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Beyoncé's 'Cowboy Carter' cover art, explained by a professor

"Beyoncé is very good at presenting herself as heroic."

Beyoncé sits astride a brilliant white horse on the cover of her new album “Cowboy Carter.” With an artist as deliberate as Beyoncé, nothing is an accident. Fans are trying to figure out what the album’s visuals mean, and what she’s trying to say about her foray into the country music genre with them.

The “Texas Hold ‘Em” singer wrote a lengthy statement accompanying the release of her album cover art. She said the album came out of an experience where she “did not feel welcomed,” then writes, “It was very clear that I wasn’t.”

Since she immediately segues into mentions of the country music genre, fans think she is referring to her divisive 2016 performance at the CMAs, where she sang her twangy song “Daddy Lessons” with the Chicks. 

“The criticisms I faced when I first entered this genre forced me to propel past the limitations that were put on me. act ii is a result of challenging myself and taking my time to bend and blend genres together to create this body of work,” she continued.

The album "redefines and rebuilds what is Country and Americana, and who gets to be included," per a press release from Parkwood Entertainment, her company.

Charles F. Peterson, chair of Africana Studies at Oberlin College, tells the "Cowboy Carter" imagery speaks volumes, and bolsters the points she’s making in her written statement.

“She’s very good at imprinting upon the viewer the idea and the image that she wants you to embrace of her,” he says. “Beyoncé is from Texas. It seems people forget that’s a huge part of her identity.”

With its American flag and country western symbols, like a cowboy book and hat, Peterson says Beyoncé is trying to expand the concepts of American patriotism and pride.

Read on for everything we know about the cover art and what our expert had to say.

What does the 'Cowboy Carter' art mean?

Reading into the red, white and blue

The colors of the American flag repeat throughout the "Cowboy Carter" imagery. Beyoncé wears a red, white and blue cowboy outfit on the cover, and in another image, wears nothing but a sash in those same colors.

She also holds an American flag as if to underline her point.

“I think it’s a way to capture who has had the right to be patriotic in a certain type of way, who has a right to be proud of having an American identity,” Peterson says.

“Country music has been so successful the last few years of becoming the staging ground for a certain type of white grievance and conservatism in politics. I like that she’s saying, ‘You’re not the only people who can love this country in particular sort of ways.’ The love of the country is not limited to these, these angry sort of ideas that we see coming out of certain parts of the electorate.”

What does the white horse symbolize?

Beyoncé seems to align herself with historic figures who were immortalized next to their white horses. 

President George Washington was frequently painted next to Blueskin, the horse he rode during the Revolutionary War. “Napoleon Crossing the Alps” by Jacques-Louis David shows Napoleon Bonaparte on a white horse while leading troops.

“Beyoncé is very good at presenting herself as heroic,” Peterson says. “I think the white horse and the white hat do that very well.”

White horses carry various connotations of purity, freedom, independence, strength and the expansion of American territory. 

With that in mind, the horse might also bolster arguments that "Cowboy Carter" is Beyoncé’s attempt to reclaim country and cowboy culture as a space formulated by and for Black people, too. 

Is there a connection between the 'Renaissance' horse and the 'Cowboy Carter' horse?

A horse figures into both “Renaissance” covers. Beyoncé sits atop a holographic horse for the cover of the house and disco-inspired first album, then a more traditional horse for the second.

Notably, while both hoses are facing left, Beyoncé herself looks in different directions.

On the first “Renaissance” cover, Beyoncé sits astride the hose and also faces left. For “Cowboy Carter,” she faces the camera head-on.

It’s possible the third installment will show Beyoncé facing right, sitting backward.

What does the raised flag symbolize?

The American flag has become a divisive symbol amid rising political polarization. 

In 2022, Harvard Political Review published an essay that described the American flag as no longer a “symbol of hope, freedom, and life.”

“Now, when I see the flag, it’s typically in an article about another ‘Make America Great Again’ rally,” the article read in part. “The American flag has become a symbol of the conservative American, not of shared American values”

Essays in Forbes and The New York Times have also questioned who the flag is for, and how it has been seemingly co-opted by the American right.

Beyoncé’s grip on the flag seems to suggest that she is taking back hold of the flag.

What is Beyonce riding sidesaddle?

Women used to ride sidesaddle out of modesty concerns. Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Elizabeth II, for example, were both portrayed sidesaddle in portraits. Beyoncé's posture could evoke the image of modern-day royal.

What conversation has the art inspired?

Beyoncé’s new Americana flavor has been both embraced approached with caution.

“Cowboy Carter is the evidence: An immaculate country-pop record that proves her adaptability and mastery, regardless of genre,” one user wrote.

Others have been a bit more critical, wary that cover art, or the album, could heal the "delusion of colonial patriotism," as journalist Constanza Eliana Chinea wrote.

“Beyonce is gorgeous, talented, and smart- but she is also a symptom of a country with a f---- up past and equally f----d  up present," Chinea continued. "She has embraced capitalism as a badge of honor and the illusion of freedom.”