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The Legend of the Screaming Cowboy

Currently at 44.46 million views and counting, ‘Big Enough’ didn’t go viral because of its batshit concept or killer hooks. The key factor was a giant, translucent Jimmy Barnes.

The pitch for the 2017 song “Big Enough,” by the eclectic Aussie musician Kirin J Callinan, is already pretty strange on paper: a spaghetti-western-ballad-meets-EDM-club-banger that starts as a meditation on cowboys learning to share a town and levels up into a call for global peace. It features three other talents from Down Under: indie-rocker Alex Cameron, the world’s best whistler in Molly Lewis, and Scottish-Australian rock legend Jimmy Barnes — a man of a different sound and generation altogether, though one of the best-selling artists from his country. 

It’s possible, nonetheless, that millions of Americans would never have known about him, or “Big Enough,” were it not for the deliberately insane, six-minute music video opus, which catapulted both into a pantheon of holy internet relics. At a dark moment, Jimmy’s cameo performance was the light. We needed him. Only he could heal us. And he did so as the Screaming Cowboy.

Currently at 44.46 million views and counting, the “Big Enough” video didn’t go viral because of its batshit concept or killer hooks. The key factor was Jimmy Barnes as a giant, translucent cowboy set in clear blue sky over the horizon — in a montage of varying cowboy clothes and landscapes — screaming his goddamn face off, but always perfectly on-key, as the pivotal dance-floor breakdown hits around the 2:20 mark. Barnes dramatizes jerkily with his hands, scrunches up his eyes and holds on to the brim of his hat for dear life, as if the force of his wailing may cause it to fly off his head. It’s a brilliant bit of stagecraft, convincing you this is possible. If “Big Enough” exists, the brain reasons, then anything you imagine can happen. 

The scream itself is worth close analysis. Guttery and phlegm-loosening, yet roiling with raw power and professionalism, it speaks to the confidence of a veteran entertainer who gives any recording session, however bizarre, his absolute all. It erupts into the composition right as you’ve started to realize it is much more than an odd, techno-tinged take on country cliché. First, Lewis’ reverberant whistle builds to the drop, and then, without warning, it’s Barnes, squalling at his upper range over a synth-y, hard-pulsing beat, like some maniacal disco Springsteen. After eight measures at this incredible pitch, he does the unthinkable and gives you even more, vaulting into the stratosphere to carry this melody to its only correct release. Later, the song will have a touch of additional screaming, yet only by way of basic denouement.

But the core scream? This earned a 10-hour YouTube loop that has 1.8 million views alone.

The screaming was so singular — and so surprisingly catchy, in fact — that any still image of Jimmy Barnes as that Western spirit-deity lodged in the heavens was soon enough to trigger the sense-memory of the tune he delivered. On Twitter, screencaps were juxtaposed with absurd news items to suggest a combined angst and ecstasy at the current historical moment. The Screaming Cowboy said, “I’m singing, but I’m shrieking; I’m laughing, but I’m losing my mind.” 

It also captured or broadcast the intent to troll and shitpost through the pain. To an American audience, it wasn’t immediately obvious that Barnes was in on the joke of a faux-cringe, ironically earnest song with lyrics including “It’s serious in Syria / Believe in us Bolivia / We’re Ghana be big enough / For Africa, South Africa,” a fact that doubtlessly propelled it to mainstream favor. The assumption was that a gaggle of weirdos had really believed this was powerful art.

That, in turn, allowed the “Big Enough” video to spread in a manner more befitting 2007 than 2017. People passed it around under the rubric of “what the fuck, you gotta see this,” challenging one another to explain what they’d watched (or why they’d enjoyed it so much). In short order came the remixes — the massive, diaphanous Jimmy Barnes edited into Jurassic Park, Rick and Morty, Star Wars and Game of Thrones. Wherever you had a sweeping vista, the Screaming Cowboy might appear above it, shredding his larynx for that glorious, punishing solo.

Attempts to reach Barnes through his booking agent and multiple social accounts for comment were at first met with silence. Finally, a rep told me that he was on tour and unavailable for interviews. Barnes did, however, speak with Australian digital radio station Double J in the weeks following the debut of the “Big Enough” video. He said he’d met Kirin J Callinan a few years prior and agreed to scream on his track before hearing it, later being struck by the oddity of what he heard. “I remember thinking, What a weird song,” he said. “But it was so infectious, and I was singing the melodies everywhere I went. So I just screamed on it like a banshee for about five minutes.” 

Barnsey, as fans know him, went on to reveal that the cowboy costumes he wore came out of his own closet, keepsakes from an earlier stage in his career. “Haven’t you seen any of my videoclips from the 1980s?” he asked the music video director who wondered if he had any Western gear. “I have shitloads!” This is a poignant detail if you know that Barnes’ big slump came in the mid-1990s, between his beginnings as a hard-drinking frontman for pub rockers Cold Chisel and his comeback as an elder statesman of the Aussie charts, when his family ran into financial strife and struggled to repay massive debts.

As for the memes? Oh, he’d seen them — everyone sent them his way. And he recognized how skilled Kirin was in the art of getting his music noticed through these unusual means. (Callinan, something of an avowed manipulator and auditory troll, said in an interview with Spin that the EDM that informed “Big Enough” is “aesthetically displeasing and pretty unexciting as an idea,” yet shot through with “a euphoria that’s just infectious.”) 

While Barnes’ own audience was largely baffled, the man himself was pleased at the reaction among those unfamiliar with his music. “It’s touched a different group of people, and people respond to it,” he said, more so than to the second memoir, Working Class Man, he’d published in November 2017. “Kirin’s sense of humor, his creativity — he’s a clever guy,” he added. Overall, he seemed quite appreciative of the newfound exposure, which of course he didn’t need, and nothing like the butt of a joke.

But what did the Screaming Cowboy signify, other than the continued appeal of so-bad-it’s-amazing pop-culture kitsch? 

In a word: release. 

You gave yourself over to his sonic assault in order to scrub your consciousness clean, dunking it in the acid bath of his caterwaul. The dream was that when you finally snapped, you’d emit a sound that unhinged yet entirely on point. It’s also the sound of a special and vulnerable trust: When Callinan emailed Barnes about the song, noting his respect and particular love of the man’s “iconic scream,” months past without a reply, then, out of nowhere, Barnes sent the WAV files of his now-infamous “Big Enough” screams, without an accompanying message or subject line. Just the scream, unexpected, without context, exactly as it features on the track and in the video. 

Callinan listened to them on his headphones at the airport in L.A., “just hysterically laughing,” he said. “Moved to tears.” It was the same wave of bliss the rest of us would know very soon.

Truly, it was a scream big enough to awaken people around the world, and give them the strength to carry on, no matter how absurd the challenge. The lesson: Never hold back.