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Glitter, Cowboys, and Tears

Orville Peck's queer honky-tonk

Issue 119, Winter 2022

Photo © Julia Johnson

Orville Peck’s stylized, campy, joyous music video for “C’mon Baby, Cry,” one of the lead singles from his 2022 album Bronco, opens in a red-lit honky-tonk, a place we think we know, except the bartender is an Asian woman (comedian Margaret Cho) and the cowboy she hands a beer to is a brown-skinned man with a dark mustache and scruff. As the camera draws the viewer further into the room, the light shifts to a strange luminous green and reveals the singer: Orville Peck in a cowboy hat and silk shirt embroidered with sparkling saguaro cacti. Blue eyes glint through his signature domino mask, this one black leather with a curtain of delicate fringe that falls to his chest. Here is our hero, our queer country music outlaw.

When his first album Pony was released in 2019, Orville Peck seemed to appear out of nowhere, the mysterious cowboy riding up into the dusty Western town. Since then, although he’s performed on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, appeared in numerous media outlets including Rolling Stone and GQ, and toured extensively across North America for the release of his sophomore album Bronco, he has not shown his face in public and maintains a shroud of mystery about his identity, sharing only a few key biographical details. Peck was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he lived until he was fifteen, and then moved with his family to Canada. He trained in ballet for twelve years, dabbled in acting, and drummed in punk bands. These experiences rattle the glass case protecting the myth of who gets to be a country singer, but it’s his identity as an out gay man singing about other men that shatters the glass. Peck’s background and bold queering of country-western music challenges the simplistic, narrow narrative around authenticity and masculinity that the industry has been so invested in manufacturing and sustaining and which has been used to exclude people of color and the queer community.

Peck conveys a deep love and appreciation for country music through his storytelling lyrics about heartbreak and living on the run, and by embracing classic country sounds, like the lonesome pedal steel sighing throughout Bronco or the melancholy riff of a plaintive harmonica, while also inviting in the influences of lush California sound, new wave, and psychedelia. He flings open the gates to make the genre more inclusive, and his music videos include people of color and queer and trans people. They’re also beautifully shot and choreographed. From his first album Pony, the video for “Hope to Die” includes a glorious, sensual dance scene in a barn, and “Queen of the Rodeo,” which runs eight minutes, features the two-spirit drag performer Thanks Jem and celebrates femininity. The videos of the releases from Bronco, including “C’mon Baby, Cry,” “Hexie Mountains,” “Let Me Drown,” “The Curse of the Blackened Eye,” and “Daytona Sand,” all directed by New York-based filmmaker Austin Peters, are expansive and rich, and express Peck’s penchant for stylized aesthetics and vivid colors. Peck has spoken of his love for David Lynch films, and the influence is obvious. David Lynch—except more joyful, queerer, and sexier.

“C’mon Baby, Cry” is a perfect amalgamation of Peck’s embrace of camp, glitz, and tenderness. Set in a saloon with paintings of horses on the walls and liquor bottles lining the bar, its main character is a lonely, heartbroken cowboy who sips his beer from the shadows while watching Peck perform on stage. Peck urges him to let go of the pent-up pain, to cry and express his vulnerability: “I can tell you’re a sad boy just like me / Baby don’t deny what your poor heart needs.” The video playfully and kindly satirizes the country music tropes of heartache, loneliness, and getting drunk—with the bartender pouring from a bottle of Fistful of Bourbon—but in Peck’s storytelling, the cowboy’s heart has been broken by another man. As Peck sings and dances on stage with big, flourishing hand gestures and graceful moves, a few angry men throw beer bottles at him, an acknowledgment of the threat of homophobic violence built into such spaces, but they can’t stop him from telling his truth. The camera shifts to four women—including Cho and Kornbread, a trans woman and a former contestant on RuPaul’s Drag Race—posing in front of the bar, all four poker-faced and snapping their fingers to the beat, a collective force of protection and glamour.

Peck’s growing fame has expanded his die-hard fan base, who playfully refer to themselves as Peckheads. One night, happily escaping into a rabbit hole of Peck videos on YouTube, I started reading the comments. The most compelling came from queer people who grew up in rural places and had always been made to feel excluded from the culture around them:

being someone whos trans n gay in the south is hard, it’s hard to align yourself with events and aesthetic without feeling inherently threatened or like you have to shed the truth of being trans or gay

 

As a little gay boy out in bumfuck who always felt disenfranchised by country music. I love seeing an openly gay man becoming successful trailing a path forward

 

i’ve always been hesitant to embrace being from the south as there are such... heavily religious and intolerant tones, especially as a gay trans man. thank you so much for showing that i am allowed to be a part of this, not despite being lgbt, but embracing and accepting both parts.

I understand this kind of exclusion, which is part of why I feel seen by Peck, and why this music video in particular is empowering and refreshing. As a queer trans man, I do not feel comfortable sauntering into a honky-tonk, and the few times I’ve been to such places, I’m looking over my shoulder, constantly aware of how I’m presenting, how others are perceiving me. But a few years ago, when I lived briefly in Seattle, my partner and I went to the Cuff Complex, a gay dance club that devoted one room to country-western dancing on Friday evenings. The dancing started at 7 p.M. and stopped at 10, and since most gay clubs don’t really get started until closer to midnight, I arrived with low expectations. But the dance floor was packed with people two-stepping and line-dancing to the DJ’s set, mostly commercial country hits from the 1990s—the catchy guitar opening to Shania Twain’s “Any Man of Mine” summoned everyone to the dance floor. Disco lights refracted and reflected across a gloriously queer crowd: muscled gays in cowboy boots, queer women in plaid button-downs and cowboy hats, a drag queen in a pink gown and Dolly-size wig. Embroidered shirts, bootcut Levi’s, big belt buckles mixed in with neon tank tops and tight muscle tees and chest harnesses. And, of course, chaps.

