Of all the pop stars currently working in America, Beyoncé is undoubtedly the most visually sophisticated. Every new album comes with a lush, rigorously staged set of images, dense with allusions and Easter eggs, that act as an elaboration and a commentary on the themes of the album.

In the Lemonade era around 2016, Beyoncé made herself into a goddess of many identities: the Christian Virgin Mary, the Roman Venus, the Yoruba Oshun. With 2022’s Renaissance, she became a disco diva celebrating the pleasures of the dance floor as a safe space for queer Black joy.

Now, in Cowboy Carter, the country-inflected album she dropped at the end of March, Beyoncé has reinvented herself in perhaps the most difficult transformation of all. She’s transformed herself from American goddess into goddess of America.

Let’s decode the imagery of Cowboy Carter together.

Sweetheart of the rodeo

The album cover for Cowboy Carter sees Beyoncé sitting sidesaddle on a white horse, in red, white, and blue leathers. In one hand she’s holding the horse’s reins, and in the other, the American flag. Together, her upraised arms and her head and neck create a sort of W shape.

“It’s such an awkward and specific gesture,” says Sonya Abrego, a design historian specializing in the history of American fashion. “I really don’t think Beyoncé and her team did that accidentally.”

Abrego sees Beyoncé’s pose as echoing the posture of a woman in an illustrated map called “Evolution of the Cowboy,” created by artist Jo Mora in 1933. The full illustration charts the way cowboy gear and techniques changed over time, along with a rundown of the different cowboy archetypes of various territories. In the center top of the chart, though, we see a woman in a cowboy hat and riding leathers, standing with her arms upraised so that, together with her head and neck, they create a W shape. Behind her, a legend reads “sweetheart of the rodeo.” Flowers blossom in the air where she gestures; she is the bountiful source of the rodeo and all that it signifies.

Mara’s sweetheart of the rodeo became the cover of a Byrds album.
Columbia via Wikimedia Commons

The sweetheart of the rodeo has appeared on album covers. The Byrds used her on the cover of their 1968 album, tellingly titled Sweetheart of the Rodeo. It was known as one of the first country-rock albums, a crossover country album from a band that, like Beyoncé, built their name on a different genre.

The horse of a different color

The horse Beyoncé is riding on the cover of Cowboy Carter looks white, but it’s not just any white horse. It’s a Lipizzaner, a breed that is usually born with a brown or black coat that grows in gray and then white over time. This transition is common among gray horses, but it’s a telling choice here — especially given the themes of the album, with its name-check to Linda Martell, the first solo Black woman country artist to play the Grand Ole Opry.

The title Cowboy Carter, too, nods to the whitewashed work of Black artists in the history of country music. The Carter Family was one of country’s weightiest acts, and they developed their distinctive sound under the influence of Black musician Lesley Riddle. Riddle taught them his innovative style of guitar picking, and he got the Carters entrance to Black spaces, like churches, to help them gather songs from Black communities that went on to help form the basis of the white country songbook.

Cowboy Carter is a history lesson on the Black musicians who helped build country music and whose contributions were swiftly whitewashed. It’s fitting, then, that Beyoncé ride a horse that was black at its birth but is now considered white.

The All-American girl

Beyoncé, wearing braids and naked except for a sash reading “act ii BEYINCÉ,” holds a smoking cigar.

On the album’s vinyl cover, Beyoncé channels Lady Liberty.
Beyoncé/Blair Cardwell via Instagram

On the official album cover, Beyoncé’s wearing the colors of the American flag on her body and holding the American flag. On the vinyl cover, she’s standing in a Statue of Liberty pose with a Miss America sash around her torso and her hair in red, white, and blue beads. She’s playing with one of the common visual motifs of country music, which is Americana kitsch.

In country and Western music, the West acts as a synecdoche for America itself: Western iconography is American iconography because the West is America.

“If you go around the world and ask people for a symbol of the United States, it’s the cowboy that people say,” says Josh Garrett-Davis, H. Russell Smith Foundation curator of Western American history at the Huntington.

The cowboy becoming a symbol of America is not an accident, Garrett-Davis points out. In 1893, historian Frederick Jackson Turner posited the frontier thesis, claiming that the distinctive American character was rough and independent and that it came from the nation’s constant movement westward. Theodore Roosevelt, a wealthy East Coaster who needed to add some grit to his image, picked up on the ideas and began to make much of his time in North Dakota.

“All these indicated that just a touch of sort of wildness on the Western frontier could kind of give America its character and refresh,” says Garrett-Davis. “It’s in a sense masculinizing because they were worried that, in the Industrial Age, the country was becoming too feminized.”

The heroic myth of the cowboy was also a deeply white supremacist idea. “They erase the fact that a good portion of the working cowboys in the American West were Indigenous, Mexican, and African American,” says Garrett-Davis. “This was a fiction that was created using these icons of the cowboy, but not really the truth of what cowboy life was like. Cowboys were migrant agricultural laborers in terrible conditions being underpaid.”

By placing her Black female body in the poses and costumes of Western Americana, Beyoncé disrupts that mythology. She evokes the lineage of the erased people of color who came before her — in the West, in country as a genre — and she insists on her right to be there now.

Whatever else happens, Beyoncé is always a goddess

Let’s go back to the vinyl cover, with Beyoncé standing in the pose of the Statue of Liberty, replacing the statue’s torch with a boss-man cigar and the statue’s crown with beaded braids. It’s worth remembering that the statue is also a goddess — she’s the Roman goddess Libertas, or Liberty. Beyoncé is pulling from the Lemonade playbook here to evoke a classical goddess while keeping the details specifically Beyoncé. She’s also added a touch of masculine swagger with that cigar, reminding us all that before she was a goddess, Beyoncé crowned herself King B.

On the pageant queen sash around her torso, Beyoncé’s name appears to be misspelled: Beyincé. The apparent error references a painful family episode. Beyoncé’s name comes from her mother, Tina Knowles, born Celestine Beyoncé. On her birth certificate, though, Tina’s last name was misspelled as “Beyincé.”

On a recent podcast, Tina says she asked her mother why she didn’t get the birth certificate corrected. “And she said, ‘I did one time. The first time, and I was told, ‘Be happy that you’re getting a birth certificate,’ because, at one time, Black people didn’t get birth certificates,” she added.

In the same image where she re-establishes herself as a goddess, Beyoncé references a moment where the very infrastructure of America seemed designed to inflict humiliation on her family because of their Blackness. The play between those two ideas is part of the play of this whole album: placing Black people back in the center of a genre and aesthetic that erased them, and making the moment beautiful.

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