Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Five Scholars Discuss Beyoncé’s “Cowboy Carter”


Beyoncé faces the camera in a shiny red, white, and blue cowboy-style suit and white cowboy hat. She rides side-saddle on a white horse in motion, her hair flowing out and matching the horse's mane. In one hand, she carries the reins, and in the other, a large American flag, of which only the bottom left quarter is visible. The background is black.
Cover of Cowboy Carter, Beyoncé (2024)

Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter’s genre-hopping and country-influenced new album, Cowboy Carter, has been one of the biggest pop culture events of 2024 so far. It has also been a major event in aesthetics. What do we mean by that? Well, in his groundbreaking 2016 book, Black is Beautiful: A Philosophy of Black Aesthetics, the philosopher Paul Taylor characterizes Black aesthetics in the following way:

to do “black aesthetics” is to use art, criticism, or analysis to explore the role that expressive objects and practices play in creating and maintaining black life-worlds. The appeal to exploration here is more expansive than it may appear. One can explore something by trying to give an account of it, in the manner of a scientist. But one can also explore something by poking around, in the manner of an explorer. In this sense artists explore the roles that expressive objects can play by trying to make them play one role or another, or by participating in and commenting on previous attempts to do this.

On this understanding, Cowboy Carter is itself a work of Black aesthetics, one where Beyoncé explores Black life-worlds through the lens of country and genre, as well as a host of other themes. We invited five scholars working in aesthetics and philosophy of art to comment on the album, and to engage with Beyoncé on these issues. Also, we wanted to make sure that the world knew that aesthetic thought about pop music reaches beyond the orbit of Taylor Swift.

In this roundtable, five aestheticians offer their reflections on the most recent work by Queen Bey:

  • Jeanette Bicknell (she/her), Independent Scholar and professional mediator
  • John Dyck (he/him), Lecturer in Philosophy at Auburn University
  • Charles Peterson (he/him), Associate Professor and Chair of Africana Studies at Oberlin College
  • Corey Reed (he/him), Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Butler University
  • Nicholas Whittaker (they/them), PhD candidate at the City University of New York, Graduate Center

Jeanette Bicknell

Jeanette Bicknell is an Independent Scholar and professional mediator based in Toronto, Canada. She is the author of Philosophy of Song and Singing: An Introduction (Routledge, 2015).

Musical preferences can be an aspect of one’s sense of identity, in much that same way that belonging to an ethnic group or being from a certain place can. Songs about places thus do double duty; they celebrate an aspect of identity in a way that makes possible a shared social experience. I think this is one reason why so many American popular songs in all genres celebrate places—cities, states, regions, and even rivers.

But anything that can be used to bring people together can also be used to divide them. The things that define us—our ethnicities, our being rooted in certain places, even our aesthetic preferences—also serve to distinguish “us” from “them.” Those of us who love this music are different from the folks who love that music. Songs about places are about belonging, with the unspoken implication that not everyone belongs.

This brings me to Beyoncé’s “Texas Hold’em.” The song is already bringing people joy, if we can take as evidence the many dance routines it has inspired on TikTok, together with the comments and responses.

But the song is more complex than that. The first time I listened to “Texas Hold’em”—and now every time I hear it—I’m struck by these lines:

There’s a tornado in my city
Hit the basement
That shit ain’t pretty

Strange lyrics in a song about dancing, red cup kisses, and heading to the dive bar. They are a reminder that places and our feelings about them can be complicated. Tornados and other natural disasters don’t affect everyone equally. People who have poor or inadequate housing, or limited access to social infrastructure, tend to be disproportionately impacted. Just because we all live in the same place doesn’t mean that we all feel like we belong.

The joy in “Texas Hold’em” is at odds with the undercurrent of anger I hear in so many country songs. For every sweet love song and every song about drinking, there seems to be an angry song. Some of these also invoke places, for example “Try That in a Small Town” and “Rich Men North of Richmond.” Like a focus on geographical location, anger can bring people together and promote social cohesion in ways that simultaneously emphasize differences. In these songs, the singers presume that listeners who live in small towns or south of Richmond share the same values as those expressed in the song—and that they share the anger that is expressed.

