Beyoncé is an amazingly talented artist who plays around in very subtle and nuanced ways with “serious ideas” – all while singing some damn catchy hooks. It’s REALLY HARD to make delectable pop that also problematizes ideas in ways that are interesting to academics. Angela Davis argues that Billie Holiday mastered the technique of “working with and against” banal (indeed, second-hand) pop tunes, turning them into both musically and politically/intellectually substantive/enjoyable pieces. (See the “Strange Fruit” chapter in Blues Legacies and Black Feminism). Beyoncé is doing the same thing…or maybe, Sasha Fierce is doing the same thing. Sussing out the split personality thing would be interesting, but that’s not for another entry.
Let’s look at “Single Ladies (put a ring on it)”. Most people – from music journalists to my students – tend to hear this song as a really clichéd paean to marriage and traditional gender roles. “If you like it, then you shoulda put a ring on it” leads people to hear this as a sad then angry break-up song, the anthem of single women everywhere. This interpretation of the lyrics is behind the faddish dance that the song inspired: “single ladies” everywhere were flipping their left hands front to back, indicating where “the ring” should be put. Cuz all women obviously want to be married, right? Traditional gender roles, traditional heterosexuality, materialism, blahblahblah…
But this song isn’t about women. In fact, musically, it’s a really, really weird song for a hit of its size. I mean, it barely holds together as a song. It’s a clap track with sound effects and vocals.
The song isn’t about women, it’s about robots, and those sound effects allude to the sounds of a robot’s joints moving. In fact, the song isn’t an ode to marriage and property and heterosexuality, it’s an Afrofuturist feminist critique of heterosexual courtship.
Video here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8mVEGfH4s5g
The video for “Single Ladies” was also very popular; it was at least well-known enough to inspire a SNL parody. Most of the commentary on the video focused on the Bob Fosse-inspired choreography, but some (like the ever-vigilant Idolator staff) happened to notice that Beyoncé’s left hand is clad in a jointed metallic glove. Not unlike Luke Skywalker, Beyoncé has a robot hand. When she sings “put a ring on it,” she literally means “it”, that hand that’s not really her. (She doesn’t say “put a ring on ME,” right?). She doesn’t want the traditional property-centric heterosexual union: “Don’t treat me to the things of this world, I’m not that kind of girl,” she assures us. What she does want and “deserve” is “your love”. In fact, what she a man who can her “to infinity and beyond” !! So obviously she wants Buzz Lightyear (or maybe just any old astronaut).
One of the main tenets of Afrofuturism is that Middle Passage was an alien abduction: funny-skinned dudes in crazy duds, huge ships, and speaking some crazy language captured Africans, transported them to another world, and subjected them to experiments and forced labor. Sounds a lot like 50s sci-fi narratives, right? The other main tenent of Afrofuturism is that slave=robot. “Robota,” an early 20th-c Czech slang word, is the basis of our word “robot”. In Czech, “robota” meant worker or slave. Chattel slaves were manufactured (as chattel, as not human) by slave traders and masters to perform specific forms of surplus-value creating labor. Slaves=robots. (You see a lot of robot imagery in the “Diva” video, too).
Beyoncé is arguing that women=robots=chattel. In traditional hetero marriage (as everyone from Levi-Strauss to Irigaray to a Gayle Rubin well knows), women are property, even and especially in the 21st-c marriage-industrial complex. If all she wanted was bling, a registry, a five- or six-figure wedding, and all the legal, tax, and fiduciary rights of a married woman, then why would she threaten any man who offered her less than total love, respect, and devotion “If you don’t, you’ll be alone/And like a ghost, I’ll be gone”?
The fact that she can make this point so subtly, that the song stands alone as a fun, entertaining pop song, makes this song even more of an achievement. There’s a lot of baaad political music that’s more about the politics/ideas than the actual songcraft. This piece manages to do both, just like many of Holiday’s songs. We need to start seeing Beyoncé as an artist, a creative intellectual, rather than just an entertainer. She’s often credited with being a once-in-a-generation vocal talent, but that’s not what I’m interested in here. She’s also often credited with being a grounded, super-savvy businesswoman; I’m not interested in that here, either.
So, can we all just agree that Beyoncé is a whole lot smarter than most people think?