This has been quite the year for Beyoncé: singing the national anthem at President Obama’s second-term inauguration, electrifying the Super Bowl’s halftime show (to the point of a blackout!), headlining a world tour and solidifying her feminist credentials by gracing the cover of Ms. magazine’s Spring 2013 issue (recognized by Huffington Post as one of 2013’s “25 Best Moments for Women“). All the while also being a wife, mother and savvy businesswoman who shut down the Internet in the wee hours of Friday, December 13, to release Beyoncé: The Visual Album.
Beyoncé’s fifth solo album came as such a surprise that some have gone quite over-the-top in hailing it a “game-changer” in the music industry, or even—according to Melissa Harris-Perry, Crunk Feminist Collective and other noted black feminists such as Mikki Kendall of #solidarityisforwhitewomen fame—a “feminist manifesto.” As the author of Ms.’s cover story, I don’t necessarily disagree with the overall sentiment, especially with Beyoncé’s sampling of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “We Should All Be Feminists” on her “***Flawless” track. The song certainly feeds into the celebratory framing of Beyoncé as a black feminist, but I do wonder if pointing to this one track for the pop star’s feminist identity is a bit like lifting a chapter from a book and then labeling the entire text, especially when that text is far from “flawless” in its feminist expression—as Real Colored Girls have pointed out.
Beyoncé released “***Flawless” among 14 audio and 17 video tracks, basically demanding that we read this one track within the larger context of her concept album. Not only is she delivering a message to record labels, who have reduced music to tepid singles because of the bigger risk of releasing full albums to an Internet-based culture filled with musical piracy and illegal downloads, but she is also signaling to music consumers: You will consume me on my own terms. Such a power move is feminist in its own right.
Because Beyoncé has mostly been visually and audibly consumed in our pop culture as a pretty face with a “bootylicious” body, her intellectual savvy has often been underestimated. Otherwise, we should not be surprised by her marketing moves in the music industry.
For example, she dominated the pop world in 2008, the year of “Single Ladies” and about the same time that Viacom and YouTube went to legal battle. In tune with the changing landscape that battle encapsulated, Beyoncé and her team positioned her popular “Single Ladies” music video—which debuted on Viacom-owned MTV’s Total Request Live just a month before the show ended—on YouTube, and her dance moves became an Internet sensation. In addition to expanding into digital culture, she appropriated mainstream culture’s racial preference for the “blonde bombshell” and then integrated it with an African American aesthetic appreciation for the booty-shaking curvaceous black female body. In essence, Beyoncé refashioned and remixed “crossover” representations of beauty and sexuality, all while collaborating with various artists on a sonic marriage (musically and literally with husband Jay-Z) between hip-hop and R&B, an “open marriage” which also made room for electronic underground music, dancehall reggae, and world music beats and rhythms.
Such influences are stamped across her fifth album. Self-reflexive, sexy and mature, Beyoncé: The Visual Album insists on a full listen, a fully integrated experience of the entire album as both concept and extended movie (if you listen to all the tracks and watch all the videos in one sitting, which I took the time to do one snowy evening). Though not as musically innovative as Janelle Monae’s The Electric Lady nor as visually imaginative as Björk’s i-Pad-based Biophilia, it’s still a solid R&B album of catchy dance tracks, sensual ballads and beautifully shot videos – perhaps Beyoncé’s best solo effort yet.
On the very first track and video, “Pretty Hurts,” Beyoncé frames her celebrated body through a critique of beauty culture, positioning herself not only as one among many other women vying for the prize in a beauty pageant, through a steady diet of exercise, pills and surgery, but as the eventual “loser” in this competition. The pageant is juxtaposed against a wall of trophies that Beyoncé has acquired since girlhood, a period during when, “Mama said, you’re a pretty girl/ What’s in your head it doesn’t matter/ Brush your hair, fix your teeth/ What you wear is all that matters.” While some may find such sentiment ironic, considering that Beyoncé has climbed to the top of the pop world based in large part on her looks, who else but “the world’s most beautiful woman” (People, 2012) to comment on these politics? Very early on, Beyoncé reminds us that her “flawless” beauty and celebrated body that is fully on display in her numerous videos is based on labor, that the emphasis on the body is, as Mama says, “all that matters” in our media-saturated consumer culture.
Artifice reigns, and Beyoncé drives home the point in the subsequent video, “Ghost,” which opens with TV footage of a young Beyoncé winning a talent contest and practicing her well-rehearsed lines of gratitude and love for her hometown of Houston. If beauty and “perfection” is labor, Beyoncé, who links her work with the rest of the world (“working 9 to 5 just to stay alive”) is on a never-ending treadmill, constantly recrafting and reconstructing her body (in a stylized music video highlighting basic blacks and whites). But this work is merely an echo of the past, which is also highlighted in the next video, “Haunting,” borrowing heavily from other pop stars, especially Madonna. As Beyoncé strolls through a lavish hotel lobby under high-tech surveillance, each hotel room resembles a different sexualized scene, a voyeuristic display and dance music video remix. All that “work” to recreate the same sexual scenes we’ve all seen before.
This is where Beyoncé’s detractors point to her unoriginality, but if this is indeed a “haunting,” then the rehashing of Madonna’s videos—with Beyoncé as the current stand-in—is its own critique, reminding us of the entrapment of pop-culture images, courtesy of our TV screens, which are smashed at the end of the video, much like the trophies in “Pretty Hurts” or in the well-prepared meal for a no-show husband in the video “Jealous.” On its own, the “Haunting” video does nothing revelatory, but as it exists as a continuation of the first two videos it’s a fascinating commentary on the state of pop culture and why Beyoncé is “so bored with record labels” and their demands for the same-old, same-old. A recurring motif on the album is the need to destroy the image of perfection.
