Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Cowboys

Kids still played "Cowboys and Indians" when I was growing up. Westerns were not as popular then as they were in my parents' generation, but they were still common, especially on tv. (At one point in the early 1970's, almost all of the top prime-time shows were westerns.) I had a complete outfit, with boots, vest, chaps, and hat, and of course six-shooters without orange tips. On the other hand, I've never seen my kids or any of their friends play cowboys and Indians -- I think they would look at me funny if I suggested it to them. I suppose it's not pc to portray this sort of struggle, even in play. Heck, you can't even sit "Indian-style" anymore -- now it's "criss-cross applesauce." If I were an Indian, I would be happy if people acknowledged borrowing cultural things from me. I guess it would have to be "Native-American-style," however, which no one will bother to say (although it's only two syllables longer than criss-cross applesauce).

(The problem with the phrase "Native American" is that it is really clunky. I suppose it is intended to emphasize that they got here before other people from the old world, but their must be a better way. Couldn't they find some Algonquin word that indicates original inhabitants? Even "aboriginals" would be preferable.)

Anyway, cowboys have gone out of style as kids' heroes. They are alive and well, however, as adults' heroes. If you listen to country music, you might get the impression that cowboys are still out wrangling cattle just as they were 100 years ago. In many cases, male singers refer to themselves as cowboys, or female singers refer to men as cowboys. (There doesn't seem to be any female equivalent, but that's okay: I get the feeling that women like the idea of men being cowboys as much as the men like pretending.) It's not a new phenomenon. Jerry Reid sings, "It all adds up to more than this cowboy makes" in "She Got the Gold Mine" (1982), and Hank Williams croons, "I like to ride my hog and to shoot my gun/You know a cowboy's work is just never done" in "Women I've Never Had" (1980). You can find lyrics to this latter song at -- where else? -- www.cowboylyrics.com. Toby Keith's "I should've been a cowboy" makes it sound like he could have chosen the profession of cowboy instead of country singer. I actually thought this was the case when I was growing up, listening to "Mammas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys." That song was so influential that I wonder if it didn't start the trend.

I find this all a little weird. I can deal with people calling themselves "cowboys" ironically, a little self-deprecating way of saying that it is make-believe, but I've heard it so much that I can no longer think this is the intention. They don't mean it literally, of course; it's used to designate a real man, as opposed to a sissy city-slicker. "You're the only cowboy here tonight," Toby Keith has two girls saying to him in "I'm Not As Good As I Once Was." And when Gretchen Wilson sings, "Bring on those cowboys with their pickup lines," it contrasts with the "little boys" who "fall apart" on seeing her in tight jeans ("I'm Here for the Party"). Still, sometimes I just wish they'd accept that we live in the 21st century. Cowboys are only slightly more real that knights in shining armour, and none of these singers is one. What we have instead are rhinestone cowboys, and I prefer those who acknowledge the fact. As Hank Williams Jr. sings in the song, "Texas Women": "I'm a country ploughboy, not an urban cowboy." Now that I can accept.

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