It’s the middle of 2019 and my life is unrecognizable. In a single day, I can go from herding cattle and riding horses in Red Dead Redemption 2 to listening to two great indie albums (Mac Demarco’s Here Comes the Cowboy and Mitski’s Be the Cowboy) and one fantastic hip-hop album (Solange’s When I Get Home). From getting in my feels with the 2018 Grammy recipient of Album of the Year (Kacey Musgrave’s Golden Hour) to going to a party and dancing to that one song about having horses in the back, country has become more present in my life. Upon arriving home, my mom’s first question was, “When did you get so into country?”
Believe it or not, I was once one of those people who told others he liked “every genre of music except country.” Maybe it was because of the intensity of bro culture that permeated every Florida Georgia Line song. Either way, I didn’t want to be within a 50-mile radius of any country song in existence.
But then I started listening to Roy Orbison. Then Glen Campbell. Then I started listening to "Butterflies" by the aforementioned Kacey (I’m not crying, you’re crying). Then I became entranced by the peace of doing nothing in a video game except wandering around the countryside, occasionally hunting a rabbit. I started to get lost in the yeehaw fantasy, and then I heard "Old Town Road." I was a goner.
Let’s talk about what cowboy culture really is. It’s violent, xenophobic, and an unabashed fantasy meant to lure people to the rapidly expanding West in the mid-19th century. It’s also one of the few pieces of Americana that is purely American. Though it has its roots in Mexico and Spain, "cowboyism" was so vital to the United States’ growth that it's become inextricable from American culture.
Cowboy culture represents autonomy. Self-determination is never so clear-cut as it is in the Wild West. You provide for yourself, you know where your food comes from, and no one can tell you what to do. And if anyone tries to, you have your God-given right to self-defense. As the quintessential cowboy from the movie Shane says: “A gun is a tool, Marion, no better or no worse than any other tool, an axe, a shovel or anything. A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it.” Does this sound at all NRA-ish? It should.
Cowboy culture has even informed foreign policy. Richard Haass, advisor to former Secretary of State Colin Powell, famously called the post-Cold War United States the “reluctant sheriff.” Does the “don’t make me come over there and settle things for you, Iraq!” rhetoric sound familiar?
So why is pop culture going back to this individualistic zeitgeist? It could be argued that in the face of political discord, people long for simplicity—or to escape altogether and live only in the menial tasks and simple day-to-day existence promised by ranch life. Mac and Mitski both use the cowboy motif to rhapsodize on lonesomeness, both destructive and constructive. Or maybe in realizing nothing is truly in our control, we begin to long for agency.
However, the emergence of yeehaw culture is not simply one of escapism; this emergence has not happened in a vacuum or without controversy. Modern cowboy culture isn’t just about going back to simpler times. It also plays a large role in reframing the United States' historical narrative.
Cowboy culture is picky about who it does and does not include, and to what extent. Most often, this was tied to the interests of the government. Native Americans were deemed the cowboy’s enemy in order for settlers to manifest a certain destiny. Mexicans were painted as a national security threat as a justification for taking their land. Most westerns told this story of American (or more specifically, white male) agency in a threatening, diverse world.
However, the cowboy culture and history has recently been reframed as a statement of inclusion. The most popular resurgences of cowboy culture have been thanks to black or female artists: Lil Nas X, Solange’s When I Get Home, Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour. All these individuals would have previously been excluded from the Wild West narrative. In fact, Billboard's initial removal of "Old Town Road" from the country charts illustrates this exclusion. But the idea of country music as a white man’s art is changing.
This also signifies a change in attitude toward the “American dream.” The glorification of excess encouraged by the idea of the “American dream”—resulting in cultural touchstones like The Wolf of Wall Street, which, in attempting to be a criticism of excess, actually became an advertisement for it—is becoming part of the past. In the face of staggering inequality and its perpetuation by our government, society seeks to escape the system altogether. The American dream of self-determination has become about escaping entirely and the cowboy fantasy is emblematic of that.
The “yeehaw agenda” has potentially long-lasting power because of its newfound inclusivity. It’s no longer a luxurious, escapist fantasy promised to those rich enough to buy a ranch in Jackson Hole. Through pop culture, it has become a shared dream of autonomy. In the face of barbaric regulations on women’s bodies, people in power who can get away with seemingly anything, and constantly decreasing social mobility, the desire to get away from it all and regain agency can be fulfilled by the idea of vast open spaces and providing for oneself.
“When you see a black man on a horse going that fast, you just gotta let him fly!” proclaims Chris Rock in the "Old Town Road" music video. The “yeehaw agenda” promises the opportunity to do just that.
For now, though, I’m going to keep dreaming of riding a horse through America’s glorious countryside while I scroll past the millionth Game of Thrones think-piece.