It’s been a remarkable year for Beyoncé (not that 2012 or 2011 were particularly shabby, if becoming a mother and headlining Glastonbury are anything to go by). 2013 saw B perform at the Superbowl half-time show (where she finally reunited with Kelly and Michelle and probably made history as the first person to do the Dutty Wine on that stage), sing at President Obama’s inauguration and direct/executive produce Life Is But a Dream, an autobiographical documentary.
But it’s also been the year where criticism of Beyoncé has reached breaking point. There was that Hadley Freeman article concerning Beyoncé’s GQ photoshoot – the series of insightful remarks Beyoncé made in the interview about the glass ceiling and the male gaze were conveniently ignored by Freeman because, oh my god, she was in her underwear. There was that Grace Dent article about B’s decision to name her 2013 world tour The Mrs Carter Show (fun fact: Jay-Z goes by Shawn Knowles-Carter but that doesn’t fit the White Feminist agenda). There was the outrage over B’s decision to mime at the inauguration, no doubt from the same people who think that Autotune is the root of all evil and that boycotting the X Factor is the height of revolutionary. Let’s get things straight: sometimes recording artists decide to mime for the sake of their performance – whether that means they have a demanding dance routine to focus on (although, considering the boot-camp methods of training B endured from Papa Knowles, this won’t ever be an issue for her) or 20 million viewers to deliver a flawless performance to. Following the miming controversy, B sang the national anthem a capella at a Superbowl press conference, throwing unparalleled shade at the greeting-faced naysayers.
Basically, it’s beginning to feel like Beyoncé can’t do anything without an article condemning her and another article condemning the article that condemned her (self-aware s/o to myself). Where white, middle-class feminists are concerned, B might as well be walking around with a bullseye on her back – the amount of Guardian (et al) articles criticising her have probably paid for the lobster and champagne at their next staff party. Jokes aside, it’s kind of fucked up that these professional lefty types are making a living from repeatedly trashing a successful black woman.
Bear in mind that all of this went down without even a hint of new music from Beyoncé, until last month when she surreptitiously uploaded Bow Down/I Been On to her SoundCloud, which is what I want to talk about.
No one’s sure yet if it’ll be on the album or if it’s just a teaser, if it’s one song or two songs spliced together. But put simply, Bow Down/I Been On is Beyoncé’s victory lap. The first segment, Bow Down, sees Hit-Boy (yes, this Hit-Boy) provide a beat in the traditional r&b belter guise – all futuristic synths, militant percussion and a chopped-and-screwed hook that suggests B’s been taking notes from Terius Nash. B delivers some of her sassiest lyrics to date; ‘I know when you were little girls/you dreamt of being in my world’ and the contentious ‘bow down bitches’.
Every aspect of Beyoncé’s career is scrutinised by the self-appointed gatekeepers of feminism, and the Bow Down lyrics haven’t been any different. In a laughably po-faced article for The Huffington Post, Sarah Dean wrote: “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?”
Where to start?!
First, let’s talk about ego. Let’s talk about Beyoncé’s ongoing relationship with her ego, and the way she often channels her boisterous and aggressive side into her Sasha Fierce persona. Sure, pop is all about performance, and alter-egos are nothing out-of-the-ordinary – Eminem has Slim Shady, Prince has Camille and Nicki Minaj likes them so much that she has over ten at her disposal. The concept and execution of Sasha Fierce is great, but it’s a little sad that one of the most powerful figures in pop culture needs roleplay to vent out her assertive side. Why doesn’t Beyoncé get to be a diva and enjoy it, instead of siphoning off this side of her personality into a character? Why can’t she have her cake and eat it, too?
Let’s talk about how B is a well-oiled publicist’s dream – she’s well-behaved, sophisticated and humble, aka über marketable. Hearing her being cocky about her success is actually a refreshing change of pace. The people who’re pissed off at this display of ego are misogynists – they’re happy to lavish B in praise and declare her a role model and the best performer in the world, but as soon as she owns up to her success – nay, embraces and celebrates it – she’s shot down. She’s arrogant. She’s a bitch. This is microcosmic of the way women everywhere are criticised the moment they begin to take heed of other people’s compliments. Oh, make sure to be attractive and hard-working, but don’t you dare acknowledge it. The minute you stake a claim for your own power, you’re a threat.
I’m more powerful than my mind can even digest and understand.”
