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Being The Cowboy: Pop's obsession with cowboys continues

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Nicolo Canova

'Old Town Road' by Lil Nas X has finally descended from its record-breaking perch atop the American Billboard Hot 100, but pop's obsession with cowboys continues.

The cowboy is an intrinsic part of the American frontier mythology, embodying the drive for constant expansion into a wild and untamed West, disregarding anybody who might already reside there. In some ways, this cultural moment feels like the last gasp of an expansionist impulse in a world where there is nowhere left to expand into - a world of global American dominance.

The revival of cowboy imagery has been driven by groups it has historically excluded. Lil Nas X is a modern Wild West outlaw, both within 'Old Town Road' ("Can't nobody tell me nothing") and in terms of musical genre. When Billboard seemed to forbid Lil Nas X from country stardom by excluding the song from its country charts, he proceeded to act like a country star regardless, donning a cowboy hat and boots, collaborating with Billy Ray Cyrus and breaking records in the process. The sight of a black rapper - one who would later come out as gay, no less - in this role is boundary-breaking, refiguring this popular revival as more of a reclamation.

For Mitski, an Asian-American woman, the title of her 2018 album Be The Cowboy is an empowering mantra, a reminder to act without self-diminishment as a swaggering white cowboy might, as if the horizons for women and ethnic minorities weren't at all reduced. Whether the cowboy can really be separated from its colonial history is an open question. However, the cowboys populating the visuals for Solange's When I Get Home hint at the possibility of a cowboy with a different relationship to colonial white supremacy, illuminating the forgotten histories of black cowherds and indigenous vaqueros.

Today the American country charts feature more black artists than ever before, both those coming up through traditional avenues, such as Kane Brown and Jimmie Allen, and those hitching a ride on Lil Nas X's meme train, as seen in Blanco Brown's 'The Git Up'.

Meanwhile, much like Lil Nas X, gay country acts are circumventing Nashville altogether. Drag comedienne Trixie Mattel has resisted consignment to the LGBT ghetto of gay media and reality TV, releasing two albums of heartfelt country music, Two Birds and One Stone, between 2017 and 2018. Lavender Country, who released explicitly gay country music independently in the early 70s, enjoyed rediscovery in the new millennium, culminating in a full album of new material this year.

The American country charts feature more black artists than ever before

Country music may still be the cowboy's natural home, but their relationship is increasingly ambivalent, even as cowboys enjoy a renaissance in the mainstream. On Kacey Musgraves' Grammy Award-winning Golden Hour, released in 2019, the cowboy's expansionist impulse turns toxic as it seeps into interpersonal relationships. On 'Space Cowboy', it manifests as a pathological restlessness, incompatible with long-term commitment: "When a horse wants to run / There ain't no sense in closing the gate."

On 'High Horse', the cowboy returns as an embodiment of patriarchal arrogance and overbearing tradition, "classic in the wrong way". Musgraves echoes and inverts the imagery of 'Old Town Road', rejecting and sending off, rather than reclaiming, the cowboy: "Why don't you giddy up, giddy up / And ride straight out of this town?"

But perhaps the most interesting explorations of cowboys come from underground music looking askance at mainstream obsessions. Sun Araw's Saddle of the Increate, released in 2017, is a full deconstruction of the cowboy. Musically, it consists of a kind of exploded Americana. Slide guitar, trilling, birdsong-like synths and drawled cowboy catchphrases are broken down, mutated and reassembled as an unrecognisable jumble of blips, clunks and surrealistic poetic fragments. This is the sound of an American expansionist drive jarring and looping, snagged on its own paradoxes and contradictions, American hegemony straining to maintain its stuttering, holographic illusion.

The popular preoccupation with cowboys could be symptomatic of a burgeoning identity crisis. American global dominance is built on a sense of being the cowboy, but how can a frontier mindset be sustained with no remaining frontier? Musgraves might have the best solution - perhaps it's time for the cowboy to ride out of town.

Andrew Trayford

Next article in issue 139

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