23 November 2009

Upgrade U: What We Can Learn From Beyonce

Beyonce's  Thanksgiving special airs this week, and I know there are plenty of folks hating.  Had I not seen the light, I would've been one of them.  A few weeks ago, I was checking my Facebook account, and a friend's status message read that she intended to write a negative (feminist) critique of Beyonce.  Of course there were the co-signers with their expected "This is so necessary; can't wait to read it," responses.   Whatever.  These people probably bowl with bumpers in the gutters, and celebrate when they roll a strike.  Either exercise is about as difficult as convincing a 4-year-old that there are monsters in the closet.  The implicit position, the crux of "Beyonce makes feminists nauseous," argument, I imagine, might be described as something about Beyonce failing to meet certain expectations--her apparent lack of depth, her music, her relationship to men, her skin tone in those makeup ads.  Such critiques are ironically similar to a Tyler Perry movie: you've seen the tropes before and you how that it's going to end.

I think some folks hate (on) Beyonce for expecting her to be what/who she isn't.  Face it: Beyonce is not going to burn her glittery leotard for anybody, any movement.  And being upset about that is probably equivalent to getting mad at the above mentioned 4-year-old for wetting her bed because of the nightmare she had about the boogieman trying on her Dora shirt. Granted, I used to be slightly annoyed by her presence, but with the help of God, my sister (who once held me hostage in a hotel room until she'd shown me that she knew all of Beyonce's choreography), and watching the "Video Phone" video eight times in a row last week, I'm proud to say that I am an occasional citizen of the Beyonce Nation.  I bow at the stilettos of Sasha Fierce.

I have come to appreciate Beyonce. She's featured prominently on my work out mix.  (Admittedly, I should probably re-evaluate that.  Beyonce makes me run too fast.  Half way through, I can barely Naomi Campbell walk.)  And that's all I expect from Beyonce: some mindless jams to keep me from counting city blocks.  Put simply: Beyonce is awesome because she does her damn job.  And she does it well.  She has read the job description for diva and worked it.

Are she and that wind machine blowing her horsehair all over the stage unnecessary and annoying?  Hell yes.  Did all those summers spent out on the family deck practicing dance moves preclude the cultivation of the intellectual acumen we like to see in our sheroes, thereby making watching her interviews more excruciating than a root canal? Of course.  But that's what a diva, a pop star does: she annoys you, but you just can't stop watching. Beyonce is exactly who we should expect her to be.  Beyonce looked at the diva requirements and said emphatically, "I will do that."

Let's consider it:  She is beautiful.  Anyone who says otherwise is a downright hater.  As my friend Rachel says, "Ain't a mark on her."  Indeed, she is flawless in the Western sense of the word.  She was the breakout star of a girl group.  She later shook Kelly (who?) and Michelle (who?) in exchange for a more lucrative solo career.  She's known by one name; even her social security card just says Beyonce. That's right.  No last name.  No nine digit number.  Just Beyonce. She's married to Jay-Z, arguably the slickest dude in the game, and if that doesn't work out, the only other guy she could even think about dating probably owns an island and the copyright to the word the.  Even the Amish are aware of her alter ego.  According to my sister, she puts on a show.  If I had money to waste on omniracial superstars, I'd go see a Beyonce show, because I'm sure I'd be thoroughly entertained.  She acts terribly in terrible films.  When she speaks, she says unimaginative things, seemingly able to only describe things as "amazing" and "incredible."   The kids love her--and if you're not a gay icon, if there isn't a drag queen at The Baton or somewhere else lip-syncing to your songs, you are not a diva.  The aforementioned wind machine?  Charge it to the game.  That's just part of the diva kit, y'all.

All of this to say that Beyonce can check off every item on the diva checklist with enthusiasm.  She's a pop star.  I for one expect her to act like one.  A friend of mine emailed me a critique of the "Video Phone" video.  The writer didn't appreciate the blank backgrounds and booty shaking.  Why was he watching a Beyonce video?  I'm not sure.  That's like going to a gentlemen's club, and being disappointed that the strippers took off their clothes.

I paraphrase a friend's boyfriend: Beyonce is excellent in her field.  And that field doesn't require anything beyond plasticity.  She is portrayed as empty and vacuous because we couldn't project things upon her if she were actually substantive.  When I want substance, I change the channel.  I don't sit staring at Beyonce waiting to be empowered or enlightened.  I sit there in awe of the fact that she just did what she did in 4-inch heels.  If I anticipated something different it would be my own fault.  Do I wish the criteria for pop icon were different?  Absolutely.  Until that happens I'm not going expect Beyonce to act differently.  I'm going to praise her for being the apotheosis of diva.

Can you imagine a world where people did their work as well as Beyonce did hers?  There would be no wars, and I'd have a job.  Ask yourself: Have you done your job as well as Beyonce has?  That's what I thought.  Now go get something done.  Sasha is working, and working hard.  Why aren't you?

