Paula Cole recalls how her biggest '90s hit was misunderstood: 'It was horrific'

Paula Cole in 2021. (Photo: BMG)
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Twenty-five years ago, singer-songwriter Paula Cole released her sophomore album and major-label debut, This Fire, which spawned the perennial future Dawson’s Creek anthem “I Don’t Want to Wait” and the top 10 hit “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” The latter was Cole’s breakthrough single and was nominated for Record and Song of the Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance at the 1998 Grammys, but not everyone appreciated its irony or subtext. Cole, a staunch feminist, intended the moody tune — about a disillusioned, barefoot-and-pregnant housewife and her no-good cowboy husband — to be a social commentary on traditional gender stereotypes. But that message was lost on many listeners (including conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh!), who mistook it to be about a woman literally yearning for a macho Marlboro Man-type hero to come rescue her.

“Oh, yes. And they still [believe] that — there's still those folks holding out!” Cole laughingly tells Yahoo Entertainment/SiriusXM Volume. “It was so bizarre. You put out a piece of work and you know what it means, but then you let it go out into the world and it's like witnessing, I don't know, like an anthropological study. You learn about people. It was one of Rush Limbaugh’s favorite songs; he’d play it on his radio station! In some ways, it was horrific. … In the moment, it was galling. I remember even though Spin magazine had been supportive of me, they didn't get it. One of the writers wrote that I was the ‘Tammy Wynette of Lilith Fair.’ And it was so the opposite — I was actually one of the most outspoken feminist dark horses on that whole stage.”

Cole explains that she was listening to a lot of British new wave band XTC at the time of the song’s creation. “Their writing is so funny and smart and clever, and I thought to myself, ‘I want to write something clever and turn it on its head.’ There's irony woven in, there's melancholia woven in, but from a woman's point of view. So, it really was like a gender-role wink-wink- nudge-nudge kind of laugh, kind of an examination of our society with some sadness, and with a little bit of a country song in there too. … And then you blend it all together and there's this conversation and there's this learning — and confusion.”

Cole notes that “all the feminists got it” then and now (she’s very proud that indie-rock sister trio HAIM covered “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” in 2019), and that the song’s nuances were always better grasped by international audiences. “Another observation is that America has the fundamentalist, puritanical approach to things, but when I went to Europe, they so got it,” she recalls. “I remember in Spain especially, they loved the irony and the laughter — like, the ‘shiny gun’ is a phallic reference, totally tongue-in-cheek. Whereas this ‘shiny gun,’ America didn't get that.”

Along with the three nominations that “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” received at the 40th annual Grammy Awards, Cole was an overall seven-time nominee that year, winning in the Best New Artist category and making history as the first solo woman to be up for Producer of the Year. Cole reflects on that year — when some of the other major Grammy nominees were her fellow female singer-songwriters Shawn Colvin, Sheryl Crow, Jewel, Fiona Apple, and Lilith Fair organizer Sarah McLachlan, and playing Lilith Fair “felt like the original feeling of Woodstock” — fondly, even even though her whirlwind success was admittedly daunting at the time.

“It you look at the Grammy nominations that year, it was really diverse. It was fantastic. I loved that time,” she says. “And the hip-hop scene then too, with Lauryn Hill and Missy Elliott and TLC and Lil’ Kim, was a really interesting time. … [Before], DJs were literally told not to play a woman after another woman on the radio, or you couldn't play more than one woman in an hour. … It was difficult to move that needle, but we did move it. It did feel like we were changing culture a little bit. I think it kept coming back down to the art of the song and the point of view, being articulate and smart and badass; that perspective was embraced, and it didn't matter even what genre you were in. It was just about, do you have authority and authenticity in your voice? … And the thing is, we're still here. All of those artists that we've named are still here. Like, we're in it for life. We're lifers.”

That being said, while Cole has released nine albums since This Fire, and is most definitely a lifer, she didn’t follow-up that double-platinum album with another overtly commercial release, and she has kept a relatively low profile ever since. “I felt like [Peter Sellers’s Being There character] Chauncey Gardner; it all happened very quickly,” she says of her ‘90s success. “I'm a wicked introvert, like a very thoughtful writer and kind of a shy person. And I was incredibly humbled and gratified by the success, but it was a lot to handle. I guess I wanted to shed off that ill-fitting snakeskin and retreat a little bit.” Cole’s third album, 1999's Amen, was therefore a massive stylistic departure from This Fire, a “neo-soul album with neo-soul influences” that, once again, was misunderstood by many fans.

“I didn't know necessarily what the public wanted, and I wasn't making my next album for that. I had no clue,” says Cole. “I just knew that I was listening to a lot of hip-hop and soul and Marvin Gaye's What's Going On album, and it just moved me so much. That album was really like a guide for what became Amen. I think it surprised people. You know, I'm a white girl and… I've probably received some unnecessarily harsh criticism around that stylistic influence. But it was authentic to me. I felt like I wanted to sing about spirituality in a soulful way. I wanted to sing about social justice. I didn't want to sing about my boyfriend all the time. I wanted to expand upon lyrical themes, and weaving in social justice is really important to me.”

Cole took a seven-year hiatus after Amen to focus on motherhood, and she confesses, “I definitely thought about leaving the music business.” It was her idol Emmylou Harris, who had taken hiatuses in her own career, who ultimately convinced Cole to keep going. “She said to me, ‘You can't quit. It just happened too fast.’ For me, it happened really fast, and I needed to take myself away from that and find my authentic path and make my eras of different albums. You know, like Picasso had his ‘Pig’ era and his Blue Period, and Joni [Mitchell] had her Mingus album and everyone dumped on her for doing that. So, I just have to be truthful to myself. I can't predict what people will like. I needed to have my daughter and take some time, and now I'm back and on my own label, and it's much more flowing and prolific and free. And I'm so much happier.”

And so Cole, a self-described “frustrated jazz singer” who says she thinks “about race every day because my daughter's biracial,” continues to follow her own path. She just released her 11th, social-justice-oriented album, American Quilt, a collection of traditional folk covers that includes one original composition, “Hidden in Plain Sight (I Dream),” inspired by historical stories about slave quilts during the Underground Railroad era. She admits she still has some mixed feelings about the This Fire/Amen period of her career, because at the time she “got caught in a corrupt record deal [with Imago/Warner]. I'm still dealing with all that. They don’t reissue or remaster my work from that, even though this year is the 25th anniversary of This Fire, so it's really frustrating. I feel like I'm kind of locked like that part of my life is locked in a cage, like inhumanely locked in.”

However, a few years ago, Cole decided to re-record her above-mentioned other big ‘90s hit, “I Don’t Want to Wait.” And after the song had not been featured on streaming or DVD versions of that TV series for years because Sony had only purchased the on-air rights to the track, Cole’s new version has finally been restored to all six Dawson’s Creek seasons on Netflix — which, in a full-circle development, has boosted what she describes as her “tortoise”-like career.

“I can feel it at the shows; I can feel it in the new fans that are coming to my socials,” Cole marvels. “The millennials knew [“I Don’t Want to Wait”] from the original Dawson's Creek, and then it kind of disappeared. And now, again, it's starting. It's really sweet. It's really sweet to see it touch new generations. That's got to be one of the best feelings in the world, when new young people are finding your work — and they find it for themselves, without bias, without context, and they just love it for what it is and in its simplest form. I love it. It's just so beautiful.”

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The above interview is taken from Paula Cole's appearance on the SiriusXM show “Volume West.” Full audio of that conversation is available via the SiriusXM app.