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On Her Surprise New Album, Beyoncé is a Cultural Chameleon

beyonce dressed as a beauty queen

This has not been a great year for women mega-pop artists. Lady Gaga’s Artpop fell flat, as well as Britney Spears’s Britney Jean. Sure, there was Miley Cyrus’s Bangerz but one could argue that her on-and-offstage antics suggest that she was more focused on getting press than creating music with longevity. What will make Beyoncé, the album Beyoncé Knowles surprise-dropped last Friday, stand out is partly the lackluster playing field and partly because the digital-only format which includes 14 well-produced, highly stylized videos to accompany the 14-track album (with three additional bonus videos) has satiated the public’s appetite for Netflix-style entertainment. 

In her fifth solo album, Knowles has taken a musical step toward the future. Rather than offer the same loud, brassy R&B tracks and saccharine, diva-esque ballads, her songs feel fresh and new. Her sometimes-shrill vocal histrionics have been tempered and she displays more creativity and (dare I say) strength and conviction in her vocal delivery. Beyoncé seems to be a continuation of the HBO documentary she collaborated on this year, as many songs revolve around examining adulthood and consciously investigating her image.  The question is though, why do this in such a public forum?

In hindsight, there have been hints that Knowles was working on something this year outside of her Mrs. Carter tour and jet setting with husband, Jay-Z on controversial trips to Cuba (which was featured in the video “Blue”). In August, Black Twitter and online celebrity websites freaked out when a photo of her with a pixie cut (replacing her trademark honey- golden lion’s mane) appeared on her Instagram. Some celebrated the belief that she had gone short and some were mad because she still looked damn good.

In “Pretty Hurts,” the first video installment of Beyoncé, you see why she got the dramatic cut: the video focuses on hair and the perceptions it brings. The video serves as both an inspirational message to women to look within themselves for beauty and as a “fuck you” to her critics, whom she insinuates have written her off as a pretty, vapid blow-up doll who has benefited from her caramel hue. In one of the final scenes, Knowles loses a beauty pageant to a lighter-skinned black woman and the viewer is left to wonder if this was orchestrated to deflect some of that criticism. In the song, Knowles seems to acknowledge that her father (among others) shaped not only her destiny as not only a performer, but also her status as a symbol of a Westernized notion of black beauty. And yes, Knowles has benefited and capitalized on her gorgeous looks as an adult, but she is real enough to understand that it is a double-edge sword.  She isn’t perfect, she knows she isn’t, and “Pretty Hurts" indicates that and sets the stage in interpreting the rest of the album.

Another important factor to the stunning visuals in Beyoncé is her talent as a class and cultural chameleon. In the sexually provoking video “Haunted” she is a Josephine Baker–type bourgeois black lady: refined and emotionally distant. In “Flawless” and the videos “Blow” and “No Angel,” she is more ‘hood, willing to roll deep in the city and culture in which she was raised in. In “Superpower” (which features Pharrell Williams and Destiny’s Child members Michelle Williams and Kelly Rowland), the narrative of “freedom fighters” fighting against the man is a bit contrived, but there is something about Knowles’ presence that feels natural and, in a weird way, freeing—she does seem young, feisty, and willing to rumble with the cops. From as far back as her video with her then-rumored boyfriend Jay-Z in “Bonnie and Clyde” (I would argue that “Drunk in Love” is the final chapter to the trio of videos about her and her husband—“Crazy in Love” would be in the middle), Knowles has chosen to present herself as being a round-the-way black girl at a time when in all honesty, she didn’t—and still doesn’t—have to.  She can change her persona on a dime. This time around, she appears in different roles in 14 music videos and successfully seems authentic in each one. She needs to be given props for that. 

Beyonce wearing cutoff shorts in an industrial landscape for her song "flawless"

As a music critic who prefers to write about aggressive music genres, I am not a connoisseur of Knowles’ music, but I am hip enough to know that on the track “Flawless” (a previous incarnation was titled and released earlier this year as “Bow Down / I Been On”), the line “bow down bitches” has raised many a feminist eyebrow. Writing for The Huffington Post UK, writer Sarah Dean wrote in March, “These egotistical, derogatory and offensive lyrics coming from the woman who only two years ago told us girls Run the World. I thought you were our feminist pop heroine, Bey?”

