Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Beyonce’s 4 and Her Inconsistent Feminism

by Grant Andrews

Many of us can remember the whiplash we sustained when we listened to the conflicting ideas in Destiny’s Child singles like “Independent Women Part I” and “Cater 2 U”, and wondering what exactly the most powerful girl group of our generation has to say about… girls. The former is a bona fide empowerment song with lyrics encouraging self-worth and self-sufficiency, in terms of financial independence and in terms of not relying on a romantic partner for validation.

The latter does completely the opposite. It was released five years after “Independent Women”, and seems to reverse the message of independence, instead advocating for women to be subservient to men in every way.

Beyoncé has, in her solo career, had the same level of incoherence in terms of female empowerment in her lyrics. Her singles range from the empowering “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on it)”, “Me, Myself and I”, “Diva” and “Irreplaceable” to the retrogressive ideals of songs like “Upgrade U”, “Ring the Alarm”, and “Ego”.

Although Beyoné has become a symbol of female empowerment, it is worth noting that many of her seemingly empowering songs have had an anti-male or at least angry-at-males undertone. Mostly her musical persona is only able to assert her power when her romantic partner has wronged her, from cheating in “Irreplaceable” to not proposing in “Single Ladies”, to generally being a dog in “If I Were a Boy”. Even her most directly empowering single, “Diva”, seems to gain definition in relation to a male category, where she sings: “A diva is a female version of a hustla”. But even though these songs are engaged in an angry form of feminism or a male-defined form of feminism, they do assert the agency of women to determine their own lives and to be independent of men.

In contrast, Beyoncé also often sings from the perspective of a woman who has absolutely no self-definition without a male. Even though she preaches a form of empowerment in “Upgrade U”, it relies on the validation of and subservience to males:

“Ran by the men but the women keep the tempo
It's very seldom that you're blessed to find your equal
Still play my part and let you take the lead role
Believe me
I'll follow this could be easy
I'll be the help whenever you need me” – Upgrade U

“Ring the Alarm” is mostly concerned with a desperate attempt not to lose the material possessions which she shared with her partner. When she sings “I don't want you but I want it/ And I can't let it go/ To know you give it to her like you gave it to me, come on”, she seems to be referring to the fact that she still desires all of the material possessions which she lists in the chorus of the song, and which the new woman in her ex’s life is now receiving:

“She gon' be rockin' chinchilla coats
If I let you go
Getting the house off the coast
If I let you go
She gon' take everything I own
If I let you go” – Ring the Alarm

She continues in the bridge: “All has been paid for, and it's mine!” We are never really sure how much of these things Beyoncé’s persona has actually paid for, but in general the song seems to be from the voice of a woman more frightened of losing the material perks of a relationship than the relationship itself.

Finally, and perhaps most obviously counter to her message of female empowerment, is the song “Ego” from the deluxe edition of her 2008 album I Am… Sasha Fierce. The dualistic title of this album perhaps best exemplifies her conflicting ideas on femininity. In the song she sings:

“Some women were made but me, myself
I like to think that I was created for a special purpose
You know, what's more special than you?” - Ego

The singer’s very existence is tied to the ego of the male, and she is merely an auxiliary to his brilliance. Her body is used to signify her worth to her lover, and the painfully obvious phallic metaphor is used to express the dominance of the male.

So, after considering her lyrical history, when Beyoncé boldly proclaims in her recent single that girls “Run the World”, can we take her seriously? Does her new album offer an evolution for her musical persona(s), or is she similarly scattered in her message?

“Run the World (Girls)” is a high-energy anthem propelled by a marching African drum beat and recurring chants to a musical sample from Major Lazer’s “Pon de Floor”. It handles its familiar empowerment message aggressively, with rushing vocal staccato and a signature “F-you baby” just before the self-affirming bridge. “Run the World (Girls)” received mixed to positive reviews from most critics, and seemed to be dancefloor-ready and a surefire summer hit

However, it had lackluster performance on radio and charts, peaking at number 29 on the Billboard Hot 100, notably lower than her other solo lead singles which each made it to the top 5 on that chart. Something about this familiar (albeit aggressively overstated) message from Beyoncé was not connecting with listeners.

So what was different for Beyoncé this time around? Perhaps it’s the fact that the lyrics of this song, for the first time in her solo career at least, are unambiguously promoting female empowerment. Or perhaps it’s simply that the message does not ring true for most women who are still living in patriarchal societies or who still feel ambivalent about their gender, and cannot accept the idea of their own independence. Or it could be that the song seems to exclude many male listeners who might not know how they relate to a song about female empowerment.

The fact remains: Beyoncé, frankly, is not a reliable advocate for this type of feminist anthem, and the world isn’t buying it.

Even when she reached the height of her chart success with her two biggest empowerment anthems “Irreplaceable” and “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)”, these songs were made palatable through the idea that women are still defined by men. Some of the lyrics to “Single Ladies” prove just how little this song actually does for empowerment:

“Up in the club, we just broke up
I'm doing my own little thing
You decided to dip but now you wanna trip
Cause another brother noticed me
I'm up on him, he up on me
don't pay him any attention
Cause I cried my tears, for three good years
Ya can't be mad at me”

The singer is empowered by the fact that she has found a new man who will (hopefully) appreciate her more than the one she sings the song to. Exactly the same idea is echoed in “Irreplaceable”:

“You must not know 'bout me
I can have another you in a minute
Matter fact, he'll be here in a minute (baby)”

Although these songs have been popularly appropriated as feminist anthems, it’s clear that the personas in each of them only gain definition through finding a new man.

