Opinion | Beyoncé’s ‘Cowboy Carter’ Settles the Score With Haters — and With History

Posted by

Beyoncé released a genre-bending country album, “Cowboy Carter,” last week. After listening to it in all the requisite settings — on a walk, in a car and on a plane — I finally understand what Beyoncé, a notoriously enigmatic pop star, wants to say to the world. She wants to be more than popular. She wants to be legendary. But first, she isn’t through taking everyone who has doubted her to the woodshed.

In outlaw country tradition, “Cowboy Carter” settles scores with haters and with history. Beyoncé has trilled, growled, marched, stepped, sweated and sung her heart out for almost 30 years. It is, this album argues, in conjunction with the others in her in-progress three-act “Renaissance” oeuvre, time for a little respect, for Black artists generally but also for her specifically.

Just by being Black, a woman, popular and impervious to country music’s gatekeepers, Beyoncé has made a political album. Puzzling over who is country enough to sing love songs to wheat fields and big trucks only seems prosaic. Big Country — the Nashville-controlled, pop-folk music that commodifies rural American fantasies — is the cultural arm of white grievance politics. In 1974, President Richard Nixon described the genre as being “as native as anything American we could find.” That must have been a shock to actual Native Americans. But the message was not for them. It was for the white Southern voters Nixon needed to win over amid massive resistance to Black enfranchisement. Today’s Republican Party continues that tradition. Embracing country music is a loyalty test for conservative politicians and right-wing pundits whose career ambitions align with white identity politics. Beyoncé singing country music in this political climate was always going to cause a stir.

I went into this album release expecting, like many cultural critics, that the biggest question would be: Is it country? She is from Texas, which should be enough. She also has that voice — not her singing voice, but her speaking voice. It is molasses slow and heavy-toned like Southern humidity. Doubting Beyoncé’s country bona fides is like insisting that the realest Americans can only be found in small-town diners. It is a convenient shorthand for dismissing people you would rather not think about.

“Ameriican Requiem” is a solid opening track that addresses anyone who discounts Beyoncé’s Southern résumé. Big Country produces a stylized set of tropes that artists, producers and marketing executives slather on top of meter and rhythm. In good hands, those tropes can be signposts for a road trip through a sonic postcard. In lazy hands (and so many of the hands are lazy these days), they are paper dolls of cheap sentiment. You name your small town for legitimacy. You gesture to your family for kinship to rural America’s fictive family tree. Then you sprinkle in your proprietary mix of trucks, dogs, sunsets and beer for distinction.

Beyoncé takes on these tropes in “Ameriican Requiem.” Her identity gives them weight. She sings that her small-town roots are by way of “folks down in Galveston, rooted in Louisiana.” As the “grandbaby of a moonshine man” she has a right to sing the white man’s blues, because as a Black Southern woman she can legitimately claim the blues. Turning back to the audience of doubters, she sings: “Used to say I spoke ‘too country’/And the rejection came, said I wasn’t country ’nough/Said I wouldn’t saddle up, but/If that ain’t country, tell me what is?” Given the pedigree she has just laid out, the only honest answer is that country music is everything she sings about minus the Black woman singing it.

The song seems to be aimed squarely at the reception Beyoncé received at the 2016 Country Music Association Awards. She performed with the Chicks for a genre mash-up of her first country record, 2016’s “Daddy Lessons.” The moment was heavy with signification. The Chicks were the proverbial prodigal son — white feminist country icons, cast out for their politics, returning to the fold. Beyoncé, the mega pop star, brought the sheen of Black excellence and crossover appeal. The duet should have ended in a multiracial kumbaya for a notoriously homogeneous industry. Instead, the audience of almost all white record executives, country singers, radio programmers and Nashville elites looked alternately stunned and dismayed throughout the performance. Some of them yelled racist comments at the stage. Viewers complained it was not real country. Black artists have long complained — often silently, for fear of being blackballed — that the country music industry is hostile to them. The C.M.A. debacle proved their point. Big Country decides what is country by policing who is country.