After achieving the “perfect” body, and the “perfect” image, what exactly is the “prize”? Her subsequent hip-hop-flavored song and video, “Drunk in Love,” set on a beach, begins with Beyoncé strolling with one of her trophies. Because the song is about sexual love, specifically with her husband Jay-Z (who makes a troubling appearance with rap lyrics bragging about being the abusive “Ike Turner”), we can’t help but wonder if Beyoncé sardonically holds the trophy as a reminder of her “trophy wife” status, or—depending on one’s reading of her lustful lyrics—perhaps this marriage is the trophy she should be holding up as one of her major accomplishments (a sentiment that will later get taken down by the Adichie sampling).
Her marital sex life is the subject of the next set of songs and videos, ranging from fun and raunchy in the double-entendre rendering of oral pleasures in the disco-influenced, roller-rink-setting of “Blow” (my favorite track) to the deeply sensual “Partition” and intensely erotic old-school R&B ballad “Rocket.” The latter two videos, which highlight a sexily clad Beyoncé on display for the male gaze and specifically for her husband, are complicated by the song and video “Jealous,” which bridges the two ballads. Implicit in the narrative is the “perfect” woman who, as “Pretty Hurts” reminds us, spent a good deal of her time and effort to maintain her attractiveness only to realize that no amount of reenacting porn and strip-club fantasies and lavish living will keep him home. But rather than be the “good wife” waiting home for hubby, she steps out boldly into the night, searching for her partner and insisting that he stay by her side—the subject at the heart of “Mine,” another sumptuous and artistic video exploring sexual politics and the meaning of love and commitment based in mutuality and respect.
Beyond love and sensuality, Beyoncé plays with the larger spheres of community and solidarity. There is the interesting montage in “No Angel” of the “3rd Ward” of Houston that represents Beyoncé’s humble beginnings (also depicted on the sash that she wears in “Pretty Hurts”). Her revisit to this low-income residential neighborhood highlights both her own ascendency (as her white fur coat and well-toned, scantily-clad body show) and willingness to identify with the “people,” especially when she juxtapositions her own body alongside other local beauties in the video “Yonce.” When the pop star aligns with the streets and then takes that same sentiment onto the world stage (as the flashing lights ending the video demonstrates), she suggests a solidarity that has not been broken despite her pop-star multimillionaire status, a solidarity reciprocated by the millions of fans who have purchased this latest album.
Of course, more could be said of her participating in and perpetuating a capitalist model that has kept many of her hometown residents confined to their low-income neighborhoods—but representational politics are complicated. The allure of pop stardom is the allure of a shared identity, and Beyoncé plays with this image again in “XO,” an obvious love letter to her fans, filmed in Coney Island, where the pop star interacts with and has mutual fun with everyday people before performing on stage.
And if “XO” is a message for her fans, “***Flawless” is definitely a diss track for her most ardent critics and “haters” – specifically those who questioned her feminist credentials with the initial release of “Bow Down, Bitches.” Remixing this hook with the “We Should All Be Feminists” sample, Beyoncé shuts down the feminist question and further proclaims how “flawless” she is, inviting “ladies” to tell the men (and other critics) in their life: “I woke up like this.” Irony of ironies, considering the message of “Pretty Hurts.” Then again, to the critics who are told to “bow down,” the diss is definitely an invitation to “front” like one is impervious to attacks. It’s a flipping of the masculine script—the cool pose, but from a feminist standpoint.
All this battling, and in the end, Beyoncé reminds us that “our love” could be a “Superpower,” another invitation to connect the personal with the political and to avoid the petty fights and misunderstandings and join in solidarity to combat larger systems of power. Her concept is superbly represented metaphorically in the street uprising of the “Superpower” video.
Tellingly, Beyoncé ends the album with two personal ballads, “Heaven,” about friendship, loss, death and religious solace, and the Latin-influenced “Blue,” a dedication to her daughter Blue Ivy, filmed in Rio and featuring her daughter playing with a toy car (suggesting that this mother will change the narrative). If anything, Beyoncé: The Visual Album is not so much a “feminist manifesto” as it is a grown woman’s album with a feminist sensibility in its evolution from adolescent entertainer and daughter to adult artist and mother. The bonus track “Grown Woman” bears that out with a mash-up of grainy images and twerkin’ black female bodies. That’s a motif of black female dance expression seen in many of the videos, including “Blue,” in which young Brazilian girls in neighborhoods and at carnival naturally move their bodies to the musical rhythms of the African Diaspora. If Beyoncé has been paying attention to what other pop stars have been doing this year (and most certainly, she has), it’s as if, through this collection of images, the grown woman shown here is schooling the younger pop stars—not in the disapproving tone of a Sinead O’Connor but in a more authoritative declaration, This is how it’s done!
This is how a grown woman sings and celebrates love, sex, passion, motherhood, family, community, the world—with some feminist theory in the mix.
Janell Hobson is an associate professor of Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies at the University at Albany, State University of New York. She is the author of Body as Evidence: Mediating Race, Globalizing Gender (SUNY Press, 2012) and Venus in the Dark: Blackness and Beauty in Popular Culture (Routledge, 2005), and a frequent contributor to Ms.