-Beyoncé, GQ, February 2013
Beyoncé is put on a pedestal compared to the likes of Rihanna and Nicki Minaj – not that they get off lightly – because she’s more musically and lyrically conservative. You won’t hear Beyoncé rapping about pussy or ordering a rudeboy to get it up; the fairly mild Ego probably contains the most eyebrow-raising innuendo of her entire back catalogue. She’s praised by her fans for having got married long before she got pregnant, which is a plaudit underpinned with sinister slut-shaming motives. In all, she is regularly painted as the respectable black female pop star. Even her tragic miscarriage is spun by some as a trial which she overcame ‘properly’ (aka adhered to bullshit respectability politics). To compare, Rihanna is judged for unapologetically ignoring her wannabe white saviours and getting back together with Chris Brown. Through a neo-liberal American Dream lens, she’s made out to be a stubborn, doesn’t-know-what’s-good-for-her madam. For an interesting take on the way Rihanna’s personal life is handled by a classist and racist western audience, I highly recommend this post – it’s long and it’s academic, but it’s a total eye-opener.
Beyoncé doesn’t fall out of clubs drunk, she doesn’t do (and claims to have never tried) drugs, she dotes on her daughter, she’s been with Jay-Z for ten years and married for half of those, she’s respectful of her Christian upbringing and she’s best friends with the Obamas. There’s no denying Beyoncé’s sexual prowess, but all these factors often leave her pigeon-holed as the wholesome, girl-next-door figure. When she dares to deviate from that narrow, family-friendly public image, she’s lambasted with ‘think of the children’ cries from people who really need to learn that celebrities are not substitutes for parents.
The dangerous way the white media holds all WOC musicians up to Beyoncé’s standard is exposed in another line from Dean’s Huffington Post article. She writes: “The track stinks of Rihanna. The Bajan singer uses this sort of language and worse all the time in her songs.” This white woman is literally ranking WOC on her arbitrary scale of respectability. She implies that she’d expect Rihanna to release such a track (as though B is ‘above’ making trap music), oozing a particularly nasty breed of classism and policing Beyoncé’s artistry along the way.
Next, let’s talk about the furore over the word ‘bitch’. Language is one of the most complex and nuanced feminist issues. My personal take is: why expend energy getting mad about other women using it when there are men using it from a place of male privilege? People are forgetting the most important part of Slurs 101: if you’re a member of the group that the word oppresses, it’s up to you if and how you reclaim it. A lot of the criticism is coming from the same place as that of Beyoncé’s use of the n-word on See Me Now.
People are also quick to assume the bitches that Beyoncé refers to are her fans or music industry peers, but hush with your weak-ass Keri Hilson jokes (congrats on perpetuating the industry’s line that WOC have to be in constant competition with each other, you probably also make jokes about Michelle Williams). There’s no way to tell, but the ‘I took some time to live my life/but don’t think I’m just his little wife’ line is a little too on-point to not be a call-out of the collective White Feminist brow-beating over her Mrs Carter shenanigans.
Even if the song is about Beyoncé’s competition, learn 2 rap music! Male rappers beef all the time (pouring one out for the end of Brick Squad as we know it) and the ‘Imma boss’ mentality ebbs through the triumphant music of Kanye, Rozay and cohorts. It’s only when female MCs beef that it’s made out to be a petty squabble or a ‘catfight’, but give me one good reason why Azealia vs Angel Haze is any less valid or noteworthy than Lil B vs Joey Badass. How come no one bats an eyelid when men use ‘bitch’ to emasculate other men?
It’s safe to say Bow Down wasn’t what anyone was expecting, but it’s with I Been On that Beyoncé really experiments. Timbaland (who, let’s face it, fell off a looong time ago) is at the helm, and he excels himself. I Been On opens with B on some gothic opera shit, not dissimilar to some of Ciara’s past efforts. It’s dramatic, it’s theatrical and it’s full of bravado. It’s a ‘do not fuck with me’ battle cry, as she spits (in a pitched-down southern drawl, no less) ‘I been on/tell me who gone take me off’.