Dean also takes a swipe at Knowles’s chosen cover art for that single, which shows the singer standing in front of a mantelpiece of trophies, presumably won from talent shows while on “some sort of ridiculously over-the-top ego trip.” If Dean were to watch not only “Pretty Hurts” but the outro of “Flawless” where old TV snippets of a pre-teen Knowles performing on Star Search captures her group Girls Tyme losing to what looks like a all-white, all-male rock band, she might see that Knowles was suggesting that despite that major (at the time) loss, she kept movin,’ not letting the disappointment get in her way. 

The presumption that the original cover art was the work of a megalomaniac is actually quite representative of the criticism Knowles has faced for the decisions she has made in promoting herself. Is she a feminist? Who does she, or who should she represent?  How can she be overtly sexual, a mother, and a devoted wife (see “Drunk in Love”) whose emotional desires include being submissive (at least sexually) to her husband? The video helps cement the fact that this is a valid means of expression women who do not feel that they have to adhere to a standard of feminism—which, I would argue, was not created to recognize the experiences of black women to begin with. 

(But I have to ask: why in the video was she chilling with Skinheads? Do they actually represent being "street" in some way? Video directors and stylists need to get out more.)

In “Flawless,” Knowles samples a portion of a speech given by by Nigerian poet Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie:

We teach girls to shrink themselves

To make themselves smaller

We say to girls

"You can have ambition

But not too much

You should aim to be successful

But not too successful

I presume that the addition of the sample was to help clarify the previous controversy, but apparently some didn’t quite get the relevance of Adichie’s musings, even though the power behind this speech has admittedly gotten lost in translation—that perhaps sampling a noted poet and black feminist might, like, mean something. Rapper Kitty Pryde neglectfully wrote about the album for VICE and was clearly confused about who Adichie is or what her legacy means. “If that name is a Miley Cyrus pseudonym I'm going to bed,” wrote Pryde. “Dang, its getting feminist up in this track.” 

One of the interesting online responses to Beyoncé is that the album was created for black folks… as in black folks only. African-American blogger Adrienne Marie writes that her “love for Beyoncé feels sacrilegious, miraculous, infinite, inappropriate and healing. And yes of course it’s been building for some time now, but with this album she makes me feel good about being myself.” Global Grind writer Christina Coleman writes similarly, “Beyoncé is really an ode to womanism, feminism or whatever euphemism you might use to describe the empowerment of women, but especially women of color.” Like it or not, I would argue that “Drunk in Love” is a celebration of black love: there is power in the passion Knowles has for her husband in an era in which there is glee in enforcing the belief that the relationships between black men and women are emotionally, socially, and even economically disenfranchised from each other. 

Is Beyoncé perfect? While stylishly impressive and musically progressive, the songs themselves are hit-and-miss. But she should get mad props for an extremely successful marketing campaign—which was no marketing campaign at all. Her decision not to pre-market what could be one of the most innovative music packages of this decade was a calculated but successful risk. Within three days of its release, Beyoncé broke the record for the most albums sold on iTunes in a debut week, selling 828, 773 copies.

Money doesn’t buy respect or, in some cases, class, but if you manipulate your resources to the best of your ability and are willing to take some musical risk, I think its okay to get a little love.

Listen to Beyonce's "Flawless" below or watch the video here


Beyonce - Flawless by XISVVCX


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Comments

11 comments have been made. Post a comment.

disappointed

I'm disappointed that Bitch, of all feminist mags, said nothing about the reference to Ike and Tina Turner's violent marriage in "Drunk in Love." I think the reference crossed the line from a statement on the intensity of sex to glorification of partner violence.

eek

I don't enjoy anything of Beyonce's, so I haven't seen any of the videos and don't intend to, but I really hope that's not true! I'm just tired of the women of color who make it big in American music being the skinniest, most sexualized and whitewashed celebrities and that's what Beyonce symbolizes to me.

I take a few issues with this

I take a few issues with this piece. First, I understand Adichie's second-verse monologue not to be a poem, but rather is an excerpt from her TEDx talk called "We Should All Be Feminists." I think this is an important distinction, since your sentence implies that this monologue was a poem, perhaps taken from one of her collections of poetry, rather than from a talk she gave to an audience. The full lecture can be viewed here: http://tedxtalks.ted.com/video/We-should-all-be-feminists-Chim. Second, I found your concluding paragraph-sentence confusing, since it seems to contradict several previously stated sentiments, such as Beyoncé's celebration of her many identities and her innovative album. It's a rather unfortunate sentence that is clouding my reading of your entire article, and I am left uncertain about that which you are trying to say.