“Cowboy Carter” is a Rosetta Stone for the hidden racial politics in country’s aw-shucks exclusion that the C.M.A. performance put on display. Beyoncé mocks the idea of genre and by extension those obsessed with its boundaries. In an interlude, she uses a recording of Linda Martell coyly questioning the deceptive simplicity of musical genres to make a deft critique. Martell is often credited as modern country’s first commercially successful Black woman artist. Her album “Color Me Country” charted in 1970. Look at how long the sanctity of genre has been used to erase artists like me, Beyoncé seems to say.

In another interlude Beyoncé turns up the heat, asking who has the power to transcend genres. The sound of a radio dial flips through songs, including Chuck Berry’s 1955 classic “Maybellene.” The song helped inspire a young white guy named Elvis Presley to make rock ’n’ roll music. When white artists inject themselves into other cultures’ genres, including blues and soul and R. & B. and rock ’n’ roll, they become legends. Why, Beyoncé asks, are Black artists beholden to genre’s dictates?

Beyoncé answers that question with layered textual references, interludes, samples and copious visual art that gestures toward the obvious answer (uh, racism). This artistic tease has become a hallmark of Beyoncé’s post-“Lemonade” output. Sometimes the gestures are too heavy for her variable songwriting to carry. They work on “Cowboy Carter” because country music is so resistant to the most obvious questions about its politics that even a gesture goes off like a bomb.

If country music is about being from the South, she playfully rejoins, why isn’t Houston’s gritty “chopped and screwed” style sufficiently country? If country music is about murder ballads that romanticize the darkest, most transgressive human desires, why isn’t it romantic when a Black woman is the one doing the killing? If country music is about defending hearth and home for the love of a good woman, she taunts, why aren’t her stoic Black father and her young daughter an American family worth fighting for? The only way for Big Country to answer these questions honestly is to talk about race and gender, racism and sexism, history and power. But these subjects are all verboten.

That sucks for country music. The genre’s most successful artists trend toward apolitical pablum because they can’t or won’t say anything interesting. Their loss is this album’s gain. Beyoncé can ask these questions of country music because she is not an insider. As one of the biggest stars in the world, she can take the heat that comes with disrupting country’s white noise problem. When country music performers are mostly white, the genre can pretend it’s one big family. That is easy to fake when it controls who is considered family. But the sound becomes inbred. New blood highlights the difference. Country music’s self-consciousness about its status as real or cool music is its own fault. You cannot create art without getting something more substantial than mud on your tires.

Beyoncé is not afraid to get dirty in her artistic choices. Even when they don’t work, they aren’t boring. Her interpretation of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” is an example. The song is one of the great folk songs of the 20th century, written and performed by a celebrity who has become something of a secular saint. A cover would have been easy. Instead, Beyoncé shows artistic vision by choosing not to remake the song but to reinterpret it.

Her version is forgettable, but her choice to interpret it through her own identity is key. The original, from 1973, weeps with vulnerability. Parton is begging redheaded Jolene not to take her man. This did something really powerful for the time. It ascribed the balance of power in a heterosexual marriage not to the husband but to another woman, appealing to her moral compass instead of judging her unethical flirting. That vulnerability works because Parton represented the kind of woman who was allowed to be vulnerable. Even more, a white woman from the Appalachia region of the United States in the 1970s needed her man, not just for love but also for economic security. When Parton asks Jolene not to take her man, she’s asking Jolene not to take the very roof over her head. But Beyoncé is not fighting for her economic survival. She is fighting for her status as a wealthy wife. That is a position of social dominance over other women. Her version of the song sounds more like a rich wife’s “Fist City” than a down-on-her-luck housewife from a poor town because Beyoncé knows who she is. That is integrity.

I worried about that songwriting integrity when this album was announced. No matter how it sounded, a Beyoncé country record would be culturally important. But for it to be good in a country-folk soundscape, the album would also have to talk to the audience.

At its best, country music is a lyrically driven storytelling genre that elevates the mundane to the universal. Beyoncé’s songwriting has been spotty, even if her conceptual vision has been exceptional. I don’t think she has ever had a mundane experience in her life, so that’s a nonstarter. Even more challenging is that almost a decade ago, Beyoncé mostly stopped talking to her audience. Rarely giving interviews is a perk of being a mega celebrity. However, it has created a vacuum. We know Beyoncé makes hits and amazing visuals, but can any of us say that we know what Beyoncé wants?