“Run the World (Girls)”, much like the Destiny’s Child single “Independent Women Part I”, has a blatant message of female empowerment and independence. What sets “Run the World” apart is the aggressiveness of the music and lyrics. We have never seen a Beyoncé who is both independent and militaristic. In “Run the World”, we find a singer who is unreserved and un-ladylike. She uses rougher and more aggressive language, and she does not make any reference to romantic relationships. Indeed, the lyrics and style of delivery seem to resemble the male-driven genre of rap, where self-aggrandisement and dominance are popular topics. Whereas “Independent Women” spoke of reaching equality in relationships, “Run the World” is a song of almost mocking dominance towards the opposite sex. In the song, Beyoncé seems to appropriate a masculine voice to achieve her empowerment.

“Boy don't even try to touch this
Boy this beat is crazy
This is how they made me
Houston Texas baby
This goes out to all my girls
That's in the club rocking the latest
Who will buy it for themselves and get more money later
I think I need a barber
None of these n- can fade me
I'm so good with this,
I remind you I'm so hood with this
Boy I'm just playing, come here baby
Hope you still like me, F- you pay me”

The accompanying video is similarly problematic. The clip is set in a post-apocalyptic Afro-infused arid landscape, littered with animals, dancers in cages, Beyoncé screaming on the roof of a broken-down car and what seems to be a rebel group of men rushing in to confront the “girls” who presumably “run the world”. These girls then proceed to deliver a very sensual display for the men while wearing couture and saluting. The clip is visually stunning, and reminds us again why Beyoncé is such a successful artist. But it also points to the complex ideal of female empowerment.

Beyonce intermittently taunts the group of men by pushing them around. There are also many scenes where she is featured alone, often in full profile, which seem to highlight her dominant status as the leader of the empowered women in the video. The scene where she lifts her fist and a car explodes draws our attention to her roaring, violent power, and immediately following this scene the group of men are shown to scatter and be intimidated by her display.

At the end of the clip, Bey rips a badge from the chest of a military-clad male, before leading her army of couture-wearing females in confusingly saluting him and his group. The entire sequence is undercut by this final relinquishing of power. We are left to wonder: Are the hypersexualised dance sequences meant to intimidate or to entertain the men in the video? And who is really subservient to whom?

“Run the World” serves as the closing track to Beyoncé’s new album 4, released on June 28, 2011. Many of the themes of the album are hinted at by the lead single. As a whole, the album speaks a lot about the conflict of female empowerment. As the album closes with the aggressive feminism of “Run the World”, the opening track is a perfect symbol of Beyoncé’s duality: the sparse, raw and gritty proclamation of love “1+1”. In this track, the singer seems to be almost devoid of a self-image without her lover. The song is a sweeping ballad with powerful vocals from Bey. It also introduces some of the main imagery of the album: war, apocalypse and death. Beyoncé croons: “When the world’s at war/ let our love heal us all”. Built around these images is a female protagonist, who starts her journey completely enthralled by her male partner (“1+1”), and eventually becomes an advocate for female empowerment (“Run the World”). However, as is evident from the above discussion of the lead single, the conflict of independence never disappears, even at the album’s resolution.

The images of war, apocalypse and death are shown in titles such as “End of Time”, “Rather Die Young” and “I Was here”, and signal the sparse, desolate and ultimately gloomy musical landscape drawn in the album. The ideas of love and death are often conflated:

“I don’ know much about guns but I’ve been shot by you/
I don’t know when I’m gon’ die but I hope that I’m gon’ die by you” – 1+1
“Boy you’ll be the death of me/ You’re my James Dean” – Rather Die Young
“Killing me softly, and I’m still falling” - Countdown

Another prevalent theme is the decay of romantic relationships, in the failing relationship represented in “I Care”, the all-consuming reminiscing of “I Miss You”, the snarky break-up empowerment of “Best Thing I Never Had”, and the realisation of a relationship falling apart in “Start Over”. In the first half of its songs, the album seems to paint love in relation to dependence or decay.

In contrast, the later songs provide moments of euphoric love: the girlish giddiness and swooning key changes of “Love on Top”, the naïve infatuation of “Party”, and the dance-beat fun of “Countdown” and “End of Time”.

The themes do seem to evolve in the album. It opens with the completely co-dependent anti-feminist anthem “1+1”, then continues into representing dark and broken relationships over the next few tracks, proceeds into an almost naïve and overly optimistic view of love in tracks like “Party”, “Rather Die Young” and “Love on Top”, finds a reconciliatory middle-way in “Start Over” and ends with the anthemic return to female empowerment in “Run the World”. We are taken on a journey of the female persona, to a point where she can revel in her femininity and not be reliant on a male. She can find joyful love in tracks like “Countdown” and “End of Time”, and can be dominant over males in “Run the World(Girls)”.

The penultimate track, “I Was Here”, seems to be the height of individuality for the singer, where a powerful voice of self-determination and legacy after death is offered. There is a return to the balladry which opens the album, although by this point the genre becomes inverted: it is a ballad to oneself rather than to an external force. The singer begins to see that her voice has an impact. She is not merely determined by her mate, but can serve to bring about positive change in her surroundings through her own agency. She can overcome the obstacle of death which was so closely linked to love through leaving a legacy. And what does she choose to say with this newfound voice? Girls run the world.

However, it is concerning how relationships will now fit into this persona’s life. By the end, she seems to be alone, having given up on the tumultuous and hurtful relationships represented by much of the first two-thirds of the album. She has gained her own voice. But can she be in-love and be empowered?