For me, “Texas Hold’em” is connected with one of Beyoncé’s legendary performances: her live acapella rendition of the US national anthem at the press conference that announced her upcoming Super Bowl performance. She performed the song live to respond to the controversy that arose when she sang the National Anthem along with a pre-recorded track at Barack Obama’s inauguration. The live performance was Beyoncé’s way of saying, “I deserve to sing this song on your behalf.” I cannot help but think of President Obama’s own performance of releasing his long form birth certificate to show that he was eligible to hold the position to which he was elected.

John Dyck

John Dyck is a Lecturer in Philosophy at Auburn University. Somehow, he contracted a burning passion for country music while completing graduate school in New York City.

Country Carter is not a country album. This is immediately apparent upon listening; the album contains multitudes of genres, multitudes of samples. Beyoncé herself says that it’s not a country album, it’s a Beyoncé album. It’s just as clear, though, that this album is about country music. (The press kit tells us that the album “is about genres, all of them, while deeply rooted in Country.”) It is an album that wants to start a discussion about genre, and specifically about the genre of country music. The track “SPAGHETTII” opens with Linda Martell asking: “Genres are a funny little concept, aren’t they?”

What does it mean for an album to be about genre? More specifically: What does it mean for this album, which is not a country music album, to be about country music? Let me suggest an answer: Beyoncé wants us to hear both country music and pop music differently—to hear them correctly. Country music is often thought of as a white genre, with mainly white influences. But country does not just have an influence from gospel and blues; it comes from the same source as gospel and blues. These genres were all born around the same time, around the same people. To hear country correctly is to hear it expansively and generously at its roots, to open one’s ears to the enormity of black influence even on early white ‘country’ musicians like Jimmie Rodgers and Uncle Dave Macon (musicians who were not generous in acknowledging their influences). Cowboy Carter helps us hear the capaciousness of country. And in doing so it helps us hear country correctly.

Once we have a broader sense of country music, we can start to hear its influence across the vast starry sky of American music. If country and blues share the same source, then the fingerprints of country are all over subsequent genres: southern rap, rock and roll, house music, pop music, and rhythm and blues. When we recognize this, we can hear country in these genres. And the effect goes both ways. Once we see the deep roots of country music in other genres, we hear those genres differently. This, I think, is why there are so many genres on this album: Beyoncé is helping us hear the influence of country music across the musical landscape.

The shimmering track “II HANDS II HEAVEN” is my favorite of the album. At first it sounds like it is firmly in R&B territory. But if we listen for country music, we can hear it. We hear it in the cadences and harmonies. The repetitions are reminiscent of old-time banjo music. And as a result, the R&B-ness of the whole track comes to take on a bit of a country tinge. The tonal weight of the whole song shifts ever so slightly; we hear the bumps and not just the smoothness. In this album, Beyoncé helps us to hear the genres differently.

If the goal of the album is to get us to hear music differently, then it is not just a work of music, it is also a work of music criticism—real music criticism, in philosopher Arnold Isenberg’s sense. The goal is to change our perception and engagement with art, not just to give us information. Given the popularity of podcasts like Dissect, it’s easy to try to understand this album by playing the game of “Dissectification”: by ‘getting’ all the samples and references. There are rich and innovative samples, but if I am right, collecting them all is not the point. Listening differently is the point.

Charles Peterson

Charles Peterson is Associate Professor of Africana Studies, Chair of Africana Studies, and Director of the Gertrude B. Lemle Teaching Center at Oberlin College. His research interests include Africana philosophy, film, and Africana political and cultural theory. Peterson is a coeditor of De-Colonizing the Academy (Africa World Press, 2003), author of DuBois, Fanon, Cabral and the Limits of Anti-Colonial Leadership (Lexington Books, 2007) and Beyond Civil Disobedience: Social Nullification and Black Citizenship (Palgrave-McMillan, 2021).

Percival Everett’s short story “The Appropriation of Cultures” describes the journey of Daniel Barkley, an African-American man of leisure, who in an epiphanic act of subversion reverses the engines of cultural meaning. Daniel, while playing guitar one night in a college bar in South Carolina, is mockingly asked by two drunken white students to play the post-Reconstruction anthem “Dixie.” At first startled, Daniel accepts the challenge, and in earnestly performing the ditty of antebellum nostalgia, finds heartfelt meaning and connection to the longed-for vision of the Antebellum South, startling the white audience in turn. The rest of the story describes how Daniel expands his subversion by purchasing a pick-up truck, displaying the battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia and proudly flying the flag from his home.

