Orville Peck performing at MoMA's Armory Party earlier this month. Photo by Austin Donohue. Courtesy of MoMA.

On Mysterious Cowboys and the New Subversive Country

From masked singer Orville Peck to viral enigma RMR, why are emerging country musicians covering their faces?

by Eileen Cartter
|
Mar 15 2020, 9:30am

Orville Peck performing at MoMA's Armory Party earlier this month. Photo by Austin Donohue. Courtesy of MoMA.

It’s been quite the month for face masks.

For many reasons, practical, aesthetic, and otherwise, face masks have held a place in visual culture for a long time, music included. But lately, masks have been showing up on the faces of a particular subgroup: musicians who fall into the ambiguous yet increasingly viral genre that we'll call “subversive country.” Though the genre’s most outward-facing harbinger is undeniably one Lil Nas X—a black, queer musician seeped in country-music signifiers, who was catapulted to fame thanks to a viral hit that, in itself, propelled the very-online trifecta of country, rap, and trap into public consciousness—there are some new, not-so-outward-facing sheriffs in town. The mysterious musical stranger is having a moment.

Up-and-coming country singer Orville Peck’s name is almost always preceded or followed by a few identifying signifiers: gay, Canadian, masked, cowboy. Peck is known for always wearing a fringed leather Lone Ranger mask—a camp-y country signifier if there ever was one. The masked singer (no, not that one), who released his debut album Pony last year, quite literally conceals his classic country-crooner voice with his signature look. Though he told Vogue, “I just woke up one day and it was on my face, and it has always been there,” he’ll probably have to speak to the why behind the mask for as long as he continues to wear it. “The masks exist as a point of discussion for people to add their own take on them,” he explained to the New York Times. “I understand there is a temptation to try and unmask what I do, but to do so would be to miss the point entirely.”

The mask contributes to a persona—a coveted distinguishing asset for any performer—but also seems to parodize the ideological “in” that a disguise could offer to gay musician, an outsider by default in country music, thus drawing Peck into the mostly unsung lineage of queerness in country music.

While Lone Ranger masks are emblematic of a certain type of country camp, balaclavas assert a different sort of bandit philosophy—two sides of the ol’ bandana-tied-around-the-mouth coin. Utilitarian in nature, the balaclava befits a modern-day outlaw. You never know when one might stroll into town.

At the end of February, a music video appeared (materialized?) on YouTube, the public debut of the yet-unseen musician RMR. Wearing an embroidered balaclava, a Saint Laurent-branded bulletproof vest over an Off-White camouflage shirt, and a gun slung over his torso right where, say, an acoustic guitar might be, he momentarily croons a few a cappella bars of Rascal Flatts’s “These Days,” before the autotuned track kicks in: a cover of Rascal Flatts’s Grammy-winning “Bless the Broken Road,” reimagined with a few choice lyrical liberties. It feels like a Harmony Korine-ian fever dream predicated on eye-widening juxtaposition, the surreality of which feels impossible to convey without actually watching for oneself. The song, reasonably titled “Rascal,” is a cover of a cover of a cover… sung while undercover. (You got all that?) The video immediately made the rounds on Twitter, racked up views on YouTube—and then was swiftly pulled from said platforms for copyright infringement, amplifying its virality. A perfect stick-up for the digital age.

RMR (pronounced “rumor”) seemingly appeared, as masked figures are wont to do, out of nowhere. Turns out he, like Peck, also always wears his disguise, even during interviews. Also like Peck, he remains purposefully mysterious, opting to say as little about his personal life as possible. In one of his very few interviews thus far to the Los Angeles Times, RMR addresses the mask: “I want you to listen with your ears instead of your eyes. The world’s prejudiced. Preconceived notions.” He said he’s curious as to what a blind man would see if he listened to “Rascal,” or if a deaf man would hear if he saw the video. To Rolling Stone, he likened himself to a fellow masked musician: “I’m the hip-hop Marshmello.”

He’s already gained support from Timbaland—“I haven’t been this excited about music in a long time,” the producer said—and outlets like NME are calling the song, naturally, “this year’s ‘Old Town Road.’”

The sudden rise of RMR is, of course, reminiscent of the sudden rise of Lil Nas X, who initially gained traction after being stricken from official channels like country radio and the Billboard country charts, subsequently garnering love from institutional vets and online fans alike. (While RMR’s song was purportedly booted from YouTube and Apple Music for an uncleared Rascal Flatts sample, it's hard to imagine that country radio wouldn’t, uh, also object to the decidedly anti-cop track making it to airwaves.)

Yet openness, transparency, and maximum visibility have been the driving forces of Lil Nas’s success. Unlike Peck or RMR, his face is everywhere, infectiously grinning on red carpets, magazine covers, and, of course, on the internet. He’s openly reflective about his come-up and his fame. He’s his own calling card—though that, too, defines his narrative. Relatively, in an era when faces and the notion of visible identity hold that much weight, Peck and RMR’s self-concealment feels like a grab at agency in our hyper-visual world.

Certainly, from Prince to Pussy Riot, musicians wearing masks is nothing new—there’s always value in creating a persona—but the act of concealing one’s face has renewed power, especially for marginalized performers making room for themselves in historically staunch realms. They’re reworking the cinematic trope of the mysterious stranger, the drifter who rolls in to either save the day or wreck havoc (or both). While the idea of a disguise signifying personal freedom is far from revolutionary, right now, going undercover feels especially potent.

Indeed, during his Yeezus tour, Kanye West performed much of his shows wearing a custom bejeweled Maison Margiela mask (a trend that John Galliano continued in the latest Margiela collection shown at Paris Fashion Week last month). During one of his tour dates in 2014, West explained the disguise:

“That’s why I got this fucking mask on, because I ain’t worried about saving face. Fuck whatever my face is supposed to mean and fuck whatever the name Kanye is supposed to mean. It’s not about the idea about being a fucking celebrity, it’s not about the idea of being a black man trying to do fashion.” Perhaps, by removing identifying signifiers, anyone can be anything.

Indeed, as RMR sings: “This much I know, it's true: I came up and so could you.”

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