Orville Peck Is Much More Than An Ironic Queer Cowboy
His fringed mask might be the least interesting thing about him.
A gay Canadian cowboy wearing a fringed mask walks into Sydney Festival’s Spiegeltent and says hello in a deep, affected drawl, before stopping to correct himself. “I just wanted to say G’day,” says Orville Peck, two songs into his debut Australian set — something he says he’s been waiting his whole life to do.
Peck’s whole life, or that of the mysterious ex-punk singer behind the veil? If the former, we’re talking the past two years — though Orville, as a persona, only really took off last year with the release of Pony, his debut album.
In recent months, he’s gained more and more attention, appearing on the inaugural cover of Harper’s Bazaar Men, and sitting front row at a tie-in Dior show, alongside Kardashians and Hadids. More know Peck for his aesthetic than his music; that’s a pity, as the two are intertwined.
Pony takes time to adjust to. Between Peck’s croon, the Born To Die-esque steel bass lines, and the overt melancholy theatrics of it all, it’s an obtuse and otherworldly album at first listen — a dark and eerie country mix that seems equally indebted to Angelo Badalamenti and Roy Orbison as the ’60s country artists he and his four-piece band cover live, including Tammy Wynette, Bobby Gentrie and Gram Parsons.
Not surprisingly, the crowd at Peck’s show is a mixed bag. It’s a late-night show, the last of a Friday night at Sydney Festival, and he’s drawn in a mix of classic country fans, not-so sober woo boys and girls, and queers dressed up as their favourite masked singer (sorry Paulini).
Country can be mined for its camp appeal. Two chords, the truth and rugged lone rangers are all ripe for pastiche, and between ‘Old Town Road’, Kacey Musgraves, and the Dollynaissance, Yee-Haw music is certainly on trend.
And Orville Peck is a camp performer. Interviews reveal his natural speaking voice is much less of a baritone than that used for his on-stage banter, and his embellishing arm movements on stage recall the ‘pointer sister’ style of drag, as if he’s lip-syncing to a country great, overemphasising meaning to make amends for his hidden face.
At some points, the quickened pace of ballads allows in a punk growl. When set to strobe lights, ‘Buffalo Run’s guitar solo is absolutely as post-punk as Wu Lyf or Japandroids — as is, oddly, his cover of ‘Ooh Las Vegas’, which sees everyone stomp along on the Spiegeltent’s wooden floors. The mixture works; the two worlds aren’t so far apart, linked by a sense of alienation and loss.
To hide your voice under affect — not to mention your face, too — could be a sign of fear, but Peck knows the power of mystery. In previous interviews, Peck has said the mask is a way for the audience to project what they need onto him: the cowboy has long offered the same, especially the mythic queer cowboy.
Queerness, as we discuss it, didn’t really exist for most of the frontier-era; to look back at the homosocial loneliness of the ‘wild west’ is to imagine a space where men worked together to create homes. Looking back at arguably queer cowboys (like Australia’s own Captain Moonlite) is to find a lineage and imagine another world created from its seedlings, where everything looks just a little different.
It’s also an unmistakably erotic imagining, a caricature of rugged masculinity — something Peck’s leather mask plays with, the fringe offering flamboyance to an otherwise masc-dom look.
Beyond the BSDM, wrapped in all of this is an inextricable, deep violence. The cowboy is a colonial myth (even if the cowboy’s history isn’t as white as we think), a romantic loner taking refuge in the lawlessness of the frontier by destroying the laws and communities of First Nations people. Acts like Peck reclaim one while shifting the other; menace becomes mystery. Strangeness goes a long way.
It’s still a novelty to see a cowboy sing about cruising and drag queens in a deep drawl and a diamond-encrusted pink shirt, playing the role of the crooner, complete with cliché bits in-between songs about holding your lover during the next number. Fun, too: the audience matches Peck’s abandon on-stage, all dancing around and thrashing about without much self-seriousness.
When introducing drag queen homage ‘Queen of the Rodeo’, Peck says “drag is one of the last remaining subversive art-forms” before telling us to head to see Tora Hymen in Newtown that night. Subversion is a choice word for Ovrille Peck, as just like much drag as a whole, it’s unclear what exactly Pony turns on its head.
Just before night’s end Peck quotes from his own song, ‘Roses Are Falling’: “‘Winning is fun, but losing is too‘, a very wise man once said that”, he says, to which someone in the crowd yells out, “who!?”.
Whether knowingly or not, he’s touched upon a major tenant of modern queer theory: the queer art of failure, a retreat away from the need of clear meaning or modes of success. It describes Pony well, an album that’s obfuscating and aesthetic-obsessed, as if a world can be made behind a mask.
Photo Credit: Yaya Stempler/Sydney Festival.
Jared Richard is a staff writer at Junkee, and co-host of Sleepless In Sydney on FBi Radio. He is on Twitter.