An image of a confederate flag (a blue X adorned with white stars on a red background) that appears worn.
The battle flag of the Army of Northern Virginia

Everett describes how the white residents in town are disrupted by his identification with their neo-Confederate symbol and one night, performing “Dixie” before an African-American audience, Daniel’s immersion in the lyrics infect the audience who by the end of the jazzier, funkier arrangement of the song, find themselves singing, dancing, and feeling the song with him. By the end of the story, the song and flag have become ubiquitous among the South’s Black population while fading from sight as a representation of white cultural politics.

Replace Daniel Barkley with Beyoncé Knowles and “Dixie” with Cowboy Carter and you have the makings of an intense national discussion on the iconography of Beyoncé and its implications for African-American identity. Again. Beyoncé’s recent release, Cowboy Carter, a country and Western-based LP, is a subtle and nuanced blending of American roots genres, stamped by an iconic cover image [Ed. note: see top of post] that has sparked national discussion about the African-American relationship to country music and Americana.

Cover image for “America Has A Problem”, by Beyoncé ft. Kendrick Lamar (2023)

The image has sparked four basic questions: (1) Is Beyoncé expressing an identity based on her Black Texan upbringing? (2) Is this image and album a reactionary and unquestioning embrace of the symbols of American empire? (3) What does it mean to challenge the white nationalist presumptions of country and western music? and (4) Has Beyoncé astutely joined on to a rising movement in country music, following in the tracks of Rhiannon Giddens, Allison Russell, Kaia Kater, et al.? Each of these questions follows its specific paths, and what remains is the disarming nature of the image which roundly challenges the assumptions of the viewer regardless of race, gender, geography, as it troubles the assumptions of country as white, Black as Urban, the heroic as male, and Beyoncé as fixed commodity. For those seeking to affix Beyoncé with the politics of her previous efforts and images (“Formation,” Lemonade, Homecoming, and Renaissance), what she most accurately displays is the chameleon-like adaptability and market fungibility of the greatest of artists (think of David Bowie, Miles Davies, hesitantly Madonna, Picasso) and the ability to represent culture without politics and politics without ideology.

Corey Reed

Dr. Corey Reed is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Butler University. He specializes in the critical philosophy of race and racism and Africana philosophy. His work focuses on Black existentialism, phenomenology, and aesthetics.

Beyoncé’s new album Cowboy Carter is a decolonial project. What many perceived as Beyoncé “trying out” country music comes across more as a critique of the concept of musical genre itself and its political motivations. Understanding this album requires us to go back to the public rejection of Beyoncé’s 2016 performance of “Daddy Lessons” with the Chicks. The critique of Beyoncé as not qualifying as a top-ranking country artist, despite utilizing instruments, sounds, and linguistic tools common to country music, including noted country artists like Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, and others, and incorporating some of the narrative tropes of country music, can only come from one of two things. Either country music exemplifies a politics of purity, meaning that a country artist must exclusively produce country music and represent some “authentic” connection to the concept of “country,” or there is a racialized rejection of Beyoncé because country music is now gatekept by a White centricity. The former easily falls apart, as Miley Cyrus (included in this album with other artists that exist “between genres”) is allowed to move between pop and country music. The latter is part of Beyoncé’s critique, as she highlights contemporary, Black country artists and reminds the audience of country music’s Black roots.

Beyoncé makes a very clear statement through Linda Martell, one of the first successful Black women in country, in the tracks “The Linda Martell Show” and “Spaghettii.” In the former, Martell says, “This particular tune stretches across a range of genres / and that’s what makes it a unique listening experience.” The track functions as an introduction to the song “Ya-Ya,” which blends a Tina-Turner rock and roll sound while evoking the Beach Boys. She starts the song “Spaghettii” by saying that “Genres are a funny little concept, aren’t they?… In theory, they have a simple definition that’s easy to understand / But in practice, well, some may feel confined.” Beyoncé is not gesturing solely at her artistic confinement; she is alluding to how these boundaries confine people’s understanding of music. The blending and transcending of genre is demonstrated across the album: “Daughter” gives moments of classical music, “Spaghettii,” “Tyrant,” and “Sweet Honey Buckiin’” demonstrate clear hip-hop elements, “Amen” alludes to gospel music, etc. There are moments Beyoncé even plays with her own discography, as “Riiverdance” sounds reminiscent of her last project Renaissance, and “II Hands II Heaven” feels like it could be on 4 or I Am… Sasha Fierce.

