Things I Learned from Beyoncé

Beyoncé is a feminist. Maybe. I try not to think too hard about it because, quite honestly, I would probably still listen to her music, watch her videos, and buy her concert DVDs even if I could know for certain that she had never thought about anything coming close to intersectionality. This is in part for the same reason that there are people in my life whom I love very dearly but who don’t consider themselves feminists either. It’s also because my obsession with Beyoncé came at a particular moment in my life when she represented a message that I desperately needed: fake it ‘til you make it.

I read a few days ago about a class that was taught at Rutgers called “Politicizing Beyoncé.” The class uses the oeuvre of the artist as a way to gain insights into American gender, sexuality, race, and class politics. After deciding that maybe it wouldn’t be a good idea to transfer to Rutgers at this point in my academic career, I took the news as an opportunity to consider the political dimensions of my own interest in Beyoncé as an artist.

Some of my clearest memories of high school involve me listening to music for hours on end alone in my room. I was most often listening to Beyoncé or TLC on repeat. This was my coping mechanism. Along with my prolific journaling habits, I used music as a way to steel myself in the face of, well, life. However, the two artists that most often appeared in my playlist represented two divergent strategies of dealing. On the one hand, TLC bolstered my defiant side. They were tricksters hell bent on breaking the rules. Beyoncé, on the other hand, embodied a certain type of artistry and, dare I say, artifice—both finely honed and tremendously successful. She colored inside the lines to remain legible to the widest audience possible, but always made sure to throw in some sequins and animal print. Daphne Brooks puts it well in her article on Beyonce’s album B’Day. She writes that because Beyoncé does not follow the same formulaic approach to sexual expression as some of her contemporaries, she ultimately “finds different emotional notes to sound: spiritual discontent, romantic pessimism and self-control. [Beyoncé] especially stresses the pleasures of hard work as a means to overcoming despair. What’s more, she packages her messages in a hard and frantic sonic register that sets this record apart from other MTV divas’ pet projects.”

Here, Brooks points to the almost schizophrenic re-invention that Beyoncé enacts with each song on this particular album, and, I’d argue, much of her other music as well. It’s hard to pin Beyoncé down to a coherent narrative or stable set of politics other than the fact that she’s pretty good at what she does, and does what she’s good at (ahem…no comment re: her foray into the acting world). I find that to be part of her appeal because behind it all, it’s clear that she’s having fun and getting a lot out of being a moving target.

Brooks’ reading of the songs on B’Day leads her to reflect on post-Katrina racial politics in the United States, particularly with regard to the gendered significance of material acquisition in a nation beset by disaster and dislocation; however, I came to know Beyoncé the artist at a time when she was perhaps more explicitly grappling with a different set of political dilemmas—those of representation and respectability. Her first solo album Dangerously in Love reveals a Beyoncé shifting unapologetically between different modes of sexual expression. Is she the refined diva duetting with Luther Vandross or the seductive “Hip Hop Star”? The answer is both, yet neither. Beyoncé is an example of what the brilliant minds over at the Crunk Feminist Collective would call the “politics of disrespectability.” She inhabits a space that, as they put it, exists “between the diss and the respect—the potential (and the danger) of what it means to dis(card) respectability altogether.” This is a part of Black female subjectivity as they see it: “This space between the disses we get and the respect we seek is the space in which Black women live our lives. It is the crunk place, the percussive place, the place that makes noise (and music), the place that moves us, the place that offers possibility in the midst of two impossible extremes.” The I Am… Sasha Fierce album is a perfect example of this. Beyoncé and Sasha Fierce share the same spotlight in many ways, but (if we are to believe the marketing strategy) neither can exist without the other.

So, while TLC was great at keeping it real, anyone who occupies the margins of society knows that keeping it real is often much harder and can come at a great price in the day to day scheme of things. Instead, we learn to strike a much more delicate balance and, if we’re lucky, find a way to let out our inner Sasha Fierce from time to time.

