Rhinestone Cowgirl, Minna Gilligan

Rhinestone Cowgirl is my star spangled rodeo. A reemergence. A reinvention. (Hopefully one of many.)

Referencing commodified (less gritty, more glitzy) 1960s and 1970s Country and Western imagery in popular culture, I seek to make a comment on the inauthentic but necessary nature of image and reputation reinvention, particularly as a woman who is vaguely present in a small but public online sphere.

I was 10 years old when Madonna sung the Sweet Home Alabama-esque Don’t Tell Me. At the time I was allowed to have one horse-riding lesson a week. The next time I was aware of Madonna I was 12 and the attacks of September 11, 2001 were a memory much fresher than now. In her next album, American Life, Madonna waxed lyrics of a political nature, her imagery was aggressive and military. The contrast between the Don’t Tell Me Madonna and this ‘new’ one was jarring. It was 2003 that my parents bought me a horse to call my own. I named her Madonna. Just kidding.

Madonna’s 2000 cowgirl album Music was a nostalgia-laced pop ear-worm, tinged with tassels and rhinestone transfers, purely to make the whole thing seem firstly accessible and secondly cohesive. An aesthetic marketing strategy. I loved it. I wanted a pair of dark denim jodhpurs with pink stitching from Horseland for my birthday.

I am 27 now. I cultivate imagery of my own for a partial living and put it on the Internet where I exist as a woman alongside my artwork and occasional words. I recycle different trends, phases, and different selves. I don’t ride horses anymore but when I did I was a good horse rider. I could prove it by winning blue ribbons and rosettes at Pony Club.

Proving conclusively one’s self and who one is has gotten harder since your everyday non-celebrity person has been given more platforms to do so. It used to be that only musicians, actors and personalities of similar fame were capable of public reinvention and large-scale taste making. Now that people like you and I have the privilege (or curse?) of aesthetic influence on Instagram, Tumblr et al. – we have much to discuss. Eternally angst-filled questions like ‘who am I?’ or, a similar capitalist translation: ‘Why do I like what I like, and, is it sincere?’ echo well past teenager-dom.

The culture of reinvention in the everyday existence of women online becomes necessary. Adopting an image commercially and subsequently shedding it, is a means for women in creative spheres to avoid defining a ‘true self’, which could consequently damage or pigeonhole them. It appears better to try things on and remain somewhat of an enigma than to fully commit to an aesthetic or cause, lest you change your mind later.

The public presentation of reinvention and reemergence can be tinged with irony or insincerity, which performs as a further attempt at masking and removing a ‘true self’ or motivation. Ironically, impermanently or disingenuously adopting an aesthetic or brand allows any criticism of the creative outcome to be deemed somewhat irrelevant. It removes accountability and authorship, a positive subtraction for those partaking in the incongruous and contradictory practice of reinvention.

The Rhinestone Cowgirl era is one that many contemporary and heavily marketed white female recording artists have already undertaken – Madonna, Kesha, Jenny Lewis, Miley Cyrus with Younger Now, and most recently ‘our’ Kylie Minogue with her new 2018 single Dancing. I believe the Rhinestone Cowgirl aesthetic used contemporarily and commercially is one that endeavours to encourage a lust for the ever-relatable and undeniably attractive tale of ‘rags to riches’, despite those currently utilising it being now far from that idealistic narrative.

It is necessary to acknowledge that the Rhinestone Cowgirl identity is a historically and blindingly white one. It indeed conjures collective memories of one’s ‘roots’, but only for those afforded the luxury wherein nostalgia is something pleasant, and something to look back on fondly.

It remains that the entire culture of public image reinvention is a privilege awarded to only those wealthy and usually white enough to collect, display and discard identities without consequence. Within the marginally more democratic space of social media there is positive and tireless work being done, mainly by POC, on these conventions, but even on Instagram it is still obvious that the predictably and unthreateningly ‘attractive’ white person has the ultimate freedom in projecting who they choose to be.

The packaged and promoted country girl or cowgirl aesthetic that begun with girl next door Dolly Parton attracts and pleases a specifically privileged audience because it appears to offer a sense of sincerity, wholesomeness and authenticity. “I’m just a simple country girl” says Parton, and her life reads through her lyrics as an indeed simple and more importantly relatable ‘it could happen to me!’ trajectory. It’s tinged with familiarity and nostalgia and of course wafts of ‘returning to one’s roots’, wherever they actually may have been in reality, and, if they were even pleasant at all. Tammy Wynette croons of domestic violence in I don’t wanna play house, and Loretta Lynn romanticises poverty in Coal Miner’s Daughter.

The recent Gucci rebranding of the rhinestone covered Nudie suit is illustrative of just how far consumers will go (or rather, how much they’ll pay) to try on, and temporarily hide behind that authenticity. I can’t afford a Gucci suit, so I made this exhibition instead. Yee haw.

- Minna Gilligan, 2018