Collective Unconscious or Conscious Appropriation: Did Mac DeMarco Steal Mitski's Cowboy Archetype?

Mitski's cowboy was a meaningful subversion of patriarchal norms. What is Mac's cowboy trying to say?

Mitski has repeatedly announced that she doesn't care that fellow indie rocker Mac DeMarco just released a single called "Nobody," off his forthcoming new album, Here Comes the Cowboy. Of course, this news is coming about a year after the release of Mitski's fifth album, Be the Cowboy—which also happened to feature a lead single called "Nobody."

Mitski - Nobody (Official Video)


On social media, Mitski has been persistently laughing the whole thing off, writing that "I'm 100% sure Mac and I just went fishing in the same part of the collective unconscious… Idk you Mac and you clearly didn't know me lol but thanks for the laugh."

Still, it's hard to understand why no one—no producer, songwriter, or marketing agent—mentioned the similarities. To compound the strangeness, Mitski and DeMarco also both have the same PR person, whom Mitski apparently talks to every day. "What's wild is we have the same PR, so I LOVE my personal conspiracy theory that she heard the album and track titles but kept quiet thinking maybe some Mac fans will mistakenly find me," Mitski added.

After all, both musicians occupy comparable levels of recognition in a similar sector of indie rock. Plus Mitski's Be the Cowboy was one of 2018's best reviewed and most highly ranked albums; Mac and his team would've had to ignore every end-of-year list to have never heard of her.

Their music's also relatively similar, in that they both favor ambient guitars, world-weary lyrics, and dreamy imagery (just listen to DeMarco's "Moonlight on the River" next to Mitski's "Pink in the Night" for comparably psychedelic, mournful, lonely-in-the-dark sentiments)—though their takes on "Nobody" couldn't be more different. Mitski's is a frenetic pop-disco scream that touches on global warming and loneliness, whereas Mac's is a typically low-key, abstract musing that may be about television's ruinous effects on humanity.

Pink in the Night

Moonlight on the River

Although Mitski might be cool with the presence of more than one cowboy in this town, her fans have not been as accepting. Today, Mitski implored enraged fans not to leap to her defense, tweeting, "while the mob is still in there fighting on my behalf. You may turn against me for saying this, I accept that, I just have to admit it's terrifying to have a big group of strangers acting on my behalf in ways I'd never act myself, and I don't even seem to matter in the equation."

So, to borrow a phrase from a review she wrote about Harry Styles, if Mitski reads this, she'll probably hate it. In that review, Mitski discussed the way that One Direction functions as an idealized projection screen for fans in need of pretty-boy icons to worship. In a very similar way, although Mitski may not have wanted this to happen, her music has become a projection screen for fans treasuring the opportunity to see their identities and emotions represented in an articulate and nuanced way.

After all, Mitski's utilization of cowboy imagery was a purposefully subversive reclamation of an archetypically masculine, colonialist trope. The cowboy—like the kings and demigods that preceded him—is usually a man, violently in charge, and always getting what he wants. Mitski's cowboy turned that trope on its head.

In an interview with The Outline, Mitski explained her album's title, saying that it "kind of came from the fact that I would always kind of jokingly say to myself, "Be the cowboy you wish to see the world," whenever I was in a situation where maybe I was acting too much like my identity, which is wanting everyone to be happy, not thinking I'm worthy, being submissive, and not asking for more. Every time I would find myself doing exactly what the world expects of me as an Asian woman, I would turn around and tell myself 'Well, what would a cowboy do?'"

Mitski, via NPR

Mac DeMarco's explanation was a bit different. "Cowboy is a term of endearment to me, I use it often when referring to people in my life. Where I grew up, there are many people that sincerely wear cowboy hats and do cowboy activities. These aren't the people I'm referring to," he said.

Looking at these descriptions side by side, it's easy to see that while Mitski herself might not be angry, some of her fans—many of whom don't often get to see much powerful, successful representation of their identities, mostly due to oppressive hegemonies of white power—might be taking offense. Mitski has grappled before with the implications of her music being taken as something far more symbolic and political than she intended. In response to suggestions that her "Your Best American Girl" was a fuck-you to white male-led music culture, she stated that the song was only about how she personally felt while processing her identity as a Japanese American woman in a relationship with a white man.

But one of Mitski's greatest talents is her ability to make microscopic views of her experience feel universal, and many fans have leaned into this, understanding her music as a touchstone of power, a nuanced and subversive center of solidarity and truth in a white supremacist-run world.

Mitski - Your Best American Girl (Official Video)

Maybe this all was nothing more than a coincidence. But if Mitski and Mac DeMarco were truly fishing in the "same part of the collective unconscious," what corner of the mind was this, exactly? Maybe the cowboy represents a universal desire for a real hero in an era that seems to desperately need one, or something similarly loaded. But in all likelihood, DeMarco was probably just incredibly stoned, heard Be the Cowboy, and later became wholly convinced he'd dreamt it up himself.

Regardless, Be the Cowboy is available for streaming everywhere, and Here Comes the Cowboy will be coming for us all on May 10th.

Mac, via Consequence of Sound

Eden Arielle Gordon is a writer and musician from New York City. Follow her on Twitter at @edenarielmusic.

POP⚡DUST |

These 10 "Buseyisms" Will Save Us All

RELEASE RADAR | Backstreet's Back after Six Years

Ali Caldwell Shows her True Colors

Show Comments ()
Related Articles