Beyoncé masterfully displays that there are central components to her sound that exist across her works, but she is not limited to a genre. I call her project decolonial because I see it dismantling how we understand categories and other limitations placed on artists and art. It is also decolonial because it is directly addressing antiblack oppression in a musical style that has Black roots and is a creolized (mixed to the point of a new creation and the opposite of a purity politic) artform. 

Nicholas Whittaker

Nicholas Whittaker is a doctoral candidate in philosophy at the City University of New York, Graduate Center. In Fall 2024, they will be joining the Wesleyan philosophy department as assistant professor. Their writings on art, love, and blackness can be found in various academic and public venues, including the Journal of Aesthetics and Art CriticismThe Point, and The New York Times. They are located in Queens, New York.

Cowboy Carter fucks me up before the twang even begins. Beyoncé’s voice, swirling about with overdubbed grace, unfurls a lush, open space, swollen with possibility. Then she dusts off her boots and hits a whining pleading howl that your average punker has spent her whole career shooting for. I wanted to pause, to play that moment over and over. But Beyoncé had other plans. There’s no time for hesitancy.

At this point in her life, Beyoncé has nothing to prove; not as a cultural icon, not as an artist, and certainly not as a vocalist. And yet Cowboy Carter is perhaps the biggest vocal flex she has ever offered us. Americana rasp, R&B dexterity, psychedelic swirls, operatic grandeur; never one thing for more than one moment, her voice is overwhelming in its fecundity.

More than any Beyoncé album I can recall, Cowboy Carter uses that voice as its architecture. Thick swamps of dubs structure almost every song, sometimes swallowing the guitar plucks and 808s. She, quite simply, dominates. There’s not an inch of humility in Cowboy Carter. I don’t mean to moralize this. But it does seem to pose a small problem. After all, what is country music, if not humble?

As John Dyck has written here on Aesthetics for Birds, country music is distinctly humble. It lacks pretensions of high style; its stars insist on remaining—or appearing to remain—firmly anchored in good, clean soil. So there’s something immediately odd about a star of Beyoncé’s artistic and cultural status asking us to join her in a hoedown. This isn’t a point about “authenticity”, about whether or not Beyoncé, as an individual, or Cowboy Carter, as an album, are genuinely country. But it is a question about what country becomes when filtered through the prism of Queen Bee.

Take her “Jolene” cover. Dolly Parton’s original is the epitome of humble country: she, quite simply, negs herself, over and over, measuring her own value against that of another woman, one more fierce and beautiful and powerful. Beyoncé wisely recognizes that those words would sound ludicrously insincere from her lips. And so her “Jolene” is a scathing sneer: she’s not begging, but warning, any woman foolish enough to try to steal her man.

But in between the flexes, Beyoncé sings this:

I sleep good, happy,
Cause you can’t dig up our planted seeds,
I know my man’s gon’ stand by me
Breathing in my gentle breeze.

Humility, arrogance: these are words we use to describe human beings. Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter is a human being: but the Beyoncé of Cowboy Carter is something different. She’s a breeze, an atmosphere, a world. She’s not a country musician; she’s a country unto herself.

Country musicians are humble; but what they are trying to articulate is not. Grasslands, mountains, hidden rivers; a land with bones older than genres of any kind; a connection with soil deeper than any deed; indescribable bonds of love and vengeance, kinship and betrayal. Beyoncé doesn’t bother trying to describe such things. She embodies them. The resulting expansiveness, dynamism, sublimely catastrophic dominance, is the sound of country.

In “Oh Bury Me Not,” Johnny Cash sings of a youth, a dying cowboy, who begs not to be buried in the lone prairie, not to be overwhelmed by its grandiosity. I beg you, do not bring that anxious resistance to Cowboy Carter. Let it—let her—overwhelm you.

Edited by Aaron Meskin (University of Georgia) and Alex King (Simon Fraser University)

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