I Been On is Beyoncé’s love letter to trap music, but she’s certainly not dick-riding the current and prevailing trend of Eurotrap. She reps Houston, echoes a line from vintage UGK cut Tell Me Something Good, and shouts out Pimp C and Willie D, giving a nod to the trap OGs. The people who only fuck with B when she’s on her ‘I can see your halo’/’I love me some Jay-z’/America’s sweetheart flex are gonna be perturbed, but a track like this hasn’t come out of nowhere. Diva and Video Phone both saw Beyoncé channelling her hoodrat persona and experimenting with sonically ratchet production. And as Brandon Soderberg replied to a Tumblr ask about the song: “The biggest takeaway from the Beyoncé doc is how so much of her life seems to be dominated by expectations and doing stuff for other people. I like this song from her that’s potentially alienating.”
One of my favourite things about B is when she plays around with notions of masculinity and femininity – in Hype Williams’ video for Upgrade U she dresses as Jay-Z, adopts his mannerisms and mouths his bars; in If I Were A Boy she sings about the double standards that exist in male-female relationships. In I Been On, the genderfucked vocal raps about keeping it trill and smacking tricks. It’s a performance, a costume.
I Been On will confuse some of Beyoncé’s more suburban audience, who tend not to think of her as a Houston girl. Sure, her father made six-figures so it might not be authentic, but it’s time to get over it if you still cling to the idea of authenticity narratives in rap music. Drake didn’t actually start from the bottom (unless the bottom equals Toronto’s wealthy Forest Hill area or the set of Degrassi), and Rick Ross, for all his self-made, named-after-a-drug-trafficker boasts, once worked as a prison officer. Consider your illusions well and truly shattered. If you’re gonna side-eye rich people presenting as ratchet at least target a white girl, such as Miley Cyrus’ appropriative twerking and the insipidly racist ‘twerking is trashy but Miley made it look classy’ response from her fans. R. N. Bradley wrote something dissecting the politics of ratchet and black respectability over here.
Another facepalm-worthy assumption made by critics is the tired idea that Beyoncé has betrayed her previously empowering lyrics or speeches. The only people who think this are people who don’t understand pop music, or are trying too hard to understand it and in turn over-intellectualise it.
1) Lyrics are like novels in that the narrator should not be conflated with the singer/author. Nothing Beyoncé conveys via her music should be held to the same scrutiny as the things she says – her actual statements of intent. If you think Beyoncé saying ‘bitch’ in a song negates from her IRL feminist inclinations (like the writer of a Washington Post article who goes so far as to suggest that B has ‘sabotaged’ her previous efforts to empower women), then you’re a lost cause.
2) POP MUSIC IS FULL OF CONTRADICTIONS – in fact it positively thrives on them! Pop albums are rarely autobiographical, not least because there’s often a songwriter involved behind-the-scenes. That’s why so many albums can hop from a track screaming good riddance to a cheating ex to one about being head-over-heels in love. Pop songs tell stories, and nobody wants to hear the same story over and over again. That’s why Beyoncé sometimes sings songs with positive messages about women (Girl, Irreplaceable, Run The World) and sometimes sings songs with negative messages about women (Cater 2 U, Nasty Girl). It’s archaic to suggest that this is one of pop music’s flaws. Pop is all about escapism and fantasy, and pop stars can choose to inhabit and project whatever voices they like, even if they contradict one another. We shouldn’t deny Beyoncé the chance to explore and divulge all facets of her artistry. As Sesali Bowen put it in an article for Feministing: “Why can’t we allow Beyoncé to be a singular expression of someone who is multidimensional?”
From contradictions in pop music to contradictions in feminism, which Aisha Mirza very thoughtfully discussed in an article for The Independent:
[Beyoncé] contradicts herself because she is a woman, on a journey, living in a system designed to make women feel that they mustn’t question, that they have to be either, or; Madonna or whore, Angela Davis or Rihanna. There is a middle-ground full of uncertainty and I congratulate Beyoncé for stepping into it… In Beyonce’s contradiction I see hope and progress. In the backlash I see negativity and narrow-mindedness.”
Basically, why are we getting mad at a woman who has no obligation to be a feminist but who makes a conscious effort to discuss gender equality? We should be welcoming women like Beyoncé into the feminist movement, not pouting our lips and throwing our toys out of the pram because she doesn’t fit some idealistic feminist mould. Because let’s face it, Beyonce’s GQ quotes, Nicki Minaj’s rant about the bossed up/bitch double standard, and Rihanna’s do-you feminism will influence far more girls and women than our research papers and blogs could ever hope to reach. The way pop culture intersects with politics should be embraced and used for good, not ignored and left to the bad guys.