Year of the Cowboy: A Retrospective on 2018’s Western Narratives and Mitski’s Be the Cowboy

Matt McMahon connects one of 2018's most celebrated albums to the year's best Western films.
By    December 13, 2018

Matt McMahon will take coffee and talk about nothing.

A friend and I had a conversation recently about the ubiquitous new Rockstar video game Red Dead Redemption 2. He began explaining the game’s turn-of-the-revolution atmosphere and how this setting colors a lot of the game’s main and side story interactions. You play as a cowboy at a time when cowboys are becoming more and more obsolete. In American history, the rein reign of the cowboy lasted little more than a generation. As the industrial revolution spread west (and precipitated the invention of barbed-wire fences), cowboys and the like were stripped off the plains, forced either to assimilate or run out the country looking for flatter pastures. In the past year or so, the Cowboy has become a highly invoked and analyzed character, as America faces a similar transitional period in its history.

The current transitional period in American social and economic tides has brought about a “Cowboy Renaissance” of sorts, and the Cowboy/Western narrative proves as fertile grounds for allegory with these still nascent shifts. From video games, to movies (The Sisters Brothers, Damsel, The Old Man & The Gun) to music (John Prine’s Tree of Forgiveness, Colter Wall’s Songs of the Plains), all sorts of entertainment from the year have used the Western to reflect on how we interact with one another and the longstanding structures of capitalism in the country.

Take the new Coen Brothers’ film The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, which uses an anthology model of short stories from the American Frontier to examine legacy, the art of storytelling, and the early onset of capitalism in the country. The film takes a hard stance on one of the brothers’ favorite subjects, the immorality of capitalism, by exposing the harshest of its effects, to which 100+ years of social and technological progress have cloudied our view. The characters in each of the movie’s six stories are all motivated by business opportunities and survival through capital gains. It’s a universe in which you could be cast aside for a chicken who appears to have a grasp on basic algebra–if it meant that chicken were more profitable than you’ve become. Or be shot in the back after spending a week mining for gold by some slick, young opportunist who doesn’t want to put in the work but reap the rewards all the same.

Perhaps these stories seem a bit hyperbolic (after all these are the same guys who, a decade ago, directed a movie whose entire plot centers on the death toll surrounding a literal briefcase full of money), but they represent the same behavior businesses express under capitalism today, just without the veneer of corporate altruism or the mask of a marketing budget.

Similar ideas extend to even this year’s more contemporary, implicit versions of the Cowboy narrative. In Chloe Zhao’s gorgeous, meditative docu-fictional film The Rider, she captures the story of a rodeo rider struggling to give up his trade after numerous injuries have jeopardized the future of his career. Likewise, Bradley Cooper’s retread of A Star is Born details a similar pursuit–and in that story’s case, failure–to reevaluate your self-worth once you’re no longer able to succeed in the only career you’ve ever known. In addition to featuring some of the most arresting images of cowboys “riding” off into the distance, these movies grapple with how we define self worth, and how others define our worthiness, in a capitalist system. The dangers and narrow mindedness of doing so completely based on your ability to earn money, these films argue, can have deadly outcomes.

These stories seem to take place at the ends of eras, where the main characters are forced to reckon with a future that is at best unknown, and at worst wholly unsuitable for them. My girlfriend has a well-reasoned and thorough theory that this is exactly what all Paul Thomas Anderson scripts are about, and I could very well see him making an outright Western in the future. In fact, he could’ve just as likely been at the helm for John C. Reilly’s 2018 passion project, Jacques Audiard’s adaptation of the Patrick deWitt, Gold Rush-set Western The Sisters Brothers.

In it Reilly plays one of two aging hitmen brothers who contemplate settling down once they finish their latest job, tracking and assassinating a businessman who’s slighted their boss. As they get progressively sloppier in their craft, they invest in the businessman’s new technique for prospecting gold. But while trying it out, the proprietary chemical compound they use to illuminate the ore decomposes their skin, forcing them to abandon prospecting and retire to their mother’s home. In other words, the pursuit of capital for stability in the face of a changing world literally eats away at their bodies. It’s another allegory about the degrading effects of capitalism, this time as clearly plotted out as Bad Times at the El Royale signified to its audience it was about purgatory by being set in a hotel between two States.

It’s in this anxious, unknowable in-between that most of this year’s Cowboy Narratives reside. And it’s a setting that has close parallels to the anxieties of the present day. Besides the social and economic divide between capitalism and its alternatives, we live in our own wild west in the internet age, where technology “advances” at a clip faster than we can understand its psychological and sociological impact. We use the internet constantly, but don’t know exactly what a healthy relationship with the internet actually looks like.

