We’re switching up the vegetable roles today, because I want to discuss the largely forgotten, 1996 Paula Cole hit song Where Have All The Cowboys Gone. Yeah, that’s right– I can talk music too, so long as we’re keeping it strictly to song lyrics.
Now, if this song (hereafter referred to as Cowboys, because WHATCG is a weird acronym) were a human child, it would be old enough to buy a pack of cigarettes. I grew up hearing it occasionally on the radio, but I hadn’t given it a second thought since, say, 2000, until just this morning, due to circumstances which are probably more confusing if I try to explain them.
You can find the song and the music video here, in all its 1996 Heroin Chic glory, while ruminating on how the 90s are beginning to look every bit as weird as the 80s. Why is a grown woman wearing short braids and a midriff-bearing shirt? Why does it appear that the band broke into a long abandoned farm to sing this song? Why is everything damp and cold? Music videos didn’t always feature ostentatious displays of wealth? Many questions.
The basic structure of the song is this: in whispered spoken lyrics, Kate Moss’s cool American cousin Paula narrates the fantasy life of being a cowboy’s wife, as they have kids, move to Tennessee, he works on the tractor and she cares for him, etc. In the actual singing part and the chorus, Paula and her undulating stomach switch to first some sort of gender role dichotomy proposal (eg, “I will raise the children, you pay all the bills”) followed by the only part of the song anyone knows, “Where is my John Wayne? Where is my prairie song? Where is my happy ending? Where have all the cowboys gone?”
The ugly mug of a generation.
On its surface, Cowboys appears to be a fairly typical piece of good ol’ days American nostalgia in the form of a woman bemoaning a life she thought she was promised, and specifically the manly man who would make that life happen and would hold up his end of the gender bargain, namely by paying the bills and providing her with babies, home, etc. The happy ending, if you will. About the varying failures and lackluster traits of the modern 90s man (now a thing of the past himself, much like the song’s cowboy), very little is said. In the list of items of what the modern 90s man is not– not John Wayne, not the Marlboro Man, not the Lonely Ranger– the listener is assumed to simply know what he is, and what those undesired traits might be. Which, by the way, works fine– I don’t think anyone really had too many questions as to what Cousin Paula meant. The modern 90s man is not masculine enough, not sincere, not holding up his end of the gender bargain and providing a traditional home. In the Cracked podcast, Editor-in-Chief Jack O’Brien says, “this song is about what could be considered the feminizing of the American male over the past fifty years”.
What is a little peculiar about the presented nostalgia is that Paula isn’t exactly focusing on the fun parts of our nostalgic gender roles. As even the vaguest perusal could probably tell you, I am not the biggest fan of traditional gender roles, but I do understand how people come to fantasize about the basic “you be masculine, I be feminine, we have a swell romance, car house kids, nothing is ever complicated again.” Cousin Paula, however is describing a life wherein he spends every night at the bar with his new friends while she’s home with the new baby, and then growling, “I will wash the dishes while you go have a beer,” before sliding into the chorus. When you fantasize about the good ol’ days, you don’t fantasize about doing all the work while someone else sits on his ass. The fantasy of the domestic gender bargain isn’t supposed to include spousal neglect and the death of the romance.
Upon closer examination, the song begins with the fantasy played straight, with dandelion suns and front porches and cold lemonade and a ‘56 Chevy, and by the end, neither of our happy couple actually sounds all of that happy. Cousin Paula is using the medium of the fantasy as the tool by which to strip down the fantasy itself. The Good Ol’ Days weren’t so great after all, for either party.
So, does this musical deconstruction work? Well… eh. If you actually listen to it, or read the lyrics, then yes. But remember, she’s whispering at you for most of it, and the transition from narrating the fantasy to bemoaning the loss of that fantasy isn’t musically clear. My initial misunderstanding was that the whispering was the past while the singing was the present, which, upon closer examination, does not appear to be correct; only the “Where” questions take place in the 90s present. It sounds, in other words, like it’s the lackluster modern 90s man who is sitting around on his ass drinking a beer while she does the dishes and wonders where all the good men have run off to. When you’re not really listening to it, Paula sounds sincere rather than sardonic in her musical nostalgia. Admittedly, that could be a deliberate choice– Lord knows I’ve thought about Cowboys more because of its ambiguity than I would for either a song genuinely asking for the location of cowboys or a song obviously commenting on the insufficiencies of cowboys as life partners.
The weirdest thing for me, upon doing this analysis, was that I have nostalgia for this song; I mostly remember it playing on the radio while my parents drove around doing whatever it was we did in Minneapolis in 1996. I have nostalgia for a two-decade old song that is itself a critique of a version of nostalgia that you still see every day.
Leaving you with that,
 American nostalgia concentrates primarily on the single decade of the 50s, without much historical or socio-economic examination. If we posit that this nostalgia began in the 1970s, because, hypothetically, the 60s were too busy for anyone to waste time with nostalgia (which I’m sure is not true), that means that we’ve been nostalgic for a single decade for forty-five years, four and a half times longer than that decade even lasted in the first place.