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Dispatches from the present


Home on the Range


On March 29th, pop megastar Beyoncé released her eighth solo album, Cowboy Carter. It is also her first country album. known for sleek, hip-hop-inflected R&B tracks like “Crazy in Love” and “Formation,” Beyoncé has reinvented herself via banjos and Dolly Parton covers. But this is, in fact, her second reinvention in almost as many years. 2022 saw the release of Renaissance, in which Beyoncé transmuted her already club-ready sound into disco and post-disco gold. These two shifts are not isolated incidents. Rather, they form Acts I and II of what Beyoncé has promised will be a three-album project. Act III remains a mystery, for now.   

Slowly, Beyoncé is unfurling something for us; some renegotiation of her legacy, and that of (black) American music more generally. But what, exactly, is she up to? What grand opera is she performing for us? What’s the point of it all? It’s difficult to say; she’s not finished yet. This is frustrating. Beyoncé is demanding patience, in a cultural epoch perhaps defined most essentially by an increasing distaste for patience. 

Cowboy Carter rebels against this squirming sense of urgency. It resists categorization, or the ventriloquism by which audiences project simplistic paraphrases onto works of art. Instead, it luxuriates in slowness, in ease, in comfort. Beyoncé’s music has always felt inevitable; on any track, she arrives with unflinching steadiness and surety, establishing her aesthetic worlds through sheer force of will. But this undeniable, indefeasible presence has reached new solidity with Cowboy Carter.  

Notice the unhurried tempo of “Levii’s Jeans”; enjoy the languorous flow of “II Most Wanted”; embrace the slow-spreading warmth of her rendition of “Blackbiird. (Yes, she sneaks a Beatles cover onto a country album, in a brilliant deployment of the country blues at the core of classic rock.) This warmth is perhaps what I love most about country music; the gentle swing of Charley Pride, the grooves etched by Merle Haggard, the flickering magic of Gillian Welch. Country music makes this world—the back porch, the open road, the canyons, the cities—feel like home: inhabited, safe and familiar. And it is that sense of ease that Cowboy Carter most doggedly seeks to evoke.  

This ease is pleasant in itself; but it also serves to re-enchant the architecture, symbology and mythology of America itself. The album’s embrace of country music expresses a particular experience of America and American culture: resigned acceptance of an unruly, embarrassing and ultimately inescapable family; faith in the way one has always participated, and will continue to participate, in that family’s life; and faith in the openness of that family’s future. Country music is, after all, as indigenous an American art form as the R&B, hip-hop and club music that were once Beyoncé’s bread and butter. And yet the genre’s history of racism, misogyny and homophobia has often left artists like Beyoncé—and Lil Nas X, and Linda Martell, and Rhiannon Giddens, and many more besides—at its margins. By embracing the warm sonic textures of country, Cowboy Carter employs tactics of refamiliarization: reorganizing and refurbishing America’s past and its musical architectures, making it fit around “a Creole banshee bitch from Louisian’.” She, too, is comfortable here.  

That comfort is, of course, not something we can take for granted. Beyoncé never once substantively mentions American anti-blackness by any identifiable name, and yet consistently alludes to it. This occurs most obviously in her references to the suppression she and black country artists have faced—“They used to say I spoke too country, then the rejection came, said I wasn’t country ’nough” (“Ameriican Requiem”). But it’s also implied in lyrics like “Those petty ones can’t fuck with me … because I’m a clever girl” (“Ya Ya”) and Dolly Parton’s demands that “Cowboy Carter … strike a match and light up this juke joint” (“Tyrant”). Cowboy Carter is rich with such expressions of frustration. But their targets are never quite named.  

The album’s magisterial conclusion (“Amen”) seems to summon up these demons most explicitly: “We’ll be the ones that purify our father’s sins; American Requiem.” But even here, the sketch is light, loose, lacking detail. It’s clear that something bad has happened; something haunts the American fantasy Cowboy Carter offers. But what, exactly? 

On the one hand, this obfuscation feels exciting. Beyoncé does not tell us what she thinks. She does not write confessionals—or at least barricades them behind walls of vagaries. She does not tweet, or interview, or write liner notes. Her family life, her politics, her daily routine remain relatively mysterious. That lack of clarity means that her artistic production demands patience: we don’t know what she’s releasing—when, or why—and must find ways to enjoy the music without fully understanding it. Earlier I suggested that this runs counter to our current listening practices, but perhaps it is the vagaries that have brought Beyoncé to such tremendous heights of fame. Perhaps we really do value ambiguity over clarity, apoliticism over didacticism, universalism over particularity.  

But that is too quick a surrender. Because Beyoncé is not ambiguous about everything; she is quite firm, in at least one respect. Beyoncé spends Cowboy Carter trying to convince us that America, despite its vague badness, is worth saving.  

She does so, most obviously, by deploying the anthemic sounds of country music. But other renegotiations are more subtle. Tracks like “Ameriican Requiem,” for example, reframe common country iconography to mythologize Beyoncé’s own life as profoundly country, and thus profoundly American. She is, she proclaims, “the grandbaby of a moonshine man,” with roots in Alabama and Louisiana; what’s more country, more American, than that? And if the mythology of America applies to her too, then America is her home too—despite its history, despite its anti-blackness. Home, after all, is where we solidify ourselves, where well-worn tracks catch our wheels and send us sliding down familiar paths. It is where the word “mine” gains its richest, most soothing, most horrifying registers: this place is mine, because I am nothing without it. 

Cowboy Carter disrupts our old comfort in America, and Americana. But in doing so, it promises us that we can still feel at ease in this country, embraced by its legends and its sounds. Through sheer force of will, we can supplant our righteous dissatisfaction with the evils of our origin story; we can embrace a new, egalitarian, expansive Americana. This country, and its anthems, can be our home. 

But is that a path to liberation, or to pleasure? Or is it just the same old story, to a new tune?