The Road to my Horizon: “Rhinestone Cowboy” and Songs about Fame

Songs about fame come and go, and some resonate beyond others. My favourite is the resigned, exasperated Bob Snider epic ‘Only Crazy People,’ written from the perspective of a rock star/artist on furlough for a few days during an exhausting tour, but ‘Hell Hole’ by Spinal Trap is just as true: a laundry list of complaints and dissatisfactions even when caviar replaces Kraft dinner. Bowie’s “Fame” is some good greasy glamour and McGuinn and Hillman’s “So You Wanna be a Rock and Roll Star?” is the opposite of that: searing, grim, cautionary and unfiltered, if, generally, sung by famous rock stars. But neither are like Larry Weiss’s “Rhinestone Cowboy,” the 1975 hit record for Glen Campbell.

This song is the consummate 45– in and out with melody and economy– but it’s also the sell-outs’ unapologetic anthem, if, in it’s own way, more truthful than any of the songs mentioned above. Fame, and achieving fame no matter the consequences (“Where the lights are shining on me”) is Weiss’s lyrical mantra, and so is the awareness, and concession, that of “a load of compromises” will have to be made in order to achieve that fame. There are no illusions here, and the song clops along as if celebrating getting the chance to be in the position to make such compromises, which, in itself, is a badge– or a measure– of success, at least to the song’s narrator.  We can stand back and be judgemental about all of this– fuck compromise, fuck selling out, fuck changing who you are to drink from the cup– but the truth is the world of “entertainment” is way busier with people lining up to barter than those who would unequivocally turn away, and maybe that explains the song’s monster success.

I don’t think I’ve had to make a “load” of compromises– you justify choices here, rationalize a choice there, if you’re strong enough, and lucky enough, to minimize the change — and there’s a difference between modifying a work of art and bending over to please one’s master (which, again, the narrator seems gleefully willing to do), but, in the end, purity becomes an ever more abstract concept. Still, whenever I hear this song, the lyric “getting cards and letters from people I don’t even know”– sung over mournful strings and a wan chord progression– makes me wonder whether the arranger was throwing in his two cents: the cards and letters are great and so is the fame, but those people, you don’t know them. And, in the end, do you really know yourself?

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