Being the Cowboy: From Mitski to Lil Nas X

Updated: Aug 21, 2021

The word "cowboy" conjures a familiar image. A man, who is white, wearing boots and a wide-brimmed hat, and who is probably riding a horse. The specifics will vary from person to person, sure. He might have some fringe on his jacket, he might be in a desert or a dusty field, or he might carry a lasso. The American cowboy has long been a trope in our culture. In one regard, the original cowboy - the pioneering, frontier-exploring kind - is supposed to represent America and more specifically, the American Dream. He’s a reminder of the Wild West, the Oregon Trail, and the idea that anyone can be or take what they want. Somehow, he’s on the fringe of society, while also being a shining image of what our society is supposed to believe in - freedom and independence. The cowboy is rugged, yet romanticized.

But many understand that the American Dream (or Manifest Destiny, or whatever) is not a dream. In truth, conquering the West was the pillaging and plundering of Indigenous peoples. The frontier was not an empty, undiscovered space. Land, culture, and languages were taken. It’s heavy. The original cowboy has baggage.

As mass popular culture has evolved, the setting of the cowboy character has changed quite a bit - he went into movies, books, and country music. Largely, however, he has stayed white, rugged, and independent.

But over this last year or so, there have been many artists pushing back against that very image. At the end of summer in 2018, Mitski released her widely loved album Be the Cowboy. The album does not necessarily conjure up many Western references or country music tropes, but it does speak to the confidence that fictional cowboys always seem to have. In interviews, Mitski specifically pointed to the Marlboro man, the cowboy in classic ads for Marlboro cigarettes.

Mitski said in a 2018 interview with Outline, "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?'" Be the Cowboy creates a character: it’s a woman who is not submissive, who keeps tight control of herself, who is dangerous. A cowboy.

Orville Peck, too, is another example. He’s a queer artist making outlaw country music underneath a persona. He only makes public appearances while wearing a fringed Zorro mask and a cowboy hat. His backstory, too, is a bit mysterious: it’s unclear what he considers home, but his Bandcamp biography does reference Nevada. His debut album, Pony, came in 2019 and showcases a voice deeply similar to Johnny Cash.

And of course, we can’t look back on 2019 without talking about Lil Nas X. It’s highly unlikely that you made it through the year without hearing "Old Town Road," or at least, one of its various remixes.

Billboard was the target of a lot of hate and controversy when it pulled "Old Town Road" from its country chart. Many saw it as an act of discrimination or racism - Lil Nas X is a young Black artist (and has also come out as gay since) and the country music establishment has a long, storied history of pushing away Black or diverse voices.

However, "Old Town Road" came back, again and again, remix after remix, and broke records, becoming the longest first-place holding song in history. Lil Nas X took cowboy tropes and repurposed them for himself, and earned himself a number one record-breaking single.

And it’s not just Lil Nas X. Solange's accompanying film to her record When I Get Home included rodeo scenes, cowboy hats, and snakeskin boots. Megan Thee Stallion now has a Depop shop called "Texas Fever," and she's selling her red cowboy hat. Cowboy imagery, especially Black cowboy imagery, has been everywhere - Bree Malandro, a Texas pop-culture archivist, has deemed it the Yeehaw Agenda. Her Instagram account reflects this idea, displaying a collection of Black artists donning cowboy aesthetics throughout time - including Beyonce during the Destiny’s Child era or more recently, Cardi B's performance at the Houston Rodeo. Malandro’s account seeks to show that the Western trend has come many times before and pays homage to Black cowboys and cowgirls.

But it is more than just a trend. When we consider the origins of the cowboy and the American dream myth, we should understand that that when non-white, non-male, or non-straight artists take on the cowboy aesthetic or co-opt the cowboy’s confidence, it is an act of reclamation. With her music and her writing, Mitski reclaimed the trope of a cowboy, and by extension, the American Dream. As an Asian woman in America, she too can be independent. Lil Nas X reclaimed the cowboy trope and the country charts. Orville Peck is queering the cowboy while writing stunning outlaw country. The confidence of the cowboy is not just for white straight men.