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The Tufts Daily
Where you read it first | Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Cowboy Carter ain’t a country album — it’s a treatise on genre we badly need to hear

Beyoncé’s rejection of genre on her latest album can teach us a lesson on how to interact with art and artists.

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Beyoncé is pictured at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in London, England on June 1, 2023.

On March 29, Beyoncé dropped her latest album, “COWBOY CARTER.” This sprawling, 79-minute epic has been the subject of constant talk since she first teased it during the Superbowl with singles “TEXAS HOLD ‘EM” and “16 CARRIAGES” The record was immediately termed Beyoncé’s ‘country album.’ Some theorized that the album would be a reaction to her performance of her song “Daddy Lessons” with the Chicks at the 2016 Country Music Association Awards, which created intense, racially charged backlash for not being “country enough” (despite the clear bluegrass genre of the song). Beyoncé set the narrative straight, however, in the days leading up to the album’s release, posting, “This ain’t a Country album. This is a ‘Beyoncé’ album.”

This statement would turn out to be more than a solid marketing tactic; it is representative of the argument Beyoncé is making with this album. Genre, she aims to show, is a shackle we place on artists, preventing their artistic development. This message is strung through the album in numerous subtle musical nods and stated plainly in a number of spoken-word interludes.

Of course, Beyoncé could have easily responded to those calling her “not country enough” by releasing a full album of country-pop bops à la “TEXAS HOLD ‘EM,” a song which quickly validated her country chops by flying to the top of the Billboard Hot Country Songs Chart, making her the first Black woman to hit No. 1 in that category. But she instead responded with an album that boldly and repeatedly asks: What is country music? What is genre? In doing so, she’s making an inherent point about art in today’s society: Trying to fit artists into a box will only be a detriment to the artist, and by extension, to the person consuming it.

The first 10 songs of the 27-track album act as the wind-up. She creates a whirlwind tour of the country genre, almost luring in casual country listeners with familiar sounds. There are murder ballads, lullabies and the twang of guitars. There are covers of “Blackbird” by the Beatles and Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” However, the album flips everything on its head with the 12th track, “SPAGHETTII,” on which featured artist Linda Martell tells us, “Genres are a funny little concept, aren’t they?/ Yes, they are/ In theory, they have a simple definition that’s easy to understand/ But in practice, well, some may feel confined.” Beyoncé then launches into a minute-long rap that finishes with the lyric, “I ain’t no regular singer, now come get everythin’ you came for.”

Following a few more radio-friendly tracks, the pretense of confinement in the country genre is completely abandoned. Linda Martell returns to say that an upcoming song, “YA YA,” “stretches across a range of genres/ And that’s what makes it a unique listening experience.” And indeed, stretches across genres she does. In the next eight songs, she’ll cover R&B, funk, house and more, each with their own little nod to ‘country’ origins. In one example, the track “TYRANT” utilizes a sample of a country-indebted fiddle line that provides the backing for a house track that could almost — almost — feel at home on her ode to house music, “RENAISSANCE.”

All of this adds up to a record whose most cohesive string is its refusal to be defined. It’s not an album featuring her fitting into the country genre but rather an album with her wearing country music like a pair of boots and strutting down her own runway. It’s nothing like anything she’s done before, and yet it’s unmistakably her; this is the mark of a great artist. She knows that, and on “COWBOY CARTER,” she’s not afraid to tell listeners as well.

In doing this, Beyoncé is not only more than effectively shutting up her critics, but she’s also perfectly articulating a truth about art that modern-day society could use to hear: Expecting artists to stay in their lane, to only produce art that fits neatly into societal boxes, is extremely detrimental. “COWBOY CARTER” dismantles genre and provides an extraordinary example of what can happen if artists don’t feel the need to appease their critics. As consumers, it’s easy to enjoy media and implore artists to create more of the same. But oftentimes this results in stale, unoriginal, unuseful drivel — just look to the recent output of the Marvel Cinematic Universe for this cautionary tale. That even Beyoncé, a generational talent, could experience such backlash for simply trying out a different genre, is a warning sign for all artists about the restrictions that others will try to place on them.

That’s why this album is so important. We need to let art explore, experiment and move forward. Only then do we get records as powerful as “COWBOY CARTER.”