A John Wayne movie may obscure the history, but the cowboy began from a Spanish imperialist practice: Spanish colonialists forced Indigenous Latin Americans into cattle herding. Though the American cowboys who emerged out of this culture were Black, white, brown, and Indigenous, the mythical American cowboy developed from white settlers’ violent visions of the frontier and laws made only by their own discretion.
Now cowboys and the culture surrounding them can be observed in cowboy-boot filled stadiums across the United States, but also in a dizzying array of collaborations, remixes, fashion senses, and new genre-bending styles of music. Insertions of American country music have become increasingly international and significant, one example being the release of “Seoul Town Road,” a BTS remix of Lil Nas X’s iconic “Old Town Road.” Though the original song was not the first trap-country crossover, it swept the nation and the world in an unexpected mix of genre, internet, and sociocultural positioning, stemming from the song’s unique rise to fame and the character of Lil Nas X himself. The genre-bending didn’t stop there either. Cupcakke’s “Old Town Hoe” also took a try at the crossover along with many remixes, fueling the song’s extended hype.
Lil Nas X wasn’t the first hip hop artist to take on a country sound. Predating the Yeehawpocalyspe, Kol Moe Dee released “Wild, Wild West” in 1987 and Mo Thugs Family released “Ghetto Cowboy” in 1998. On both of these tracks, depictions of cowboys are used to make the songs stand out as narratives of their performers as cowboys. More recently, Lil Tracy and Lil Uzi Vert released their track “Like a Farmer” on May 17, 2018. Solange’s When I Get Home gave recognition to her Southern home of Houston. Beyonce recorded her song “Daddy Lessons” with the Dixie Chicks in 2016. Megan Thee Stallion has consistently embraced country iconography in her work and fashion. Even “Big Green Tractor” became a successful trap remix.
At first the crossover might not make sense; it didn’t to me until I found myself in a conversation with Suzi Wu, a musician who blurs the lines of genre in her own work. She classifies her sound as something between early hip-hop and 80s indie rock with her London background shining through everything. She views herself as both a cowboy and a witch, using the imagery of both eagerly in her music. During her set at the Governors Ball, a music festival in New York City, she joked about how she started “the Year of Yeehaw.” After her set, I got the chance to ask her if she meant it, to which she replied that she obviously didn’t, instead crediting trap and hip-hop for the year’s extended Yeehaw theme. She explained that the transition of country into trap was obvious, since trap musicians “are the law of the land and, if they were cowboys, they would be the law of the land.”
Suzi's statement is complicated. The grammar of her phrase draws a clear line between being and being recognized as being. Rather than having these musicans be recognized as “the law of the land,” they simply are it. Their position as creators and foundational characters of “the land” is swept to the side as the cowboys that America makes ample room for continue to dominate.
Historically, cowboys were cattle herders and, more significantly, perpetrators of a frontier mentality that assisted in the decimation of Indigenous American populations. These characters have since expanded far outside of their initial histories, becoming an iconic American symbol and, through that, leaving remnants of their violent pasts in popular culture up until the present. Additionally, these cowboys have become increasingly fictitious, filled with societal constructs that grant a vision of a cowboy with little basis in history and instead filled with a dominant American imagery of power, lawlessness, and a certain bravado. When Suzi Wu said hip-hop and trap musicians are the law of the land, she was saying that trap and hip-hop musicians have, in theory, the modern characteristics we associate with the cowboy that are being praised anew. These musicians are the creators of their own path, following rules unique to them in a genre that is inherently innovative. They blaze trails where before these paths simply didn’t exist. However, these musicians, due to their lack of connection to White America, are placed outside of its narrative. Their music is taken out of the land and considered as something new instead of something stemming from a longer American tradition. The most popular music of the present day is left out of a larger American history which prioritizes fictitious reimaginings of the cowboy over full understandings of the histories of erasure, violence, and exclusion.
