“I have been singing ‘Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?’ for audiences for 20 years,” marvels Paula Cole. Her landmark single, famous for putting an ironic lens on traditional gender roles, pushed Cole into the spotlight as one of a group of ’90s female artists with independent-leaning and sometimes biting songwriting chops.
“When I wrote the song, I thought everyone would understand the bittersweet sarcasm, the irony, the humor in love lost in the trenches of domestic gender roles,” Cole explains of the lyrics, which detail a woman who takes care of most “female” household chores such as child-rearing and cooking while her “cowboy” does typical man’s work and pays the bills. “But I was wrong: Everyone interpreted it as they wished.”
Finding this to be a interesting experiment, Cole began changing the lyrics at concerts. Instead of the line, “I will do the dishes while you go have a beer,” she flip-flopped the sentiment so that she’d be the one sitting back with a drink. “Everyone would cheer,” she recalls. “Even the men. It became a sort of redemption and momentary freedom of confining roles for all of us.”
For the 20th anniversary of the song, Cole chose to record a new version — which includes the revised “beer” line — as well as shoot a new video to accompany it, directed by The Office’s Melora Hardin, which can be seen first exclusively on Yahoo Music.
In the video, Cole — who is now 48 — makes a 360 turn from the angst-y original video, choosing instead to deliver a story rarely portrayed in pop culture: That of a happy, functional, and even steamy relationship between two middle-age partners.
The “cowboy” in the video is no young buck; rather a handsome older man who not only rides horses and ropes cattle but also isn’t afraid to do a few dishes. And yes, in the video’s climax, he does bring Cole a beer — while dressed in nothing but a kitchen apron!
Cole notes that she initially had to be talked into the concept. “The decision to make a charming love story is entirely because of the talented vision of Melora, whom I’m so lucky to call a close friend. She wanted love, happiness, beauty, charm … I was so reluctant! I wanted to hide and be my introverted, dark self. [But] she pushed me to get over my shyness and reluctance, and star in this video in my middle years.
“I was terrified,” she admits. “But Melora lives the example in her acting career, having her greatest success at nearly 50 as Tammy in Transparent or Jan in The Office. We women fortify. We get better with age. I was just being treacherous to myself and I realized, “Of course. Why shouldn’t a middle-aged woman be the protagonist in a charming love story? Why not?”
Cole has taken a similar independent approach regarding her entire career, including her impact on the ’90s music scene and her 1998 Grammy nominations for New Artist and Producer of the Year (she took home the former). “I was just being true to myself and to the small voice inside. And I talked about my feelings, I didn’t hide. It didn’t feel right to be just a singer — I wanted to write, be known for the content of my character and catalog. I didn’t want to be produced — I wanted to produce myself.
“It was very difficult to do, I encountered many roadblocks. Only later, when I discovered I was the first woman to be nominated (solely) for the producer of the year Grammy, did I realize why it was so hard: Because no one had really done it before! Minds and hearts needed opening. More female artists needed to produce, write, play instruments. There still is so much work to do. So many hearts and minds still need opening.
Regarding women in music in general: “We must all support each other,” she concludes. “I love Adele and Beyoncé and felt proud that they were both nominated for album of the year. I am proud of Lady Gaga for being true to herself. I love strong women who support other women. And I love the cowboys who support their strong women.”
If you’d like to keep up with Cole, her schedule, and 20th anniversary album, This Bright Red Feeling, featuring “Where Have All the Cowboys Gone?” and additional hits such as “I Don’t Want to Wait” are available at: PaulaCole.com.