Beyoncé Harmony Holiday

In Cowboy Carter, the Queen Bey presiding over the end of empire is also preparing for the next new thing.

Cowboy Carter, Beyoncé,
Parkwood Entertainment and Columbia Records

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What happens when your delusions of grandeur are not delusions; when you accrue the talent, resources, and courage to execute any dream or vision you possess, and there will invariably be an audience from which detractors will be cast as lunatics or heretics, fanatics as voices of reason, the willfully indifferent as lacking in imagination and joie de vivre, and grandeur itself will be defined by your whims? Beyoncé is some of what happens; she’s one of the last bastions of the wilting American dream, as pedestalized, scrutinized, criticized, and territorialized as Elvis and Michael Jackson, and, like them, often blamed for entrancing fans with more spectacle than substance. This is her fate, that of all who become pop cultural legends, and that of the nation. She opens Cowboy Carter, the second chapter of her Renaissance trilogy, with a ballad titled “Ameriican Requiem,” appropriating an ambivalent nationalism that constantly appropriates or scapegoats her as its greatest cultural export, arbiter of a transnational zeitgeist reliant on black performance for collective repentance. Bey renews shared vows of grandeur (hers and the nation’s) by lending them an icy macabre veneer, which she melts and reverse-engineers for the album’s duration.

National anthem becomes national requiem, a tearful departure conceives itself as the path to revival: For things to stay the same they have to change again / Hello my old friend. It’s the inverse of an induced labor, prematurely declaring the death of a stricken empire to resuscitate it, tricking us all into an interval of patriotic nostalgia, the opening ceremony of a ritual we aren’t supposed to witness except as it harnesses our approval by granting us a chance to mourn some vague loss—the loss of our souls, maybe. The singer is offered as redeemer. Later, in the swooning, gothic epic of an opening, I am the one to cleanse me of my father’s sins. This rebirth of the nation as Beyoncé’s baptism into the realm of what is allowed to be called country music is warranted, prelude to an episodic act of vengeance in the name of justice. And isn’t divaism itself a form of two-way vengeance acting on both subject and object, trapping them together in a codependent loop of truce by mutual obsession? You invented me, you made me this way, I will distract you from yourself and undo you for it, reciprocal undermine.

We move on, to Beyoncé inhabiting “Blackbiird.” The album’s second track of twenty-seven is a Beatles cover, and while it does little to add to the original, its spirit is that of lawns on college campuses and parks across the country. There’s always a kid who just learned to play guitar covering the folk classics who lands in this oversimplified sky chanting wistfully you were only waiting for this moment to arise. In my mind, I remix it with Nina Simone’s interpretation of “Blackbird,” not a cover, an overhaul, in which she taunts, why you wanna fly, blackbird / you ain’t ever gonna fly. Blackbirds are everywhere in the American poetic imagination, and on Cowboy Carter they introduce the black bard, who is making a thorough and intricately researched country album not only because she’s a pageant-winning, rodeo-attending Texas native and this is her music, but because when she attended the CMAs in 2016, she was subsequently shunned like a stain on the genre, her performance with the Dixie Chicks wiped from the award ceremony’s digital record. Beyoncé is migrating instead of breaking. The husk and heft of her delivery of take these broken wings and learn to fly strips her agenda of disguises. What happens when you’re the end of other people’s delusions of dominion over sounds you invented?

