Sometimes a song begins, and within the first few seconds I can tell I’m going to like it. That’s what happened when “Cowboy Guilt” came on as I listened to Torres’ latest album, “Sprinter.”
Most of the songs on the album are dark and ruminative. This one, however, comes in bouncy and quirky. There is only one drum beat throughout the entire song, but as the song moves through different sections, electronic sounds augment the beat. Sometimes they are thin and teasing, slipping around a corner before we can catch their shape. Other times, the sounds are thick and heavy, giving heft to more aggressive vocals.
The lyrics are kind of intentionally silly, but perhaps also a bit mocking. The title comes from the line, “You sang of reparations with the Native Americans. You’ve donned your cowboy guilt.” As if this kind of guilt can be taken on and off. As if the display of guilt is more like showing off, especially when the song speaks of drunken laughter and hanging out with friends. It creates a forced naivety around the idea of disappearing into friendship, of building a space around each other that doesn’t have to make sense. It doesn’t have to mean anything, doesn’t have to be more than just fun. This space can’t be disrupted by outside influence.
There’s also an element of Southern hospitality threaded throughout the song, which I find personally appealing. She says, “The king of Ft. Worth, Texas, I was green and protected.” I love my Southern heritage, in particular my Texan heritage, but it can feel weird to be proud of these things sometimes. On the one hand, I love the idea of being courteous, polite, and charming. I like that we expect you to drink iced tea and chat about life before we get down to business. I will never feel comfortable sending an email without some sort of personal greeting. In Texas especially, we say “y’all” (the best contraction ever) and we even wave at people in the cars we pass on small back road highways. We don’t call ourselves the friendly state for nothing!
But there’s the bad stuff, too—slavery, and as the song mentions, the genocide of Native Americans…the exploitation of Hispanic immigrants…segregation and ongoing racism…blatant sexism and misogyny. It’s difficult to find a way of coming to terms with this dark side of the South while also admiring the beauty and grace of Southern culture. I constantly struggle with this.
I like to think this song pokes fun of our younger selves, when we were more able to tune out the bad, to ignore it, to go on laughing even when we felt something was wrong with the humor.
“Cowboy Guilt” ends with a synth that mimics the vocal melody, but it has a funhouse quality, which makes it sound slightly off. I think eventually, what makes us grow out of these blissful but misguided friendships, is that same feeling—the feeling that something sounds slightly off.
If you like “Cowboy Guilt” by Torres, I’d also recommend giving “Sprinter” and “New Skin” a listen.