Meanwhile, as large corporations and billionaires expand the lay of their digital real estate, and independent sites and publications fold as a result of the increasing costs and influenced lower spending habits of online users, it feels as though the web is shrinking, the sovereign being pushed out as rotely as the American cowboy. With all of these unknowns coming to a head, it’s unclear the direction in which we will proceed, let alone the direction we should proceed, and these narratives seek to capture these notions.

Maybe the most talked about album from this year that evokes the narrative of the Cowboy is Mitski’s Be the Cowboy; however, Mitski’s Be the Cowboy is not that. Mitski’s Be the Cowboy is the thin cursive, neon light on a clean white wall of the Cowboy Renaissance. It’s the instagrammable pop-up art exhibit of Cowboy pastiche. The contemporary indie mainstay’s fifth album opens with a sharp, piercing synth note, casting a discordant tone carried through the rest of the album. Throughout, synthlines rise and fall atop most tracks and distance the audience from the artist. The album title and lyrics navigate in Cowboy motifs of longing and loneliness, with time spent on tour replacing time on the plains.

Yet, the fuzzy production and pop instrumentation signal something else entirely. Like the commonly ascribed “sad girl aesthetic” and shared visual cues of hip, boutique storefronts in gentrified city neighborhoods, it’s a language in indie music that has become a safe haven for certain listeners. Though it feels daring and original to disaffectingly sing sad songs over dissonant pop arrangements–and Mitski’s are of the more complex among them–it’s become so commonplace in the genre, and so critically celebrated, that it’s no longer the musical risk it once was. You hear it in St. Vincent’s 2017 commercial jingle for depression and medicinal ennui “Pills,” and you hear it in Natalie Prass’s turn towards lovelorn roller rink soundtrack on this year’s The Future and the Past. And you can hear it on Mitski’s Be the Cowboy, under the guise of Western motifs and Twin Peaks aspirations.

The album’s prevalent synthetic interruptions create a barrier between the emotional core of Mitski’s lyrics and the listener. The lead single “Nobody,” on which she drones “My god, I’m so lonely / So I open the window / To hear sounds of people” over a rolling hi-hat beat lacks the gut-punch those lyrics deserve by hiding behind the sheen of a disco arrangement. As a result, you’re never confronted by her writing, or her delivery, nor have to reckon with the feelings they wish to invoke. Whether this was in an act to accurately summarize and comment on the online “sad girl aesthetic,” in which subscribers (of any gender or non-gender) experience, discuss, and process grief solely through detached memetic, humorous lenses for fear of the reactions from others to their sincerity, or if the album is simply a byproduct of it, the dissonance between subject and style is too much to overcome.

In writing, these are songs about legacy and the foggy memory of appearances when you’ve been away from faces you love for too long. The leaner the arrangements, the more affecting these short stories become. “A Horse Named Cold Air” finds Mitski alone behind a piano, waxing about an aging, regretful horse over a mannered burst of chords and broken arpeggios. Here she isolates herself without retracting from her audience. It’s sparse, arresting, and best captures the image that inspired her throughout the conception of the album: a woman, performing on a dark stage, with nothing around her but the halo of a spotlight. Elsewhere though this visual gets muddier. “Old Friend” begins as a riff on a simple acoustic blues ballad, but a harpsichord-like synth interjects with a distracting classical flourish. What’s most frustrating about the album is that Mitski gives hints as to what this Cowboy-inspired, unified work might sound like, only to change gears on the next song.

There are some shorter songs, like “Come into the Water” and “A Horse Named Cold Air,” that offer a sketch of what an alternate version of the album could sound like. One that’s stripped of the synths and noisier clutter, the irony, and puts the vocals at the center, more in tune with the gravity of the writing. With mentioning A Star is Born before, it’s easy to hear “Nobody” as a dramatic, boisterous piano ballad performed by Lady Gaga in the waning moments of the film, instead of as a polished disco single. Despite all of Be the Cowboy’s intricate arrangements, the record ends up feeling muted. Mitski’s staked a career on shredding and belting out performances like few else in music, and I want to hear that version of these songs.

It’s inevitable to draw comparisons to the other cowboy tentpole in mainstream music this year, Kacey Musgrave’s Golden Hour. On that record, country singer-songwriter Kacey Musgraves mines the tropes and traditions of country and recontextualizes them to great affect. Her production is polished but not guarded by additional artifice. It’s also no coincidence that both albums ruminate on longing and loneliness, two huge components to the cowboy experience. And, as a result of the internet age’s influence on social contact and communication, they’re two themes that have risen back to the forefront in modern entertainment. Viewed against the sincerity of Golden Hour, Be the Cowboy ends up feeling a lot more cynical about how we now process the emotions typified by the cowboy narrative.

Perhaps it’s a result of the very postmodern characteristics of its design–a sort of depthlessness to its presentation–but it lacks the underlying hook so many of the other Cowboy Narratives corralled me by this year.

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