This past year has seen the return of the cowboy. Musicians from both country and indie genres have been referring to cowboys in their songs and often embodying the cowboy ethos in their performance. Some wear a cowboy hat and flannel, while other are adopting this persona in more subtle ways. Although there are many iterations of the cowboy in contemporary music, a few common themes run through their music: A cowboy is an adventurous outsider, relishing the freedom of being on the move and not tied down.
At the 2019 Grammys, country singer Kacey Musgraves won all four awards she was nominated for, including Album of the Year for Golden Hour. Her album was a culmination of her classic cowboy–hat–wearing country roots and captivating, experimental pop sounds. On one of the biggest singles from the album, “Space Cowboy,” Musgraves weaves in melancholic tropes about cowboys, while she sings about letting her significant other go.
In A Star is Born, Bradley Cooper stars as Jack, an established country–rock star who falls in love with Ally, a rising country–pop singer played by Lady Gaga. Cooper’s character is like that of a Marlboro Man, he’s masculine, rugged, and styled like a cowboy. The movies’ hit song “Shallow,” a duet between the two stars, went on to win an Academy Award and two Grammys.
Alongside this trend, one can also see the archetype of a cowboy rising in non–country music. In August of last year, Mitski released her fifth and most successful album to date, Be The Cowboy, which was widely acclaimed and considered one of the best albums of 2018. Despite, the cowboy’s association with country music, Mitski experiments with indie rock on this album. It’s a beautiful narrative about feeling isolated, and reconnecting with her feelings. Mitski is learning to “be the cowboy,” this archetype of a young, independent traveler navigating a great expanse with determination and exploration.
In “Remember My Name,” Mitski sings about her desire to be immortal, remembered, and immune to anonymity. There’s a clash between these ideals and her realization of her stark reality. In “Nobody” the lead single of the album, this struggle comes to fruition as she realizes that nobody is going to give her the recognition and validity she crazes except herself. This is where the title, “Be the Cowboy,” really gains its full meaning. In old Westerns and myths, the cowboy, rolls up to a dusty town, meets a girl and rides into the sunset. For Mitski, she’s subverting gender norms and challenging herself to be the cowboy, always exploring, never the girl of the story waiting and forgotten.
However, Mac DeMarco recently announced his new album Here Comes the Cowboy, and one cannot attribute the title’s similarity to mere coincidence. Mac DeMarco, also a indie–rock singer, released his lead single for his upcoming album, also titled “Nobody.” In the single’s music video DeMarco wears a cowboy hat and lizard makeup. Although, DeMarco claims that he has yet to listen to Mitski’s “Nobody” or the rest of Be The Cowboy, this seems a bit disingenuous considering that it was considered by many music critics to be the best album of the year across all genres.
When asked where his inspiration comes from, DeMarco, explained to that “cowboy is a term of endearment for me,” and not a reference to the people who do actual cowboy activities. This announcement feels like a move by DeMarco to hop on the cowboy trend without acknowledging any inspiration from Mitski. It shows a lack of respect for Mitski, a woman of color, who has gained immense success in a white male–dominated genre.
With huge stars like Bradley Cooper and Kacey Musgraves embracing the idea of the cowboy, they’re encouraging the music industry to consider what this persona means, and how it's endured for so long. It’s a figure of independence, exploration, and determination that can be adapted by musicians no matter their style or music genre. Musicians are giving themselves the freedom to take on this role and navigate new terrains in their music. With this revival in the past few months, we're starting to uncover true cowboys and pioneers of the industry—those musicians exploring new sounds, growing authentically and thoughtfully.