Culture

What we yee about when we yeehaw

How a repurposed cowboy slang speaks to the evolving invocation of the American West.
Culture

What we yee about when we yeehaw

How a repurposed cowboy slang speaks to the evolving invocation of the American West.

Last year, I woke up one random, normal morning inexplicably altered, a change straight out of Kafka. The difference wasn’t physical, but linguistic. Instead of responding to other people’s messages — benign life updates or else, like, memes — with “lol” or “haha” or any number of offhand stopgaps, I was replying with “Yeehaw.”

According to a search of my Google hangouts, my “yeehaw”-naissance began last summer. As the year rolled along, I found myself drawn to material things with vaguely Western connotations. My Instagram ads haven’t recovered from searching, among many variations, phrases like “cat cowboy hats and boots,” “sheriff vest large dog,” and “led cowboy hat color changing.” My friends and family asked me what was going on — first in bemusement, then in dismayed concern that the fixation hadn’t passed. In the end, “yeehaw” was too powerful; my husband and my best friends now use it as much or even more than I do.

But in reflecting on 2018, it’s clear to me now that a rising yeehaw lifts all boats. One of the best-selling video games of the year was Red Dead Redemption 2, which has the player traipsing through a fictionalized wild wild West — with a litany of tasks including robbing stagecoaches, collecting orchids, and going after the KKK — during its fin de siècle twilight. Cartoon Network’s marquee show Steven Universe aired an episode called “The Question,” which features a character going through a cowboy-inspired journey of self-exploration. Many end-of-the-year best music lists were topped with country darling Kacey Musgraves’s poignant Golden Hour, or indie rock storyteller Mitski’s Be the Cowboy. The former inspired one writer at The Cut to write a post titled “What is ‘Yee-Haw Couture’?” The latter released merch riffing on her album title, which itself was born out of a private riff/mantra: “Be the cowboy you wish to see the world.”

What used to be the exclusive terrain of ye olde Western speak has been remixed into phrases like “Yee (and I cannot stress this enough) Haw.” Tumblr user @profmeowmers posted about a real place in Florida named “Yeehaw Junction,” to the tune of 150,000 notes (Tumblr’s unit of interaction) and counting. And “yeehaw” has been remixed by that litmus test of true internet saturation: Anime fandom. (Some examples: this post referencing “Dattebayo,” a catchphrase of the titular character from the series Naruto; also from Naruto, the character Sasuke Uchiha reworked as “Sasuke Uchyeehaw.” The series My Hero Academia actually features a Western gunslinger character named Snipe, making him ripe for yeehaw projection.)

Good afternoon gay farmers. How are our crops looking today?

A post shared by Cat Frazier (@itsanimatedtext) on

In the same vein as “yeehaw,” the r/whatintarnation subreddit, based on this 2017 meme, has been more active than ever, with its own in-jokes. (“You just gonna scroll past without saying howdy?”) The emoji sheriff, created in 2017 by comedian Brandon Wardell, took advantage of the as-yet unplumbed depths of ASCII/Twitter emoji mimicry, and has now spawned a more in its feelings emoji mashup, the sad cowboy. (Which, going back to anime, pairs well with the cult favorite series Cowboy Bebop, which begins as an upbeat space adventure and ends on a very different note.)

Though “yeehaw” has a more nebulous origin than its modern pop culture proliferation might suggest, Western influences (“Western” meaning “the Anglo-centric takeover of the American West from the 18th century through pre-WWI America”) have never quite left the cultural imagination. The fashion world is still in the throes of a Little House on the Prairie moment. Western cinema, with its archetype of the solo, suffering lonesome anti-hero, similarly dips in and out of popularity. Though straight-shooting Western films don’t have the same draw as, say, superhero fare, last year’s remade A Star is Born successfully tapped into a broader country aesthetic to critical and commercial acclaim.

Yeehaw’s ascendent popularity comes with significant historical and cultural baggage, not least because country music and culture connote a certain attachment to a static vision of Americana: the “Again” in “Make America Great Again.” More politely, yeehaw is white people culture. More to the point, the American west is built on a legacy of violent conquest, subterfuge, and exploitation, and those most likely to valorize it are imagined to be willing to spill blood for the continuation of this revisionist fantasy.

With that in mind, it’s been interesting to watch the internet’s interpretation of “yeehaw” completely smash the country stereotype of straight white people hoeing down in America’s heartland. (To say nothing of the fact that country music’s projected whiteness is untenable because of the long, elided history of black American folk music.) People of all ages, countries of residence, and cultural tastes pepper “yeehaw” into their digital presences. Part of the internet’s enthusiasm for yeehaw/cowboy iconography is because the American west has become a canvas on which artists of all kinds have subsumed its more problematic iterations and released interpretations in their own image. Gaga’s devoted pop fans embraced the country songs in A Star is Born, particularly the inescapable “Shallow.” But perhaps the watershed yeehaw crossover moment happened in 2016, when Beyoncé drawled “Texas” in 2016’s CMAs-exploding “Daddy Lessons.”

Suddenly, everyone who’d ever claimed to like every genre of music “except country” started looking up rhinestone application tutorials. Now, when a public figure — especially if they’re not white, and regardless where in America they’re from, if they’re American at all — so much as holds a cowboy hat, the internet replies, “Yeeeeeehaw.”