As Peck celebrates country music’s pageantry and opulent style, he demonstrates that queer aesthetics are nothing new to the genre. Where would country music be without sequins, wigs, and rhinestones? He also understands that country stars tell a story with their style. On the cover of Bronco, Peck, standing slightly bowlegged in front of a rearing horse with dust kicked up, wears a gleaming gold leather suit, consisting of tight pants and lace-up chaps and a fitted vest that exposes his sinewy tattooed arms, and a mask with long gold fringe. Peck’s hand-sewn masks, all with fringe of varying lengths, of course evoke the Lone Ranger, the solitary cowboy fighting for justice and always on the move. But it’s also a playful nod to the leather and BDSM communities; the mask provides anonymity, allure, and power. The masked hero, the loner, the queer cowboy.

The “C’mon Baby, Cry” video tells a story about masculinity and vulnerability that threatens the status quo established by the hecklers throwing beer bottles. The sulking cowboy looks up with yearning from under the brim of his hat, and Peck implores: “Been so long since he called your name / On the run from a losing game / Just bat your eyes, baby, let me feel the pain.” Peck takes the heartbroken cowboy by the hand and leads him through a charged, dreamy space of moody red lights, and then back to the stage where Peck’s cowboy hat and shirt suddenly light up, a sweet nod to Robert Redford in The Electric Horseman, still sexy and silly, but now so queer that glitter rains from the ceiling.

The figure of the lonesome, tough but tender-hearted cowboy has long held a homoerotic allure. For many men, especially of a certain generation, Brokeback Mountain captured something we’d dreamed about but didn’t know how to articulate. Watching two cowboys gaze tenderly into each other’s eyes felt revolutionary, but that story—and so many stories about rural queers—operates on shame and violence. Peck’s music tells a different kind of queer story. He and his characters are not struggling with coming out, and they don’t suffer because of their queerness. That doesn’t mean Peck ignores pain or loneliness—many of his songs are about heartache and unrequited love, and in “The Curse of the Blackened Eye,” he writes about queer intimate partner violence. But he also sings about love and desire, and embraces and subverts the trope of the brokenhearted cowboy hiding behind his code of masculinity with camp, tenderness, and a queer sexiness that his fans adore:

I love how it feels like he’s some kind of benevolent, omnipotent Cowboy God in this that came to give his blessing to the rodeo His presence and voice is so captivating.

 

I’m a proud fan and this song is a genius poetry for men to show their vulnerability. Absolutely beautiful.

 

Orville is serving Brokeback at The Mountains of Madness and I need more of it.

 

So many iconic Queens in this video. My old gay country heart can’t almost take it!

 

His voice is like being spooned by a big muscleman who smells like whiskey and a camp fire and all he want is to make you feel safe

His voice. Many of the YouTube commentors want to talk about Peck’s enchanting voice. Though his glamorous cowboy style and alluring mystery bestow Peck with a particular electric presence, it’s his voice that truly captivates critics and fans. Peck’s voice shines like an unearthed jewel, a deep, full, expansive treasure layered with vintage country à la Hank Williams via the baritone of Johnny Cash, as well as with the brooding ache of Chris Isaak, the powerful range and force of Roy Orbison, and the smoothness of another queer singer from Canada, k.d. lang. Peck’s voice is all his own though, rich and velvety and as yearning as the last days of summer, touching something true and tender and deep.

In the last part of the “C’mon Baby, Cry” video, as the song reaches its climax, Peck’s vocals soar. He stands on the stage at the top of a staircase outlined in burning blue and pink track lights, and he leans back, a silhouette of lithe muscle and glamour posing in front of a neon sun. Then he jauntily descends the steps, all delight and joy. And, finally, I think, that’s what this video encompasses, even through the pain and heartache: pure queer joy. Peck brings us into a place we thought we knew, the honky-tonk, but turns it into a communal space, closer to a disco or the gay club in Seattle, where queer joy can’t be stopped. A baptism of glitter. The hecklers, won over by Peck’s performance, break out in applause, and the heartbroken cowboy, his face sparkling with glitter, finally wipes away a tear, free. Peck delights in camp—there is no cynicism here. His presence and his music reverberate with sincerity, the real authenticity that country music advocates. As Orville Peck sings to the cowboy in the video, he’s also singing to us, his devoted queer audience, promising he sees us and we are welcome here: “I don’t want you to be afraid.”





Carter Sickels

Carter Sickels is the author of the novel The Prettiest Star (Hub City Press), winner of the 2021 Southern Book Prize and the Weatherford Award for Appalachian fiction. His debut novel The Evening Hour was adapted into a feature film that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2020 and is now streaming. His writing appears in the Atlantic, Poets & Writers, BuzzFeed, Guernica, Joyland, and Catapult. Carter teaches at Eastern Kentucky University.