The genius of ‘Cowboy Carter’ is Beyoncé’s accent – a musicologist explains

May 5, 2024 - 2:26 PM
Beyonce's "Cowboy Carter" album cover. (Beyonce/Facebook)

Cowboy Carter, the latest album from Beyoncé, has sparked widespread debate about the genre of “country music”. As a musicologist, I am fascinated with the construction of genres. Often the boundaries that we create between one type of music and another are opaque and do not stand up to much scrutiny. Music is routinely transferred from one social context to another, taking on new meaning in this process.

For example, in my own genre of Irish traditional music, a performer may learn a piece of western art music or a pop song. But to what genre does their interpretation belong? Does a piece of classical music performed in the rhythm of Irish traditional music cease to be “classical”? Or is it intrinsically “classical” because of the construction of the melody and harmony?

These sorts of questions are key in understanding Cowboy Carter and its importance in the future development of country music.

Identifying and understanding the various elements of a musical performance is part of the musicologist’s job. Country music is defined by some broad themes, including instrumentation, the subjects of the songs and the venues in which it is usually performed. There are also more specific musical elements, such as chord structures, melodies and harmonies. But arguably, the accent of the singer is the most essential component of country music.

Accents and dialect help us to express our identity in everyday communication. Analysis of accents and dialects in turn can help us to interpret musical performance. We associate received pronunciation in English with western art music, while Irish traditional singers will typically use their own spoken accent, creating regional styles in the genre.

Accent – and style in general – can also change over time, as has been observed in the singing of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, and more recently, The Arctic Monkeys.

One of the unifying pillars of style across the various sub genres of American country music is the sound of Southern American English (SAE). This is sometimes referred to as a southern “drawl” or “twang”. SAE, in which plural “you” becomes “ya’ll”, and “all of you” becomes “all y’all”, is also often synonymous with the “whiteness” of country music.

Although she speaks with a more southern accent, Beyoncé delivers much of her work in another dialect. African American Vernacular English (AAVE) has been described as a crucial part of her “performative persona” and it is here, where AAVE converges with the musical formula of country music, that the real genius of Cowboy Carter emerges on tracks such as Texas Hold ‘Em.

Texas Hold ‘Em by Beyoncè.

Banjo, finger style guitar and a soft drumbeat provide the musical backdrop for a song that expresses numerous lyrical tropes of country music (cards, whisky, hoedowns) encased in the use of AAVE. Examples of this are heard in the construction “Cause we survivin’” (instead of “we’re surviving”) and the pronunciation of “with you” (“wit choo”).

In this song, Beyoncé playfully mixes aural identifiers of both “blackness” and “whiteness” to create something new.

More of this juxtaposition follows on the harrowing track Daughter. Beyoncé’s vocal flexibility is also seen in consecutive tracks in the middle of the record. On Just For Fun she moves clearly towards the accent and style of duet partner Willie Jones, before having Miley Cyrus do the opposite on II Most Wanted.

At 78 minutes, Cowboy Carter is nearly as long as composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s epic Seventh Symphony (1941) and has structural similarities to symphonic music too. There are clear “movements” within the work in which certain lyrical and musical ideas are grouped together.

For example, the opening five tracks serve as personal statement, announcing the artist’s “country” credentials: “Used to say I spoke too country / And the rejection came, said I wasn’t country ‘nough.” A second section sees Beyoncé develop these credentials, with endorsements from some of country’s most celebrated artists, including Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton.

In Spaghettii there is a short explosion of drill music. Other more obviously hip-hop tracks are scattered throughout the rest of the record. Beyoncé explores multiple musical homes, including opera, and ultimately ends with a recapitulation of the opening song, Ameriican Requiem in the final track, Amen.

Subverting the genre

Beyoncé has deliberately set out to subvert conceptions of the genre with Cowboy Carter. As pioneering black country artist Linda Martell says during the opening to Spaghettii: “Genres are a funny little concept aren’t they? Yes they are.”

Martell returns later to introduce Ya, Ya, reminding the listener that the song “stretches across a range of genres”. This never appears cynical, however, and the deeply personal and genuine creative power of the record is further revealed in the way that Beyoncé plays with lyrics and ideas elsewhere.

In her rewriting of Dolly Parton’s Jolene, the narrator is transformed into a powerful a confident woman who successfully fends off the titular character’s advances: “[I had to have this talk with you/’Cause I hate to have to act a fool/Your peace depends on how you move, Jolene]”.

There are so many interesting things to say about this record, on which Beyoncé asks compelling questions about style and genre. What makes Cowboy Carter different from other groundbreaking records is that the artist offers us detailed and compelling explanations of her artistic rationale within the music.

Cowboy Carter reminds us that musical style is difficult to define. While record labels and streaming services rely on genre labels to power our consumer activities, these labels are entirely subjective for the listener. Ultimately, Cowboy Carter opens the door for musicians of all backgrounds to play with the accent, style and ideals of country music in their own way.The Conversation

Conor Caldwell, Assistant Professor in Irish Traditional Music, University of Limerick. This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.