There’s one place where “yeehaw” proliferates at a level that is at once baffling and bemusing: stan Twitter, particularly for artists that tap into young digital fandoms like Harry Styles or K-pop megagroups like BTS, LOONA, EXO, and BLACKPINK. These fans live all over the world but are united in their somewhat insular language and spheres of interaction. They’re well-versed in internet slang, which draws from the same funhouse mirror of black American slang appropriation that fueled the debate over Awkwafina’s speaking style in Crazy Rich Asians, as well as modern K-pop's production and styling. And though “yeehaw” is as American as it gets, its popularity amongst non-Americans reflects a crack in America’s self-proclaimed cultural hegemony.

For 16-year-old Twitter user @lethargicthot, “yeehaw” was never a part of her vocabulary until she plunged into the depths of stan Twitter. Over DM, she said, “The word yeehaw, county music, and other elements of southern culture are just peculiar and funny. I think a lot of stan Twitter is in the same boat as me.” Though she lives in America, @lethargicthot added, “Stan Twitter is a lot more diverse than people realize it is. For many of the users, English is not even their second language … I don’t know what the formula is for what phrases and words can end up being viral jokes but I can tell you that ‘yeehaw’ isn’t really a word anymore, it’s become a meme.” As for the country culture “yeehaw” ostensibly comes from? “To say it nicely: Country music — and by extension, the culture around it — is unrelatable.”

This version of “yeehaw” aligns with what culture writer and forecaster Ayesha Siddiqi called “the clearing house sale of a fallen empire.” A resurgence of American western aesthetics, whether in fashion or digital discourse, through a global appropriation that’s less interested in nationalist nostalgia and more in “the aesthetics of empire and rendering them dandy, even cosmopolitan chic” feels like justice in its own way. But while some users place distance, whether purposefully or not, between themselves and the implications of “yeehaw,” others use the word and its associated aesthetics as a form of reclamation.

To an artist like Mitski, whose fans now wear cowboy hats to her shows, the intention was never to invoke “the real working cowboy that exists today,” as she told The Outline last year, but instead “the Marlboro commercial cowboy … [W]henever 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?’”

That kind of interpretation, which plays with your own expectations of who the cowboy is, is echoed by 19-year-old Twitter user @marcellamsevy. Marcella’s actually from southern Illinois and attributed her “come to yeehaw” moment “back to when the Walmart yodel boy went viral. That kid is from a town near me, so when that went viral everyone near me kind of latched onto the cowboy emoji and saying yeehaw as a kind of a wink and a nod to each other. It's kind of a joke between Midwestern people bc that's how we were ‘introduced’ online (if that makes sense haha).”

Piggybacking off of the feeling of cowboy co-option articulated by Mitski, Marcella elaborated, “Originally cowboys were seen as like, peak masculinity in the US, and with the internet being such an inclusive environment I feel like it's almost a way of poking fun/reclaiming that culture. Like I've noticed [that kind of reclamation is] a trend (from what I've seen) in the LGBT+ community as well, which goes back even to the ‘70s with the “YMCA” video, or more recently Brokeback Mountain. … And all of my queer friends (me included) tend to use yeehaw a ton so that could be another layer. I guess what I'm trying to say is another aspect could be the internet reclaiming what used to be a hyper masculine trope whilst simultaneously using it as a caricature of the culture in the United States.”

It’s worth noting that for all the yeehawing I’ve seen online and typed out myself, I’ve yet to encounter any people outside of my friend circle who’ve actually uttered “yeehaw” aloud. That said, I’ve found myself constantly seeking out yeehaw signifiers. I’ve never seen more cowboy hats out in the wild, but that probably has more to do with my heightened awareness of “cowboy culture” versus a genuine uptick in people wearing cowboy hats, boots, vests, or other paraphernalia in the Bay Area.

But “yeehaw” as it’s used was never meant to translate to the real world, or signal anything beyond absurdity. “Yeehaw” exists in a liminal space, bound to and beyond the divisions imagined between blue and red states. Even as cultural and social forces alternately champion plugging all the way into our AI futures or unplugging and going back to a rarefied, more “honest” way of life, most people will never have the means to actually change any aspect of their living situation. Maybe I’ll get that cat cowboy hat; maybe I won’t. But my American dream has borders, and for everyone except a select demographic in America, it always has.

But the notion of the American cowboy, the wide open frontier, does still mean something. My father is a soon-to-be 60-year-old Chinese-American immigrant with a soft spot for watermelon, cats, and American folk songs. Many times in my childhood, I would catch him humming “Oh My Darling, Clementine” or “Shenandoah” under his breath. Those melodies have had their hooks in him for almost four decades, partly because they’re as part of American folk culture as rolling waves of grain, but especially because my father used to be a cowboy.

Or at least, a part-time cowboy. When he arrived in Montana as a graduate student, he and his fellows would make some extra money helping out at local ranches. He learned how to ski and ice skate and ride a horse. He’d take long road trips through national parks, fueled by Mountain Dew and a wide-eyed love for a land that sometimes still doesn’t love him back. In his wedding photo, he wears giant square glasses and a black cowboy hat. When I ask him about those days, he says nothing about his time in school and everything about living with fellow immigrants in cramped boarding house rooms, and buying slices of pizza with change at the strip mall arcade, and all the time he spent looking up at the big blue sky. And if I ask him “Yee?”, he answers — after much furrowing of his brow; some prodding; then finally, understanding — with “Haw.”

Lilian Min lives, writes, and tweets from an island in the Bay Area.