If you’ve listened to Lady Gaga’s Joanne over the past few days, you might have found yourself moving to an upbeat track called “John Wayne.” The song begins with Gaga stating, “I just love a cowboy” and then shouting, “Can you go a little faster!” The “real wild man” she craves, of course, is legendary actor and international icon John Wayne.
In 1996, Paula Cole asked, “Where Have All The Cowboys Gone?” — specifically, “Where is my John Wayne?” But the song was called anti-feminist by those who didn’t grasp the song’s message. She told The Baltimore Sun, “There is a melancholy woven in there, and the story of a woman who was disappointed in her marriage. It’s been widely interpreted, and I kind of like that. It’s anthropologically interesting for me.” The song peaked at No. 8 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart and was nominated for three Grammy Awards; Record of the Year, Song of the Year and Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.
Even Billy Idol called on Wayne to save him, singing “I am not afraid, tonight I’m gonna be John Wayne.” The song “John Wayne” appears on The Very Best of Billy Idol: Idolize Yourself (2008). He told the New York Post, I enjoy singing “John Wayne,” because I always think about some of the characters he played that had to rise above their own limitations, so it’s fun to take a little bit of that magic for yourself.”
But who was this “cowboy figure” that artists continue to reference in their music? Well, over his six-decade career, John Wayne (1907–1979) became America’s hero. A larger than life force to be reckoned with, Wayne once said, “When you stop fighting, that’s death.”
Wayne (aka “The Duke”) left behind a legacy filled with accolades. Not only did he win an Academy Award for Best Actor for True Grit (1969), he’s been referenced in films and TV shows from The Birdcage to Family Guy. He has a home in The Hall of Great Western Performers, is part of an upcoming exhibit at The National Cowboy Western & Heritage Museum called “Hollywood and the American West,” and has been awarded both The Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal. There’s even a nine-foot bronze statue of the icon at the John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California.
Then there’s his less-renowned music career.
Wayne’s album America: Why I Love Her peaked at No. 66 on the Billboard 200 chart and No. 13 on the Top Country Albums chart in 1973. On the album, Wayne is reading patriotic speeches over accompanying music. Post 9/11, the album charted again on the Internet Albums chart (which ranks the top selling albums of the week through Internet sellers like Amazon.com), peaking at No. 18 in 2002.
Though music is healing in itself, artists have always turned to seemingly immortal icons to raise them up in troubled times. Wayne’s light in particular, has never dimmed. It’s safe to say we will continue to hold out for a hero.