I’ve been ruminating on innovation, art, and why things touch us.
By now you’ve heard about Beyoncé’s self-titled, secret album that was released late last night. It was a rare and curious feat that the ubiquitous singer could not only maintain complete radio-silence about the secret album, but that there was no promotion leading up to the release whatsoever. In addition, Beyoncé has released the complete album in tandem with music videos for each song (plus some extras). Apparently, binge-watching isn’t just for Netflix/Amazon streaming services anymore. (Or, perhaps it’s just a sign that the age of MTV video music blocks is officially dead.)
Social media quickly went crazy with tweets and posts about the new album and fans all over the world began celebrating the latest from their muse with hashtags like #QueenBey and #beyoncesoundtrackofmylife.
This is my soundtrack for when I take over the world. #beyonce
— Zerlina Maxwell (@ZerlinaMaxwell) December 13, 2013
It was all quite brilliant — as far as marketing strategies go. Let the world do the heavy lifting for you. I tip my hat to you, Mrs. Carter.
By this morning, we were all greeted with dozens of op-eds (including this really terrible one) and blog posts and so much fevered musing about the music, the videos, and of course, Beyoncé herself. Well, critiquing Bey is a national pastime. Is she a feminist? Is she a bad mother? Is she black enough? And so on.
Now the world is loudly declaring that Queen B is a feminist:
Academic feminism ain’t the only kid on the block. Confession: the first time I identified as a feminist, I was in grad school. I was able to come to an informed conclusion after reading Beverly Guy-Sheftall’s Words of Fire and Patricia Hill Collins Black Feminist Thought. But we need to stop acting like a radical feminist is the only kind of feminist to be. I mean look, I’m radical and committed to a robust structural critique. But I appreciate the good few liberal feminists in Congress who show up and actually fight for reproductive rights that can be on the books! As Meek Mill says, there’s levels to the shit. But newsflash – everybody didn’t go to college. So when women of color start waxing eloquent about how our grandmothers and mothers were the first feminists we knew and many of them would “never” use the term, I wonder then why we don’t understand Beyonce’s homegrown brand of feminism – one that honors female friendships, one that recognizes and calls out sexism and domination in her industry, one that celebrates the power of women. No, it ain’t well-articulated radical social justice feminism, but if you need a Ph.D. to be a feminist, then we’ve got bigger problems, folks. AND I’ll take a feminist that knows how to treat her homegirls before one who can spit the finer points of a bell hooks to me all day erry-day.
And she’s brought forth the feminist album:
It’s clear that like a lot of black American women, the mainstream middle class white feminist narratives with which we are so familiar aren’t necessarily compatible with Beyonce’s view of herself. This album makes it clear that her feminism isn’t academic; isn’t about waves, or labels. It simply is a part of her as much as anything else in her life. She’s pro-woman without being anti-man, and she wants the world to know that you can be feminist on a personal level without sacrificing emotions, friendships or fun. Is it a message that will appeal to everyone? No. But then, no one expects any other feminist message to be unilaterally accepted, do they?
But for all the things I’ve read about Bey today, this particular thread is the connector: Beyoncé’s feminism might not look like mainstream (i.e. white) feminism, but it is very much feminism. To which I keep thinking, duh. Are people really saying that feminism is a monolith and looks and operates the same way for all people? Oh right. They do that all fucking day long. (You know this is why we can’t have nice things, right feminists?)
I guess I’m just getting to a place where I can see that the world is — forgive the accidental-pun here — not as black and white as we were taught as children. When I think about Beyoncé, I see someone who looks and operates a lot like a feminist. Is she 100-percent, pure feminist all the time? No. But no one is! Last night I tweeted about how White Christmas is my favorite holiday movie and that thing is loaded with sexist (and vaguely racist) shit. I work from home — which means sometimes my work is completely shut down by the fact that my kid gets sick — because that makes sense for my very hetero-normative, suburban, white family. Somebody better come get my feminist card!
But more importantly, I just don’t give two fucks about whether or not Beyoncé (or Madonna or Nicki Minaj or John Legend or Carrie Underwood) are feminist. Well, maybe I give half a fuck. I mean, I care if somebody puts out a decidedly anti-woman song and video, ala “Blurred Lines” or Lily Allen’s latest. I do care about that stuff. I care about it because there’s an intention there that is doing active harm and it deserves to be called out. But on the more esoteric level of life, I just can’t summon the energy to care if Katy Perry says she’s not a feminist. (Now, people who call Taylor Swift punk on the other hand …) Don’t get me wrong. I think it’s very cool when artists I admire come out as feminists. But it’s not a prerequisite for me to enjoy someone’s music or art or books or movies.
Honestly, sometimes I think we feminists need to get our of our own way.
In fact, what I find infinitely more interesting is the ways in which the arts reference and influence each other. Beyoncé’s new album, whether intentionally or not, owes to ground broken before it by the likes of Big Mama Thornton, Ruth Brown, Tina Turner, Debbie Harry, Cyndi Lauper, Salt-n-Pepa, and Janet Jackson. And that’s the short list. We could probably throw Madonna in there, too, if we’re being fair. The song “Pretty Hurts,” in particular, had me immediately thinking of old Hole videos for Celebrity Skin and Miss World and Doll Parts and … And who would Courtney Love be if it weren’t for the Blues Queens like Big Mama Thornton and later the Rock Queens like Janis Joplin? It’s rare in this world to create something out of whole cloth, something that owes nothing to anything else. What matters, at least to me, is that whatever new things that come are resonating with the audience.
What was it that Roberta Flack sang? “I felt he found my letters, read each one out loud … ”
Clearly, a lot is going to be made of Beyoncé and her new album, including how and whether or not she owns her sexuality on songs like “Blow.” Or whether or not it makes her a bad mother to pen songs with her daughter (“Blue”) or about desire and sex acts. (Because “good” moms don’t want sex, amiright?) That right there is some real bullshit, if you ask me. The fact that our culture creates a paradigm in which motherhood is a one-way door away from female desire and sexual gratification is some straight-up misogynistic bullshit.
On a similar note, if there’s one takeaway for me, it is to witness the surge in power that can happen after becoming a parent. It certainly happened to me. When I was watching some of Beyoncé’s videos last night, I kept thinking that it’s been a long time since we saw her this truly fierce. Not just a put-on kind of fierce, but actual gut-level ferocity. I can relate to that. Immediately after I had my daughter, I had a period in which I felt soft and vulnerable and defined from outside myself. But then, as I became more confident in my new role as a parent and in my new body (because things shift in flight and never shift completely back), I found a kind of power and bad-assery that I have never fully realized before. Maybe it was always there, dormant. Or maybe the experience of pregnancy and childbirth pulled me across a new threshold of power and consciousness. I don’t really care how or why it is there, but it is. And I like the idea that people, especially young people, will be watching Beyoncé hold two seemingly conflicting thoughts simultaneously in each hand — that she is a mother and she is powerful.
While I have not been able to listen to the entire album or watch all the videos — and frankly as a gal who likes to rock, I probably won’t get to all of them — I welcome an end to the endless hand-wringing about Sasha Fierce’s feminism, or lack thereof. I see her as a powerful woman who has the ability to reach a lot of hearts and minds. Whatever empowering messages she brings, I hope they hit their target. We need all kinds of gateway points to feminism, or better yet, to consciousness raising on the merits of equality and the dismantling of privilege. Who am I to judge if somebody gets that by listening to an album? And why the fuck should it matter how we get there as long as we get there?