"The United States loves a hero, preferably masked and leading a double life." This is how a writer for the London-based publication the Independent opened an article on The Legend of Zorro in 2005, and those words have stuck with me. It definitely feels true. Zorro. Spider-Man. Every contestant on The Masked Singer. What is it with our obsession with masks and heroes living double lives?
It would be easy to write off the mask worn by rising crooner Orville Peck as a gimmick. But that would be the wrong way to look at it. For Peck, this isn't just a mask—it's an entire persona. Like Zorro's bandit mask or Nicolas Cage's snakeskin jacket in Wild at Heart (a symbol of "individuality" and a "belief in personal freedom," as Cage repeats, over and over), Orville Peck's long fringed mask is an extension of the man. A phantom limb of his personality.
Signed by Sub Pop late last year, Peck released his debut country album, Pony, in March. The 12-track LP is a lush, dreamy journey careening through tales of gay hustlers and conflicted lovers. Peck's twangy howling is simultaneously intimidating and romantic—enigmatic, like his mask.
When Peck sings, "See! See the boys as they walk on by!" in memorable album opener "Dead of Night," it's hard not to picture a brokenhearted country singer watching a herd of hot cowboys saunter down a dusty road. Peck continues, "It's enough to make a young man...," before cheekily cutting off the line. This restraint is at odds with his emotional belting. He sings the line one more time: "It's enough to make a young man...," then trails off again. Enough to make a young man WHAT? Cry? Get a boner? Tell us, Orville!
But he doesn't. The track ends without an answer, like Zorro vanishing in the night.
At first, I thought Peck may be the Sia of country music. (The Aussie pop singer often wears a giant wig to cover her face in public, allegedly to maintain privacy.) But Peck's mask isn't a barrier, but a visual representation of his hidden meanings and double entendres. He's at once a palatable masked cowboy hero, and also, if you peek at the face glimmering behind the fringe, a man pleading to another man to stay. Audiences can see what they want in him.
Of course, country music hasn't always been the stronghold of straight white men in denim, apparent in artists ranging from Charley Pride, one of the three black members of the Grand Ole Opry, to Lavender Country, the pioneering gay country band (from Seattle!) with the memorable 1973 hit "Cryin' These Cocksucking Tears." But while these voices have long been in country, 2019 seems to be a turning point for the genre, seen most clearly in the rise of Rapper Lil Nas X's record-breaking country-trap song "Old Town Road." Even Cardi B is wearing chaps. Dallas-resident Bri Malandro has cleverly given a name for this movement: the "Yeehaw Agenda."
If you go to see Peck live, make sure to dress up. The "best dressed cowfolk at my shows will receive prizes," Peck recently tweeted. "I'm looking at you, drag queens."