Like many, I’m a huge Beyoncé fan – I probably have the “Drunk in Love” video burnished into my memory frame-for-frame (although I’m still not sold on Jay’s rap, or at least the lyrical achievement of repeating “if I do say so myself” three times in a row), and I spent too much money last year so she could trapeze over my head (singing the whole time!) in an incredible navy jumpsuit during the Mrs. Carter World Tour.
So I was intrigued a while ago when catching up on one of my favorite music critics to find that he had written an article titled, “Why Can’t Beyoncé Have It All?”, because by all means, it seems as though she does have it all. As Abebe notes:
Beyoncé is, after all, talented, successful, and fearsomely hardworking; she’s rich, beautiful, and [dignified]. She’s married a covetable partner… and birthed the most famous baby in the hemisphere; she even excels at those small things that, much like Michelle Obama’s upper arms, are poor indicators of human value but require impressive effort and attention to detail (e.g., hair, nails, fitness). She and her husband are vaguely chummy with the Obamas, creating a fantasy of black-power-couple synergy that’s irresistibly seductive. We may not actually know much about Beyoncé, but there is a model of perfection we would like to see in her, and the fact that she can sustain that image suggests she has it really, really, rigorously together.
This rigorous togetherness inspires in her fans an adoration one might describe as hagiographic, if not for the fact that it goes far beyond the realm of mere saints into messianic worship (“praise Beysus”). Although it may be explained by the fact that on the spectrum of Bey fandom I’m hardly the most fervent, I’ve never quite bought into this myself. In many ways her perfection is superhuman; I’m reminded of an interview with Beyonce’s make-up artist that is purportedly intended to “break down B’s beauty routine”, only to explain hilariously that she basically doesn’t wear any because she is – surprise! – flawless. But I’ve been hesitant in the past to make that leap into the otherworldly – to place her amongst the divine or the divinely ordained – because to call her a goddess diminishes, to me, the fact that she isn’t a deity among mortals who can’t help but be perfect, but in fact a person who works incredibly hard to succeed in every arena imaginable. Beyoncé herself understandably and actively propagates this image – as Abebe writes about her self-helmed HBO documentary, “Life Is But a Dream”: “not a thing about it, from its cheery poise to its feminist commitments, runs any risk of rejecting the over-the-top hero worship that’s accumulated around her, or her status as an impossible yardstick of fulfilment.” But there’s a certain way, perhaps, in which that detracts from her own astounding achievements.
I was excited, then, to find this articulated much more effectively by Abebe. Noting both the widespread veneration and occasional criticism of Beyonce that she is flawless “in an empty, dutiful way”, as if she might be a robot, Abebe contends that they both “[miss] something huge”:
[That] some of Knowles’s best and richest music is literally about how it feels to be an obsessive overachiever. It’s about the joys of power, discipline, and competition, and about the anxieties that accompany those joys. (And—this being R&B, a genre ferociously attuned to the interplay of power and romance—about the modern predicament of being an obsessively overachieving woman who dates men.)
He’s done much of the in-depth legwork to buttress this argument – there’s little I have to say that he hasn’t already, and he makes a lot of interesting observations besides. Some highlights include:
A close reading of early Bey –
A high percentage of Destiny’s Child singles are spent telling off anyone who would distract them from their greatness: You sing along and become part of a righteous sisterhood giving the business to cheaters, stalkers, haters, moochers, and assorted trifling good-for-nothings. [But] another reason they’re relatable: They can sound anxious, defensive, and protective of their status.
A chronicling of the life and death of Sasha Fierce –
[Beyonce will] eventually reconcile the difference between reality and showbiz by inventing an alter ego, “Sasha Fierce,” to describe the haughty superwoman she becomes onstage.
And how modern pop has changed since the age of Mary J. Blige and “”organic,” in-the-trenches R&B” –
Pop today seems to share much in common with the generation listening to it: It’s driven, hypercompetent, sensitive to public scrutiny… It’s obsessed with achievement and esteem and has a fraught, anxious relationship with [personal fulfilment]. So what if, in a certain light, Beyoncé’s catalogue offers a rich examination of how it feels when drive and discipline really are your organic personality, and your feelings fight against layers of self-control and pragmatism, and the documentary you make about yourself shows you working hard to relax and experience your own emotions? What if plenty of today’s young women in particular have reason to relate to that dynamic every bit as strongly as 1992 related to getting beat up in the trenches?
Although I’m not approaching anything like Beyoncé-level togetherness, overachievement and discipline and the relationship of these things to personal fulfilment and intimacy are certainly concerns that are close to me. I also, as she states in her documentary, “don’t want to never be satisfied” or “think that’s a healthy way to live.” In an environment like Harvard, I think it is healthy sometimes – often! – to “rebel against perfection. It’s fun [not to] know what’s going to happen.” So even as Beyoncé very successfully projects an image of being a Platonic form of humanity, I’m going to think about the occasionally ambivalent striving that goes into that image, and appreciate her all the more.