The album moves swiftly from pensive to violent and pulpy, bridged by sweet fables like “Protector,” for her daughter Rumi, and “My Rose,” a song-of-self and pep talk whose ethereal mood you find yourself wishing would wash the element of something to prove off the album. It does not. Our reluctant herald of the falling empire is out for blood and in the mood to disclose. The original Cowboy Carter, whose name the album echoes alongside Beyoncé’s own, was a white woman who traveled to black households and bars and collected or stole songs and styles from black folk and country musicians, the ones who brought the nation the banjo, teaching her its chords. It makes sense then that Beyoncé has structured this album as if it’s part of the Folkways series, with nods to and cameos from Willie Nelson, Linda Martell, and Dolly Parton. The cover of Parton’s legendarily distressed “Jolene” forces new archetypes into the standard’s distended spirit. The dominant one mimics the strength card in the tarot, half-lamb, half-lion—martyr and predator in yet another leave-my-man-alone anthem from the singer. We’re forced to consider the feeling of switching gods instead of watching them—is the upheaval marking our current moment so confounding that we are killing the idols we simultaneously worship, or convincing them to dismantle themselves as a form of re-enchantment? “Jolene” blends seamlessly into “Daughter,” the most unabashed bloodbath on the album, because it plays out like the glorification of Jolene’s murder, fragility sacrificed on the altar of harsher dreams. We pivot from cleansing the sins of the father to vowing that we’re just like him when crossed. We must confront the fact that we’re in the center of a saga, not just an album, a kind of tell-all that gets carried away and divulges a little too much, on purpose, to be released from the burden of its secrets. The veils are thin and flimsy, and the rowdier upbeat tracks, like “Spaghettii,” “Ya Ya,”and “Riiverdance,” try their best to darn them, and fail; they simply help air more grievances somatically, freeing the body to contest being mis-genred and mishandled in love. The mood is somber even in celebration, we’re celebrating death, you-made-me-do-it acts of outrage, and the years of resentment that smudge the halos of artists who are forced to be ambassadors for traditions that don’t love or even respect them, only included when it’s expedient to a nation’s propaganda machine to have the best performer in the world on its side.

Beyoncé, like the USA, is weary of performing herself. Throughout Cowboy Carter, she pursues fresh alter egos and intentionally slips out of character until you question who she really is. It’s effective storytelling, cajoling you into answering the question with her, and including country in every valence of your description of the woman who reintroduces herself here. There are some prevailing constants—you cannot be profound and evasive at the same time, too much restraint for too long can inspire one to binge rage, you cannot mount a horse with an abridged American flag looking like an animated Barbie corpse and not signify manifest destiny in the hands of its trickster-reaper, no stars on her flag. Because there are never any unintentional mistakes in Beyoncé’s output, Cowboy Carter plays like a declaration of independence, but it’s unclear what from. She doesn’t appear to be abandoning anyone, and she’s not behaving recklessly or withdrawn enough to be abandoned; she’s withholding overt political statements and offering symbolic gestures as she often does to deflect from the power of her influence, and she proves her point, veering toward the didactic and begrudging to do so.

So why does it emerge a little monotonous, or tentative even, with all its glitz and range, like the rupture of a glamour spell? For one, because the impending death of empire will take its stars down with it, even the dazzle of their reinventions of self can’t stave off the fact that the formula holding our former fantasies together has come unraveled. There’s the unshakeable sense that without the class struggle that demanded black country musicianship as the sonic texture and scaffolding of a way of life, reclaiming the genre so extensively ignites homesickness and disembodiment instead of homecoming or reunion. The album becomes a record of the displaced and misshapen collective ego searching for its center and finding an abyss wherein having it all is catastrophically limiting. Beyoncé’s country music is at the mercy of the nation’s temperament, which right now is somewhere between deranged decadence and despondency, adorned with its pathologies, mistaking them for badges of honor. What happens when you’re so stellar at proving your point that your point becomes that it’s time for a requiem for the twin death cults of stardom and Americanism? Them old ideas / are buried here, Bey sings, looping back to the requiem on the final track, “Amen,” as if it was all a long prayer for forgiveness and mercy. Cowboy Carter teaches us that we must lose interest in vengeance to achieve it. The tension left unresolved on the album is between humility and hubris, a contradiction that has always frustrated country and rhythm and blues music. In the USA, where fame became its own talent, crucial to staving off the disgraces of the nation-state, wounded pride or not, this music needs Beyoncé as much as she needs the space it provides her to discard idols and rehearse the next versions of herself.

Harmony Holiday is the author of several collections of poetry and numerous essays on music and culture. Her collection Maafa came out in April, 2022, and her exhibition Black Backstage is showing at The Kitchen in New York through May.

In Cowboy Carter, the Queen Bey presiding over the end of empire is also preparing for the next new thing.
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