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.