December 16, 2013
Oh, hey, this used to be a blog about music. In light of that, here are my reactions to Beyoncé, which came out on Friday (as if you hadn’t already figured that out):
On Beyoncé’s feminism: Yes, Beyoncé’s feminism is rife with consumerism. No, it’s not perfect, academic feminism. But, you know, IDGAF. You know why? Because I’ve spent the past ten years looking at the intersection of feminism and consumer culture, and the thing that I’ve found time and again is that black women are held to different, much higher standards than white women. [In fact, this forms a core part of the argument in the academic book I will one day publish about ’90s feminism and pop music.] But this moving standard is bullshit. Pop music always has ties to consumerism, and if you get hung up on that particular point of analysis, you will end up in a pit of Adorno, or, worse yet, mired in authenticity frameworks. That crap (i.e., the discourse of authenticity, whether feminist or as a pop musician) does not interest me, because, in general, it serves to push black women artists (and sometimes white women artists) to the margins: no one is so authentic as someone who is broke, obscure, and, preferably, dead.
I would much rather a living, imperfect feminism than dead, obscure purity that never reaches beyond academe or music critic circles, TYVM. Beyoncé specifically uses the word “feminist,” which should count for something in a world of women who run away from the term. She employs female musicians on tour, and they kill it. She sings from a specific, black, female, adult, sexual, whole-person subjectivity. On “Flawless,” she even drops a speech from Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche right into the song. Yes, the song’s got issues–“Bow down, bitches” is maybe the kind of competition that Chimamanda is talking about–but its video has Beyoncé giving a nudge and a wink to her own “I woke up like this” advice. I’d rather have this complicated version of feminism reaching out into the world than a ton of the fluff presented as feminist in Bust. So, sure, analyze the imperfections, talk about the implications of consumerism, and wish for better (like a Jay Z who doesn’t think that his reference to Ike Turner on “Drunk in Love” is totally hilarious). But don’t forget that there’s a huge cultural shift in having a black feminist as one of the biggest stars around.*
Beyoncé, the album, is kind of a glorious mess. The songs are sprawling, sometimes the rhyme schemes are completely off, and the ego just wafts off it at times, but, oh, how ambitious it is! Actually, I’m not that upset that it’s ego-driven: pretty much all popular music is, when you get down to it, and some of my favorite albums are sprawling messes. It’s a rare thing to see a black woman behind an ego-driven project. And, as far as ego-driven projects of the year go, it’s pretty damned good. Unlike Lady Gaga’s Artpop, Beyoncé works much of the time. There are definitely times when it doesn’t make sense lyrically, like when “Jealous” had me wondering why she cooked food naked, but then was waiting for Jay Z half-naked. First, why are you cooking naked? What if you burn yourself in a sensitive place, Bey? And why did you put on a few clothes afterward? Musically, some songs–like “Haunted”–feel like three in one. But “Pretty Hurts,” “Blow,” and “No Angel” are already getting incessantly stuck in my head after only a few listens, and the Frank Ocean collaboration “Superpower,” with its timpani rolls and arpeggiated doo-wop harmonies, is really growing on me.
In a world of Mileys, it’s SO refreshing to hear an adult woman talking about sexuality. Seriously, I’m not sure Miley Cyrus has ever had sex. There’s something way too, “Hey, y’all, I’m having SEX!” about her presentation that makes me think she’s the living incarnation of a teenage boy lying about his list of conquests in a bad ’80s movie. Throughout the album, Beyoncé sounds pretty sure of herself sexually, even when she’s insecure about other things. “Blow” is pretty much everyone’s go-to example of this. Even though Pharrell is the co-writer and JT and Timbaland are co-producers of “Blow,” the song never strays from a strong sense of the sexuality of a grown woman. More than that, “Blow” is quite possibly the catchiest song on the album: it fuses Beyonce’s flexible voice and subjectivity to JT’s love for Michael Jackson and Pharrell’s preternatural ability to create hooks. The song makes me want to high-five Beyoncé for talking about oral sex and almost forgive Pharrell for the monstrosity that is “Blurred Lines.” Almost.
Also, it’s a married woman and a mother talking in these songs. Beyonce has never shied away from the autobiographical “I” in her work. Though all pop music (including that influenced by hip-hop) is about persona rather than the person, let’s not forget that even Bey’s public-facing persona is a rare one in pop music: she’s a black married woman in her 30s, with a kid, talking about having sex with her husband. She also talks about how she’s “not been the same since the baby” (“Mine”). Whether or not this is really about Beyoncé as a real human being rather than a persona doesn’t matter–no one talks about that in pop music. And she’s one of the most successful pop stars around.
On the other hand, I cannot get the image of Jay Z and Beyoncé doin’ it out of my head. It’s one of those things, like when your friends tell you that they’re “trying” to have a baby and give each other a knowing look and pat on the hand, or, on the fertility message boards, where people refer to having sex as “baby dancing.” Blargh. I know they’re doing it, they are both attractive people, and I’m sure it’s good, given that they are still together after a decade. But, uh, do I have to hear about them having drunk sex in their kitchen, or the fact that their wild times fucked up Jay Z’s Warhol? I’m cringing, both because I imagine their kitchen is much nicer than mine and I ache for that Warhol, and because “Drunk in Love” is simply not a very good song. (For a much better song about Bey and Jay doin’ it, listen to “Partition.” It has a very sexy groove and lyrics that are just as explicit but somehow–inexplicably, ineffably–better.)
Damn, Beyonce has a flexible voice. Yeah, this is not news, but this album exploits her voice in so many ways. The amount of falsetto and head voice on this album is pretty incredible. “Blow” moves smoothly up and down her range. “No Angel” exploits her falsetto in a way reminiscent of Prince’s “Kiss”: Beyoncé nearly squeaks out of existence in her highest ranges, airy and ephemeral; you get the sense if she actually used chest voice, this whole delicate indie, synth-pop affair of a song would be blasted out of existence. On the flip side, “Haunted” features a growly, low range Beyoncé who just may have been spending a little too much time with her pal Lady Gaga (that “Solomon or Salamander” lyric in particular). Either way, Beyoncé moves beyond the boundaries of big-voiced diva pop/R&B.
For some reason, “Flawless” will not play on my computer or iPod, and it’s killing me. WTF is this about, iTunes? The video works, but I would like to hear the damned song when I’m ignoring people on the subway.
*I don’t want this to be read as a “white feminist think-piece”; rather, it’s a white feminist annoyed by other white feminists who design feminist litmus tests that are impossible for black women to pass. A lot of black women have been pointed this out long before me, and I want to acknowledge that. Mikki Kendall’s recent column in the Guardian and Christina Coleman’s post on the Global Grind are both great instances examining the double-standards of feminism.