Do you still doubt her greatness?


elle said...

Thanks for the link to the Video Phone video. Hadn't seen it. Watched it with my 3-year-old goddaughter. At the end, I said, "Do you know what that video was about?" She said, "Mm-hmm." I asked her to tell me. She said, "Gimme some kool-aid first." I'll report after she sips her juice and reflects.

nahmix said...

Word. I fucking love this!

Model Minority said...

Hi Summer,

I am writing a final on Beyonce and Moya recommended that I read your post.

The title of the piece will either be How the Beyonce Aesthetic Underminded R&B's Ability to Reify Black Love or Beyonce Incorporated. Knowing academia, it will have to be the latter.

I am looking at the Yonce as a corporation. I am interested in the number of careers that will not take off because they do not fit her aesthetic, light skin, blond weave, size 4 or 6 max.

I think we both agree that she does her job and she does it well.

What I am interested in is what role does her JOB play in maintaining US hegemony? What does it mean that the biggest Black pop star in the world is a suburban, a light skin middle class Black girl from Dallas talking about she needs a soldier, that she will upgrade him and that he should put a ring on it.


summer of sam said...

@elle: your goddaughter sounds awesome.

@maegs: glad you do. was it too long?

@model: i'd definitely agree that beyonce is a corporation, a brand to say the least.

i think if anything beyonce's dominance ruins careers--thinking brandy, monica. i think she benefited from aaliyah dying. (someone once told me that aaliyah liked jay-z, but dame dash dirty macked him and that's why they ended up together.) so if anything what her success prevents is seeing more nuanced black femininity in the public sphere. beyonce, as corporation to use your words, is a cash cow, so record execs spend their time looking for the poor man's version of her. and i'm not sure how much we can blame her for that. just seems like another example of the same behavior in the marketplace: find the different thing, then replicate the crap out of it. rinse, repeat. if girl power comes back in style, i imagine those clones will come back in style, too. it seems to me that the message, the ideology doesn't always matter, but whether or not the way the message is conveyed is marketable.

besides, i think bey sings 'put a ring on it' b/c it's catchy, a hit. if another version of 'independent women' or 'survivor' went number 1, she'd sing that, too.

i hope some of that makes sense. lemme know if you want to talk about this more. moya has my email.

AC said...

so i appreciate this blog, particularly the part about booty shaking.

in my (former theological) studies, "recovering" the "black body" was all the rage. there was a valuation of Baby Suggs (oh so holy), and writing about how black folks need to love their bodies...their hands, their noses, their cheeks...and, by intimation, their asses. but there'd always be a tension between "loving the body" (a title of an aptly titled collection of essays on black theology and the black body) and not loving particular representations of the body. in other words, i always saw this non-productive tension between assertions that black folks shouldn't continue the cartesian dualism of mind vs. body; and assertions that shaking your ass in the club or videos is inherently a negative portrayal of black womanhood and bodies.

so i appreciate this critique of a normativizing "feminism" that is more about respectability than about valuing the bodies we've been given.

and...shit. i mean, i've tried to not like 'yonce...but, as you say, her shit is so catchy...and great running music. i'm a (critical) fan.

Josephine B said...

I am also "a critical fan", though perhaps more polarised than that would suggest - I swing between delight and disgust, ofen experiencing both simultaneously!

Especially interesting was the duality I sensed in the post. On the one hand there's the idea that Beyonce is the best at what she does: i.e. within a certain, and dominant, framework she is top-dog. On the other, there is an underlying questioning of that framework in the piece when you ask "Do I wish the criteria for pop icon were different? Absolutely.".

I appreciate what your saying, and there is something amazing about watching Beyonce match or surpass our ideas of what The Diva can do. But there's also an unease, like an itch, that your article begins to address.

Is it really too idealistic to believe that we might work towards changing those criteria for pop-icon? I suppose discussions like these highlight the fact that many of us are quietly fiending for something else. It's an effort but also an act of imagination and creativity to begin to imagine what that 'something else' might look/act/sound like. But if we shut down imagination nothing changes. Either no alternatives are created or the viable alternatives receive no support.

FFXI GIL said...

so i appreciate this blog, particularly the part about booty shaking.

Anonymous said...

The kids loveCheap MOP Key her--and if you're not a gay icon, if there isn't a drag queen at The Baton or somewhere else lip-syncing to your songs, you are not a diva. The aforementioned Cheap D3 Gold wind machine? Charge it to the game. That's just part of the diva kit, y'all.

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I am also "a critical fan", though perhaps more polarised than that would suggest - I swing between delight and disgust, ofen experiencing both simultaneously!

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good one, and hope that i can somehow read your future posts :) *joking*

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