Playing with the political fault lines of genre opened up Beyoncé’s storytelling. On “16 Carriages,” she makes a clear artistic statement that echoes in the silence she has created. “For legacy, if it’s the last thing I do/You’ll remember me ’cause we got something to prove.” Legacy requires legibility. It is almost imperative for a pop artist to do a bit more than gesture toward the textuality in her work if she wants that text to be legible. When she doesn’t, the audience fills in the gaps. They faithfully decode her gestures (especially her popular visuals) on social media. That is smart fan service in a hypercompetitive attention economy. It also buffers Beyoncé from the blowback that comes from saying clearly who she is and what she wants to say. But for someone fixated on legacy, letting fans litigate your artistic statement in this fragmented media culture leads to a chaotic message.

Beyoncé is ultimately the author of her legacy, not the Grammys or the C.M.A.s or most of the gatekeepers at this point. But she will have to do more than gesture to her legacy for us to help her fulfill it.

I am convinced that the right way to think about this album is through the lens of legacy. “Renaissance” was labeled Act One and this album is Act Two. Speculation abounds that a third act will complete a three-album volume of Black musical reclamation. Instead, with the genre deconstruction of “Cowboy Carter,” the idea of an album trilogy feels like a playbook for cementing Beyoncé’s legacy.

Another historic trilogy comes to mind. Stevie Wonder’s 1970s run of albums include some of the most important popular music ever recorded. Three of them — “Innervisions” (1973), “Fulfillingness’ First Finale” (1974) and “Songs in the Key of Life” (1976) — won Grammy Awards for album of the year. These albums were the rare mix of commercially successful and critically acclaimed. They were also a carefully constructed creative statement. Stevie Wonder was a child star, a prodigy. He made successful pop music. The albums he released in the 1970s marked his transition to Stevie Wonder, the legendary artist. He also played with genre, most notably by mainstreaming the then-novel synthesizer in popular music. He could still pen a classic love song, but he also turned his creative vision to the politics of our mundane lives. Along the way, he did more than gesture to his art. He guided the public’s musical tastes through his evolution.

In retrospect, Beyoncé began her own break from youthful stardom with “Lemonade” in 2016. Although that album focuses on a marriage that I would frankly be happy to hear less about, it is a definitive break from her pop-lite image. On “Renaissance,” Beyoncé expanded her breadth of sounds much in the same way Wonder did with the synthesizer. (Wonder played harmonica on Beyoncé’s version of “Jolene.”) On “Cowboy Carter” she slows down enough to tell a story that all listeners — close or casual — can receive.

I am more than fine with signing on to the Beyoncé legacy project, which promises to reclaim Black art across genres that have erased Black contributions. That is noble. But she has also worked really hard to elevate a very specific era of a young female singer’s career — that sanitized expression of girlhood — into something more expansive. She chose to do that through Black art, leaning into her Southernness, her accent, her lower vocal range, instead of choosing to become a more palatable post-racial pop star. On this album she makes a case for why, instead of simply embodying the latent politics of pop, house and country, she’s choosing to transform them into something else. The result is an eminently enjoyable album with some imperfections but an indication of what could be possible if more artists follow her lead.

Beyoncé cannot sing authentically about growing up poor or making ends meet. (She grew up upper middle class.) But she can reinscribe a genre’s latent politics. When she sings another genre in her body, she interprets that genre through her identity. The result can make you dance, but it can also make you reckon with your complicity in that genre’s policing of who is and is not legitimately American.

Reinscribing pop music’s history on a Black female Southern artist expands a vision of America’s cultural politics. It is not multiracial in the facile sense. Beyoncé’s ambition is to right the crooked room of American pop music, one that has tilted toward hidden racial politics and commodified inclusivity. She may not be innovating with new instruments or a singular new sound, as previous pop music legends have done. She does not need to. She has a singing voice that is a fine instrument. If she would turn her speaking voice to the audience and narrate her vision, the public work of reimagining genre could become the legacy project she so clearly wants.

Tressie McMillan Cottom (@tressiemcphd) became a New York Times Opinion columnist in 2022. She is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Information and Library Science, the author of “Thick: And Other Essays” and a 2020 MacArthur fellow.

Source photograph by Adrienne Bresnahan via Getty Images.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: letters@nytimes.com.

Follow the New York Times Opinion section on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, WhatsApp, X and Threads.