At first, the trend was subtle: bolo ties complementing plain sweaters, western boots more en vogue than knee-highs, and a new rhetoric entering pop music (Pitchfork’s 2018 Best Album of the Year Be the Cowboy was released by Mitski in August of last year). Now it would seem as though the cowboy comeback has all but usurped popular culture. At a glance, the rise of Americana symbolism speaks to a nostalgia for the past, where the present is informed by the history, heritage, and folklore of bygone eras, creating a connection between the ‘then’ and ‘now.’ Yet, this contemporary take on a trope most associated with hypermasculinity and whiteness is not a yearning for a traditional conservative American identity, but a subversion of it.
For many, the Trump era has unearthed a willfully forgotten conservative nationalism. Contrasting with the burgeoning creative energy spearheaded by people identifying as femme, black, POC, queer, etc., there exists a national crisis of identity between the ‘old’ values and the ‘new.’ The notion of what it means to be American is tenuous at best, as people are becoming increasingly aware of the issues that Western cultural ideals maintain and questioning their own relationship to our country’s past. The cowboy archetype is quintessentially American; yet, as new identities begin to modernize and reclaim these symbols from America’s history they are challenging the definition of the ‘upright citizen,’ empowering people who have not been able to claim that moniker for themselves in the past.
Most prominently, popular music culture has seen a “yee-haw” upheaval with artists such as Kacey Musgraves, Mitski, and Solange leading the herd. Musgraves is the the East Texan who captured the hearts of an audience far greater than the traditional fans of country music. Cut from the same cloth as Dolly Parton, Musgraves has reinvigorated country music from its patriotic rut with camp and sentimental charm. Her repurposing of old-country aesthetics with meticulous pop instrumentals and introspective songwriting in her album Golden Hour is what awarded Musgraves Best Album of the Year at the 2018 Grammy Awards.
While songs such as “Space Cowboy” off of Golden Hour place Musgraves on the periphery of the cowboy lifestyle, Mitski’s Be the Cowboy explores what it means to embody the cowboy herself. Michelle Kim from Pitchfork notes that Mitski in her fifth album embraces “the perspective of a character channeling the cowboy’s bravado and entitlement—the antithesis of the Orientalist stereotype that Asian women are submissive and meek.” As an Asian-American woman, Mitski utilize the stereotype of a cowboy’s arrogance and freedom as a site of empowerment. Other artists such as queer dark horse Orville Peck are manipulating the cowboy stereotype in a similar manner as a means of legitimization.
In the film accompaniment to Solange’s new album When I Get Home, the cowboy is not a figure of appropriation, but rather reclamation, of the legacy of black cowboys that has been erased from the archive of the West. The film pays homage to Solange’s hometown of Houston, Texas, and highlights the narratives of black cowboys whose stories have been erased by the whitewashing of American history. In an interview with Vogue, Solange states,
“all of the first cowboys I saw were black…I don’t know who John Wayne is. I really don’t, but I really know about zydeco. I know those stories, and it was just important to me. We’ve had to constantly rewrite black history and what that means for us from the beginning of time, and so that was really just the moment to really express this culture that was so enriching for me.”
Solange is one in an entire wave of black artists who are making visible that they, too, are at the core of American identity. A viral thread posted on Twitter by critic Antwaun Sargent serves as an archive of black Americans donning cowboy getups through the decades. She pulls from the work of photographers such as Deanna Lawson, who have been doing work to document via photographs the lives of black cowboys. Some photographs bring us back to the early aughts, where artists such as Mary J. Blige are seen donning cowgirl looks. Others showcase the Americana campaigns of black designers Telfar Clemens and Pyer Moss.
The rise of these Western tropes in our popular culture is spurring an essential dialogue around the intentional erasure of certain narratives in American history. While artists such as Mitski and Orville Peck are subverting the traditional white machismo associated with the cowboy, Solange and Musgraves are owning their rangeland roots.
However, we must proceed carefully through the rise and glamorization of these distinctive American symbols, as they represent Western expansion and romanticize the extermination of Native land and identity. Our history is undoubtedly complicated and American identity is in constant flux right now. As the cowboy renaissance is functioning to assemble and rally narratives that have been eradicated by dominant history, it is also bringing to light how the cowboy is troubled figure in America’s past. These elements have yet to be reconciled, but the frontier is always changing. You’re best to just grab the reins and ride.
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