Orville Peck liberates the cowboy, rides off on his “Pony”
Gina Twardosz | Tuesday, March 3, 2020
In her 1996 Grammy-nominated single, “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?”, singer Paula Cole muses the whereabouts of her real-life John Wayne. She laments the toxic masculinity that underlies the traditional country singer cowboy archetype that makes a figure like the bygone Hollywood star an unrealistic and problematic aspiration.
Yet, she raises an important point: in the year 2020, where have all these cowboys gone? In many ways, they still roam among us, taking on new forms by shedding the mask of masculinity they wore and swapping it for a new one — imbued with that femininity and tenderness previously so taboo in the genre.
At first glance, country music seems to be a genre impervious to change. But, slowly since the 1990s, a resistance to the establishment has been growing. Alternative country music has swept up the tired out pop-punk emos and folk-pop followers and converting them into loyal country music listeners. This sub-genre of country music seems to have entered its renaissance with the help of a particular masked cowboy: Orville Peck.
Who is Orville Peck? Many are just now being introduced to him with his recently released debut album “Pony,” but remain haunted by the lasting impression his mysterious facade leaves. Peck, who identifies as gay, wears his cowboy hat and boots with pride, donning a black leather mask with pink trimming that obscures most of his face. But as he begins to sing, his appearance ceases to matter.
Peck’s crooning vocals are a harbinger for a storm of emotion. If one isn’t careful, they may confuse his vocals for that of late Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis. While Peck still sings about love, loss and addiction, however, he does so with an added dirty country twist. He seems to be a spirit lost to the transience of a midnight rodeo. Peck regales his audience of misfits and outcasts with sorrowful observations about the ride in his hit single “Dead of Night.”
“Don’t be down, girl, this world is a bummer,” sings Peck in his anthem for aging beauties and down-on-their-luck drag queens entitled “Queen of the Rodeo.” The melancholy song pays homage to the spirit of the classic rodeo clown while still invoking the hopelessness of a life where both our pleasure and pain are derived from reactions to the masks we wear and the performances we give.
In “Hope to Die,” his voice builds in a crescendo akin to Lady Gaga’s epic vocals in the song “Shallow.” He reflects on his lost youth — one that seemingly dripped through his fingers like honey — and the regrets of young love. “I’m still undone, I’m not quite young,” he says in what seems like an intimate revelation to himself. “But I, I still try” — to what? Here, the maestro leaves us hanging in abstraction.
Even when it seems futile, when everything is finished, we still try to hold onto what we’ve lost. As children, we make promises to roam together forever as cowboys in an imaginary Western town and make pinky promises to one another to always err on the side of good. “We cross our hearts and hope to die” should we ever go back on our promises, but then those moments inevitably fade as we grow up and move beyond our childhood homes.
Our youthful wonderment at the cowboys we idolized and tried to personify all began to crumble into dust with the passage of time. We learned that freedom, true love and good triumphing over evil is not always a guarantee.
What’s there to do? “Cross my heart, now I hope to die,” sings Peck. But, maybe this is the death of a tired persona and Peck is reminding us that toxic masculinity, gendered stereotypes and unproductive stoicism should be laid to rest.
As the cowboys of yesteryear disappear, they leave a sour taste in the mouths of those who revered them. Yet, Peck exists in the space between that traditional, chivalrous cowboy country singer and gay, avant-garde pop idol. He is more than the mask he wears and reminds us to remain open to the world while we kick up dust with our constantly spinning spurs.
Artist: Orville Peck
Label: Sub Pop
Favorite tracks: “Dead of Night,” “Queen of the Rodeo,” “Hope to Die”
If you like: Joy Division, Margo Price, Lucy Dacus
Shamrocks: 4 out of 5