Um….

I said it was from a speech.

I do understand that the way it is positioned in the piece it reads like a poem, but in doing a search and finding it, it has been positioned that way in other online publications.

I'm wasn't really trying to say anything deep. I thought the videos were interesting and her work in them, stellar. However, let me elaborate:

Beyonce is not known for putting out music that has been particularly thought-provoking in the past - and that is okay. She has gotten a lot of flack for having the money to create this kind of work, and I'm not hating on that. I think that despite what people will think about this album - especially because WE are all talking about it - that despite what you might think about the content, it is worth celebrating. She did take a risk, not only in the marketing and packaging, but in reaching out to producers to expand her musical sound. "Money doesn’t buy respect or, in some cases, class, but if you manipulate your resources to the best of your ability and are willing to take some musical risk, I think its okay to get a little love."

Agree

I don't know why Bitch Magazine has an infatuation with Beyonce (sigh) The issue she has with race by being the whitest is mind boggling... I'm waiting to see Ivy Blue with relaxed hair soon.

My bad

I agree, I should have referenced that in the piece, BUT I did want to speak about the fact that it is rare that you see "black love" in this way - and was also focused on what she was saying about her desire to be submissive - or give herself completely to her husband. In relation to the accusations she has faced this year, especially about her being a feminist icon, I was more focused on that but you are 100% right in your grievance. Please do not lay blame on BITCH for my not pointing that out.

(But I have to ask: why in

(But I have to ask: why in the video was she chilling with Skinheads? Do they actually represent being "street" in some way? Video directors and stylists need to get out more.)
I think this comment about "Flawless" assumes that the juxtaposition of Beyonce with skinheads/punks is naive or unintentional -- and doesn't give the creative people behind the video enough credit.
The song's video is bookended by clips from Star Search where Beyonce's band loses to an all-white all-male "metal" band. This juxtaposition of Beyonce's lived experience with the fantasy world of the video makes the "skinhead" casting seem intentional. I read the moshing club scene as a symbol for the misogynist, aggressive, WHITE world that "Flawless" is commenting on.

A clarification

Esther, I stand by thinking that the "Skinheads" in the video was confusing. Granted, not all Skinheads are white ( or male, for that matter), but I did think that they were in the video simply because they represent the aggressive world that Bey positioned herself in, in the video. I stand by that the director and / or stylist might not have seen that "white" Skinheads are usually coded as being racist. I took it as an error on their part. If you think otherwise, that's cool.

Was surfing the web to see a

Was surfing the web to see a discussion about this video, and it brought me here. I am an American, Black skinhead and I find this video contrived and worst form of commercialized, shock value trash I have ever seen. Beyonce, like many pop artists befor her and many are and will continue to keep doing, is merely using a subculture that, in recent years, has gotten some palatable media exposure, to sell records and present herself as some forward thinking artist. Skinheads are not some fickle fashion statement that can be used to sell some popular artists, sorry excuse for music. We are an actual culture of people with real views and varied political stand points, who, until Beyonce and Kanye decided to reference, were shunned by mainstream culture. Honestly based on the political and social direction that this country and the entire western world is taking these days, we would rather remain a culture generally hated and basically left a lone and untouched by the so called mainstream media. That is all.

I second the motion.

I second the motion. Co-opting someone's lifestyle for shock value in the interest of selling records is abhorrent. Actually, there's no instance in which commodifying a culture is acceptable. You're just profit-hungry trash who found a way to make suburbanites think you're "edgy." Fuck off.

I just thought I'd point out

I just thought I'd point out that Chimamanda isn't a poet (she says so herself), and Deandre (the winner in Pretty Hurts) isn't just lighter than Beyonce; she has albinism. And I think that fact changes the whole dynamic of why she was cast as the winner.
Also isn't it a bit reductionist to say that Pretty Hurts focuses on hair? There are, I think, bigger issues (like body image, eating disorders etc) addressed by that video.