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6 Responses to Things I Learned from Beyoncé

  1. I love how this establishes an understanding of Beyoncé as an individual who is caught in this specific moment in music history. She knows her strengths and plays to them but is also not afraid to step outside of her comfort zone and stretch the “norm”. The fact that she’s difficult to pin down as a “feminist icon” or the “quintessential black woman” is actually a perfect reflection that she has found a way to create a space for herself outside of the stereotypical identities that society wants to associate her with; yet, she has not alienated herself from any of them. She can play the feminist, she can do “black girl having a great time at a Houston block party” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XWCwc1_sYMY&ob=av2e), she can play a role as member of the American ultrarich – but those are all forays from her at her core as a self-defined individual. They’re a part of who she is, but by no means the whole – nowhere close; she repeatedly proves that in the diversity of the musical styles she produces on her albums. Brilliant writing, congrats!

  2. undergroundwoman says:

    Thank you for this! Gender Studies students love to dig into these topics; I always send them to CFC for the great discussions you post and inspire! Although you may already be privy to this, I wanted to add that Dr. Robin James at UNC-Charlotte is also doing really interested work along these lines. She recently presented a reading of Beyonce’s music (along with Gaga) through a posthumanist/Afrofuturism lens. Worth checking out–I’m not sure if it’s part of a larger work or if it is going to be a discrete journal article. Here’s her Web site
    http://www.its-her-factory.blogspot.com/

  3. OB says:

    Great post. I think the idea of striking a balance is important and it’s something regular women (who don’t have Beyonce’s looks, fame, money, etc.) struggle to do. To an extent, it’s much easier for someone in the public eye who can craft that persona and put out a complete picture (e.g., an album) that shows her to be multidimensional. Much harder for the everyday woman who doesn’t get the space to do so.

    Really like your writing btw and would love to see you as a contributor for Zora magazine (http://zoramagonline.com/about). Email editor@zoramagonline.com if interested

  4. Lili Behm says:

    I also grew up loving Destiny’s Child and, to a lesser degree but still considerably, Beyonce’s solo projects. When I was younger, though, I never thought about the music in this much detail. Still, I did love DC’s empowering messages: I would be an “Independent Woman!” Thanks, Bradley, for helping me think about this music in a different way.

  5. sbobadilla says:

    Bstarr, this takes your love of B to a whole, new, amazing level. What I think is incredible about Beyonce’s career is how long and successful it has been given her relative youth. This was made extremely apparent to me this summer when I was working with a group of middle school girls. We played songs from B’s newest album and all shouted out the words, but when we switched to Destiny’s Child throw-back, the noise was suddenly subdued. The college students were the only ones left singing.

    The middle schoolers were still babies when DC released “BIlls, Bills, Bills.” I was stunned for a moment that I had reached the age where I could remember cultural moments that were alien to a twelve year old, but I bounced back, pumping up the volume, and continued my rather spastic dancing.

    Thank you for your music Beyonce and THANK YOU Bradley for such a thoughtful and well written piece!
    <3

  6. lindiwerennert says:

    There is on question about… Bradley has hit the nail on the head here!
    Beyonce must be the most talked about artist of the last 7 or so years, and each time she is brought up there are those that love her and those that, well, don’t. However, there is one thing that goes uncontested: she has been extremely successful, has spent her career at the top of the charts, and next to the Beatles and Michael Jackson might be the most global household artist name of our time. That being said, Bradley raises a fabulous point; at what cost does this success come? My answer is: hypocracy! On every album, B has songs that feature strong female independence (Survivor, So Good, Independent Woman, Me, Myself, and I) and its importance. Yet each of these very same albums feature songs that celebrate subservience, reliance, and domestication (Cater 2 U, Soldier, Bills Bills Bills).
    In short, at best, Beyonce is a fair-weather-feminist. She doesn’t walk the line, she hops from side to side frequently and with intention.
    That being said, 4 has not stopped playing in my dorm room for months now… I don’t hate it

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