Beyonce – A Reflection
Theres this horrible scene at the end of Being John Malkovitch where the world turns completely Malkovitch. Everything on screen has a John Malkovitch face, and the only word that anyone can speak is Malkovitch. Imagine my surprise when it transpired this wasnt merely a disturbing moment of film surrealism- it was also a dry run for the release of Beyonces latest album.
As everyone in the Western hemisphere knows, on Sunday morning the world momentarily stopped turning. The globe paused to allow the total restructuring of culture. All that was old and flat and wack was gloriously flushed away, cleansed by the glittery enema of Beyonce Knowles 5th full length pop record. Rome may not have been built in a day, but Beyonce was released in one. And the media went nuts. In a whirligig of gooey journalism, the broadsheets lost their minds. The very modern execution of Beyonces release its lack of pre-release fanfare, and its bespoke video for every track had middle aged hacks all in a tizzy, desperate not to look like the doddering yesterday men of pop. Random yoof lingo was giddily dashed over reviews, like confetti at a board meeting. The guy at The Telegraph strangely blithered about dancehall stormers, whilst The Guardian noted approvingly that she had trolled us all. This gave me a brief hope that there was going to be a song on the album claiming David Hasslehoff was dead, or maybe one calling everyone on the planet a bender. Yknow, trollish stuff. But no.
Still alive apparently.
?The only way Beyonce trolled us all was by making a huge section of the population:
a) Buy an album they probably wouldnt have
a) Think she was taking some daring risk to release it with no build up
b) Think there was no marketing campaign involved
c) Consider the record some sort of feminist statement
d) Claim Beyonce had changed the game (thanks to The Daily Mail for that one)
Dealing with these points –
In light of Lady Gaga nearly bankrupting Interscope with the monstrous, failed marketing campaign that accompanied ArtPop, it would have been a bigger risk for Beyonce to have actually bothered with official pre-release hype. Any sort of ad campaign would have had to be gargantuan to chime with the bling of Beyonces brand. So, instead, the PR team have run a long, soft diplomacy campaign. Theyve been carefully ensuring shes remained lodged in the media for the entirety of 2013; climbing trees; being a vegan; whatever mindless shit that can get, they got. In addition to this theyve been drip feeding tracks – 3 released this year alone, but not one of them has generated the requisite hype. Team B must have known that the album was gonna be dead in the water unless it came with a big bang, so BOOM here it is, 17 videos, a full length album, no build up: Instant viral spike. And in terms of no marketing campaign, Id say that recording and simultaneously releasing 17 videos is a pretty fucking massive marketing campaign.
Beyonce isnt an amazing record but it is a decent one. Obviously this is only my opinion, but it is, at least, an informed opinion: unlike the majority of mainstream music critics, Im a long term RnB fan. Having been buying records by Bey since back when she was in Destinys Child (and this includes seeing her live over a decade ago, when doing so marked me as a weirdo by my serious music friends), I think Ive got at least a bit of a handle on what works and what doesnt, and this current offering is a typical mix of good tracks and dull guff. Shes got a great voice if you like that kind of straight down the line gospel influenced soul – but a lot of the sexy lyrics come across a bit dead eyed, like a fish trying to be fit. I think shes better when shes in her nutty bow down bitches mode, it rings a lot truer. Yes, the album has loads of interesting production quirks, but little of them translate into great songs. The core of Beyonces best tracks, from Sweet Dreams to Survivor, beat with an irresistible pop heart, and too often Beyonce forgets this, concerning itself more with bells and whistles than hooks. Kanye had made sonic experimentation voguish, so Bey feels obliged to have a go- unfortunately the end result is a far less convincing performance than the out and out mentalism of Yeezus. Rather than the constant jittery mutation of Beyonce seeming avant garde, it veers perilously close to the desperate. The muted reaction to the first release of Bow Down (now rebranded as Flawless) suggests the fanbase felt the same. All in all, this was a record that was gonna sell, but wasnt gonna sell big. And Beyonce as she reminds you in the better moments on the album – dont play that shit. It was everything or nothing. Fair play, it looks like shes got everything.
OK, so moving on to the feminist statement thing. Somehow this record has healed the world, uniting middle aged, middle class white male critics and self-declared militant feminists (both black and white) in a unanimous love in. Anyone who has stepped out of line has had to deal with responses surreal in their extremity like this poor sod on Flavorwire who dared question Beyonces feminist credentials, only to face a crazed shit storm of a backlash.
So, Im aware that as a white, middle class man Im probably heading for a fall even holding an opinion on this, but fuck it, Im a glutton for punishment. Im also the son of one feminist and the husband of another, so itll bring my wife and mum some pleasure to learn that whilst tucking into the lavish visual feast that is Beyonce I finally became a NEW MAN. I carefully scrutinised the video for Partition to ensure that I would never again objectify a mostly naked black woman writhing in a cage whilst made up to look like a sexy wild animal. Look, heres a still:
Phwoaaar!! Oops. Yep. That video is definitely an empowering statement. When/ should I have daughters, Ill be sure to show them the Partition video, so they know how hard Beyonce fought for their emancipation.
Lets get real. If, say, French Vogue had suggested that Beyonce did a tits out photo shoot, made up to look like an African wild animal, in a cage, squeezing her arse against its bars, the internet would have temporarily broken with rage. Have all of the people lauding Beyonces feminist statements lost all critical faculties? Dont they think she might possibly be playing up to some hmmm, I dunno, slightly sexist, racist tropes here? Or is it just silly old liberal me? I feel like weve entered a twilight zone where words count more than actions as long as you say youre a feminist (or at least sample someone else talking about empowering women if you cant be fucked to come up with the words yourself), then you can do whatever you like: cavort around like a fantasy fuck doll, strap on the blonde weaves, get busy with the skin lightening, bang on about how youll do anything to please your man- its all OK because you said you were empowered! You go sister!
I mean for Gods sake. I can say Im a nice bloke, but the fact I act like a dick half the time means people think Im a dick. Maybe if I released a series of videos of me being a dick, but called them Scenes from the life of a lovely man things would be different.
Realistically, being A Feminist, like using off kilter beats, is in fashion right now. Beyonce is a micro managed album, run through a zillion tense industry focus groups. Nothing exists on it that hasnt been carefully tooled to fit into the brand. I find it hard to believe that its supposed feminism is anything other than a velvet glove, tightly squeezed over the traditional iron fist of sex, materialism and money. To be honest this shouldnt matter Im happy with pop stars being pop stars, and this album can be enjoyed as such. But when we reach a stage where any criticism of Beyonces phony feminism is shot down as so much patriarchal haterism I have to wonder where the fuck peoples heads have gone.
Sheesh. This is proving longer than I thought. Anyway, onto the final point: is Beyonce a game changer? Is releasing an album without fanfare gonna fundamentally shift music business practice? Well, maybe at the top end of things when youve got mass media draw, the budget to create a spectacle, or the allure of the long silent (as was the case with David Bowies sudden release of The Next Day earlier this year). For those guys, they can dictate the terms of their media exposure in a hitherto unknown way. Fundamentally this changes little. The average artist is still gonna struggle to get heard over behemoths like Beyonce, sprawling as it does over the media, sucking publicity life blood from the genuinely innovative. So whats new? Really this album has been little more than a gross power show, proof that, rather than girls, big money runs the world.