood venue located around the corner from Gower’s Gulch, where working cowboys used to line up in the hope of landing film gigs in the 1930s and 40s. While the orchestra played solemn excerpts from the 80-hour soundtrack, three fans cosplaying as cowboys watched. One of them wore suspenders with the name ‘Larry’ embroidered into them. It was a real-life illustration of how this cowboy revival can at times be a bit, well, absurd. After all, for the majority of people living under western capitalism (that’s the actual west, not the wild one), there are simply too many economic and social factors preventing them from actually packing it all in and living out their nomadic outlaw fantasies. “I think people are fed up with shit and most days they would rather get on their horse and ride off into the sunset,” says Orville Peck. “I know I would.”

Still, as our friend Larry showed, one thing you can do wear it as a costume – and that’s perhaps where it’s most fun. Listening to Mac DeMarco’s Here Comes the Cowboy, you get the impression that its title was basically used as an excuse to write some country ballads and campfire songs. “Cowboy is a term of endearment to me, I use it often when referring to people in my life,” he said when the album was announced. “Where I grew up, there are many people that sincerely wear cowboy hats and do cowboy activities. These aren’t the people I’m referring to.” It’s hardly the most academic explanation. Likewise, although Billboard’s decision to exclude Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road” from the country charts opens up important conversations about the historical exclusion of black artists from this side of the music industry, the song itself – with its origins in TikTok, its creator’s past life as a Tweetdecker, its Nine Inch Nails sample, and its Billy Ray Cyrus remix – is not that deep. Yee – and I cannot stress this part enough – haw.