That’s where the difference between country and other genres becomes apparent. The “cowboys” of country have historically been listened to. That is, their narrative of white men galloping across the South and the West on horses and, nowadays, in trucks has been prioritized in visions of the United States and its history. Meanwhile, the plural histories of the United States have been ignored. Black cowboys have essentially been erased by an exclusionary American culture that maintains itself by erasing evidence of difference. Additionally, people who were never given the chance to be cowboys in the first place are never given a chance in these visions at all. Today, I believe the word cowboy is taking on a new, but simultaneously traditional meaning. Cowboys, as always, are “the law of the land.” They demand power, and they receive it through their avoidance of the traditional mechanisms of acquiring power. However, today’s cowboys cover much more ground than the cowboys of the past who were entrenched in a violent, oppressing history. These new cowboys of the present are appearing across cultures and, in this case, across genre.
Trap and hip-hop artists have, in many ways, gained more and more recognition in the popular music scene over the past few decades. There are innumerable ways in which these artists have been able to place themselves into different listening spheres. I want to focus on the intentional use of cowboy-infused country and virality across genres, examining how the cowboy became a tool to generate space for under recognized artists. Case in point: Lil Nas X.
“Old Town Road” is a trap song that, as much as it can, draws on cowboy iconography. It began on Soundcloud before becoming a sensation on the short-form video app TikTok. On TikTok, virality can easily emerge as users are quick to perform their own versions of the app’s most watched videos. One of these viral videos (cowboy themed, obviously) features Lil Nas X’s song in the background, the performer transforming to the lyric “I got my horses in the back.” As TikTok itself was blowing up, the funny, catchy song rose with it, climbing quickly (and controversially) up Billboard’s charts and landing Lil Nas X the record for the longest running number-one single ever.
Lil Nas X is considered by many to be a meme gone too far, but his rise is much more complicated. When he first released his song on Soundcloud and Spotify, the ‘country’ tag placed on it brought him a wave of unprepared listeners and let him trend in a less competitive category than hip-hop. This same move would spark the Billboard chart controversy that got him removed from the country chart in a spurt of media coverage. As a media torrent surrounded Billboard’s racist decision (and the deliberation that followed), Lil Nas X signed with Columbia Records, started recording remixes, and quickly rose to his current success.
These movements, far from being accidental, were a strategic utilization of country as a genre to help Lil Nas X carve out the space in the music industry he desired. Lil Nas X, partly from his prior experience running a popular Twitter account, knew the potential of taking the strongly associative image of a cowboy and applying it to a genre of music that relies on none of the same traditional imagery. This movement works due to the potentially similar demands for recognition and space made by country and hip-hop artists despite their drastically different positions and imageries. Additionally, coming out of an internet era of abundant cowboy imagery (look no further than the Wal-Mart yodeling kid, the “Howdy, I’m the Sheriff” meme, the “wot in tarnation” meme, and the new wave of fashionable cowboy attire), the furthering of the movement to the next stage was exactly what the public didn’t know they wanted. Lil Nas X was able to see the potential of this moment and, in pairing it with country’s attributes, cast himself as 'the cowboy' who insisted he was the law and, accordingly, became it. By the time anyone stepped back from the meme, Lil Nas X had claimed his space and position, becoming a black, queer man in country before mainstream America had even considered the possibility.
Lil Nas X was able to gain such a position by, in his own words, going down an “old town road” and “ridin’ ‘til [he] can’t no more.” While this old road of the cowboy is paved with a horrific history that must remain considered, here, Lil Nas X is using that road to take what was taken. His use of the cowboy becomes a reclamation, telling a violent history that it no longer can hold all of its former power.
Now, as a viral video of him shows, he struts into elementary schools in full country attire to masses of screaming, six-year-old fans singing his songs back to him line for line. As a modern day cowboy, this space, and an increasing number of others, are wide open for him as the world looks on. Wearing a cowboy hat, Lil Nas X enters without question, in part by playing on the imagery and persona that students like these would be used to dressing up for as Halloween, learning about in classes, and seeing across the rest of their media culture. The space reserved for the “law of the land” cowboy is taken back and used in an entirely new direction.
