We’ve seen hundreds (more likely, thousands) of iterations of him across many mediums, but there is something intoxicating about the image of the American Cowboy that I for one am still happily getting drunk on. It would seem like, in 2019, the pairing of the Cowboy’s uniform, and the uber-heterosexual associations with it, and a rising gay music star would feel a bit like a marketing ploy, even trite. But something about seeing both Lil Nas X and Orville Peck, two distinctly different artists though both gay males, simultaneously adopt a Cowboy aesthetic as their visual identity feels refreshing, marketing ploy or not.
Lil Nas X has a massive, record-breaking hit song. It has been taken off of the country music charts for referencing but not embracing “enough elements of today's country music.” At the peak of his initial overnight success, he publicly came out as gay, for which he has received both praise and backlash. Wrangler created a collection in his name, which has both sold well and also incited backlash. Vogue has, rightfully, recognized him as a kind of glam icon. This is all to say that X, a 20 year old from Georgia, has caused a stir. One that, arguably, he fully intended to cause. But let’s say he did intend to cause mild identity crises in the worlds of country music and hip hop– since when have they not needed it? Since when have we all, as Americans, not needed someone to swoop in with a mirror and remind us of our racial and sexual hang-ups? Why does it still feel so controversial to see a black, gay man as a Cowboy? This is a person who seems keenly aware of current cultural shifts (backwards? in circles?) and knows how to play with them. I am impressed by his pioneering.
Orville Peck-as-Cowboy is something different. He harnesses the power of his identity by masking it, quite literally, in variations of fringed masks he carefully matches with his western wear. He’s Canadian, and he is making music that is much more rooted in Country than Nas X. But I don’t expect to see him on any of those charts, either. His songs are a blend of shoegaze, post-punk, and classic crooning country. His voice is hypnotic, and his aesthetic is intentional. Just about the only thing Wikipedia seems to know about him is that he identifies as queer, and Peck’s masked cowboy is hyper-sexual by design– something the combination of leather and long fringe in his masks automatically makes clear.
With both of these interpretations, this classic, mythic figure is artfully reconfigured into something newly powerful. Shocking to some, inspirational to others, dismissed by many, I’m sure. But I for one look at these two men and gleefully imagine the discomfort and fear on the faces of many Americans who still wish only to see a very particular kind of man don these clothes (in an incredibly boring, toned-down manner) and trudge through the often barren wild of country music charts. As if the very root of The Cowboy’s identity was not based on freedom and rule-breaking. As if this isn’t exactly what he always stood for.