On Her Surprise New Album, Beyoncé is a Cultural Chameleon
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.
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.
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