I’m sorry, this is going to be way too long an article over way too niche a topic, but this song has latched into my brain, and I think the only way to get it out is to write entirely too many words explaining why I’m so fixated on it. Paula Cole is an artist who’s likely unfamiliar to you, and I’m not going to encourage you to check her out, but you might have heard exactly one of her songs, “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” It is a weird quasi-feminist attempt at…something, I’m not sure what. The song, despite its name, is not a country song. In fact, Cole’s music fits squarely into the Lilith Fair style. If you aren’t familiar with that term, I’m writing an article about the scene soon, so stay tuned, but for the moment, it’s effectively mid-90s feminist folk-rock. Think Ani DiFranco or Tori Amos, but most musicians under the heading were not as brilliant as those two. Case in point: Paula Cole.
“Where have all the Cowboys Gone?” is a song about a relationship, told from the woman’s point of view. It starts with sultry promises to do all of the cooking, cleaning, child-rearing, and feminine activities if her masculine John Wayne will do the same. The chorus “Where is my happy ending, where have all the cowboys gone,” begins as a lament of the loss of “real men” who press their wives into domesticity and control everything. As the song progresses and her husband becomes distant and unfeeling, it becomes a lament at a lost relationship, revealing her faithful cowboy to be an emotionally isolated bro only interested in drinking with his friends.
So, why does this song bug me? Well, it’s so almost good, it so nearly works, but Cole seems to intentionally steer the song away from any resolution or point. The song starts as a light satire of women who long for family stability and an indictment of men who tether themselves to toxic tropes without putting in the work. It’s a little preachy, but okay, there’s a way to make that work, you make something like “Cowboy Take Me Away,” by the Dixie Chicks. But then, the song takes a hard turn for the sad, which is a choice that, in isolation, is not an issue. Songs about men who do the bare minimum are common, and the second section owes a lot to “Did I Shave My Legs for This?” which was released just a year earlier.
The problem is that Cole leaves out the punchline to both jokes. In a standard ‘I miss the real men’ song you’d throw in some tongue-in-cheek wink to the camera at the end indicating that the song isn’t taking itself too seriously and that the singer does not actually want a return to the gender roles of another century. In your standard men-are-trash song, you’d end the song with the narrator having a come to Jesus moment and leaving the man for dead (Sometimes literally). Cole opts to do neither; what results is a song that is only resolved by association. I’ve heard a couple dozen Lana Del Rey songs, so I know how this old Hollywood glamour song is supposed to function and can assume that Cole does not actually long for a man-child to mother. Similarly, I’ve heard a couple dozen country songs about a failing marriage, so I know that the woman is supposed to walk out the door at the end and leave that no-good man behind. Leaving out these assumed details makes the song feel like all set up for a payoff that never comes.
The only catch is that this is a song with a really strong setup. The spoken-word monologue at the beginning is great, the melody is extremely catchy, and her performance is so good that it took me like five listens to figure out that I didn’t like this song as a whole. Even the shifting meaning of the chorus would be brilliant if it weren’t in service of a song that never starts. This is to say, if we have any aspiring musicians in the audience who really want to fix a 25-year-old song for some reason, take a crack at this one, because you have a lot to work with (Also hit me up because I really want to hear a version of this song that works).
Okay, that’s 900 words in my word document, maybe now I’ve infected you all with whatever bug I caught by obsessing over Paula Cole, hopefully, I can sleep in peace tonight.