While Lil Nas X may be the most visible example, this isn’t the first or only time 'the cowboy' has been used to vault an 'un-country' artist into a place of mainstream recognition. Early in this new wave of public cowboy fascination, Mitski released her album Be the Cowboy, furthering the same country themes found in her music video for “Your Best American Girl.” That video featured Mitski performing and professing her desire and inability to be “Your Best American Girl” because, as the video shows, she’s not the white, skinny, boho-chic girl wrapped in an American flag that the “all-American boy” highlighted in the video wants her to be. In the video and on the album, Mitski makes sense of and reclaims her place as someone outside of the “all-American” narrative the video constructs. While the white Americans in the video beside her aggressively make out, she makes out with her own hand before changing into a golden dress and walking off of the video’s set entirely, exposing the viewer to the backside of the entire operation. Mitski opts out of all-Americaness and exposes the complications behind it, fully realizing and making the audience aware of the fact that she has other things ahead of her. With her album, Mitski demonstrates what exactly that might be; she decides to play a different character in the story.
While Be the Cowboy’s cowboy imagery is less distinctive than that in Lil Nas X’s work, Mitski’s work prioritizes the channeling of the persona of the cowboy. As she says in an interview with the Outline, “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. Every time I would find myself 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?'” Accordingly, her songs work as a counter-narrative to the stereotypes of a Japanese-American woman a listener might force onto her. Her songs praise her intentional isolation, like the cowboy leaving his world behind for the lonesome, open terrain. She makes use of the cowboy’s boldness, stubbornness, and recklessness with songs that refuse to apologize. On “Remember My Name” specifically, she sings, “'Cause I need somebody to remember my name/After all that I can do for them is done/I need someone to remember me.” While, as mentioned, there is nothing in the imagery of this statement that calls to the cowboy, the sentiment of desperate remembrance feels tied to the cowboy: a larger wish to remain relevant even after an ending point. In addition, her refusal to show guilt for a self-centered confession also calls to the cowboy as she asserts to the world how she wishes it could be.
Mitski’s release, like Lil Nas X’s, quickly became sensational, albeit in distinctly different circles. Be The Cowboy helped Mitski rise to an iconic place within the indie realm, becoming Pitchfork’s best album of 2018 (beating out the pop-country album Golden Hour by Kacey Musgraves); an intangible buzz began to swirl around her, making itself known in casual references to “becoming the cowboy” and a social media current that still follows her.
Being the cowboy was and is evocative of becoming something more powerful and more rooted in the fabric of this place. This place—the United States—that is perhaps unready for genre-bending and honest performers such as Mitski, as shown in Billboard’s charts. When Mitski became the cowboy and told everyone around her to become the cowboy, she showed people how to co-opt the dominant for their own means. Mitski’s cowboy tinge was more emotional than sonic, but it was still able to grant her the space she had come to it for. By the time people noticed the cowboy was a Japanese-American woman who wasn’t afraid to subvert stereotypes and expectations regularly and elegantly, she was already at the top of indie pop. The system had no way to reverse that process. Just as the system had no way to subvert Lil Nas X once he beat it.
The work of Lil Nas X and Mitski are prime examples of the ways the cowboy, country, and their iconography can be used across genres to capitalize on the space-taking infused into the cowboy motif. By associating with the cowboy and its adjacent position to country, artists of other genres can acquire some of the power held with the style and fuel their own popularity with it. By making this entire process feel somewhat meme-y, artists who might have been disadvantaged in their work can rush to the top through virality before second-guesses have the time to catch up with them.
As we know, all parts of the cowboy are not and never will be good. Complicated histories of violence, racism, and erasure are entangled with this persona. However, the current usage of cowboy by these artists and artists like them, I believe, is a proper reclamation of the word. Rather than taking further, these people are making for themselves what was taken. The “yeehaw” spirit infused in all of this is more of a movement than a trend. Memes and humor, increasingly, are becoming viable ways to claim space instead of mere stylings. While, in all of this, there is an element of humor and aestheticization, that doesn’t undermine the careful work that is being done to make this imagery into something useful, something powerful and fundamentally new for a new group of people.
Mitski, Lil Nas X, and adjacent artists are able to take history into their hands to create a power previously not meant for them. As every listener continues to fall into the cowboy craze, these performers ride into the sunset after acquiring the space and respect they first turned to the cowboy for.
ALISA CAIRA B’22 is particularly pleased the word “yeehawapocalypse” made it into this piece.