In this post I argue that Beyonce’s “Countdown”—both as a song and as a video—critiques a canonical, but quite misogynist, style of song.
The “catalog song” is a centuries-old format: a dude ticks off a list of all the women he has seduced. Mozart’s Don Giovanni does this in what is famously called “The Catalog Aria”: here, Don Juan’s servant runs down the list he’s kept of all the women his master has bedded—over a thousand (“mille e tre,” or 1,003) in Spain alone! More recently, Lloyd and Lil Wayne seduce “Girls Around The World.” Young Money”s (Weezy et al) “Every Girl” is a more standard catalog song, because it enumerates each and every sort of woman the rappers have, can, or desire to have sex with.
“I like a long-haired thick redbone,” says Weezy, as women in various “ethnic” costumes emerge from his limo. The chorus is even less specific: “We like her, and we like her too”—it’s as though any and every woman will do. I mean, Weezy does say “I wish I could fuck every girl in the world.” The video particularly exoticizes mixed- and ambiguously-raced women (e.g., the “Blackanese” woman identified around 1:53). They also catalog women by sexuality, occupation, and even credit score!
Calvin Harris’s “I Get All The Girls” is another example of a classic catalog song. Watch the video carefully, because Beyoncé’s video will make specific reference to it. http://youtu.be/Q-tAlG5iJ4Y (Sorry, I couldn’t find a version that allowed embedding).
Note the use of bright, bold colored leotards to distinguish all the different “types” of girls Harris gets. Note also the way the dancers put their hand on their abdomens to represent the “carrying a little bit of weight girls.”
What all these traditional catalog songs have in common is they compile a list of women. They “count up” women as a way of reflecting positively on the accomplishment of the male singers. In this accounting, women are the instruments by which men demonstrate their masculinity, or, as we see in the Young Money video, by which they create and reaffirm homosocial bonds among men (or, to riff on Andy Samberg and Justin Timberlake, “It’s not gay if it’s a three- or four- or every-girl-in-the-world-way”).
Beyoncé’s “Countdown,” by counting down rather than up, reverses the logic of the catalog narrative. The countdown itself reads: "My baby is a ten / We dressing to the nine / He pick me up at eight / Make me feel so lucky seven / He kiss me in his six / We be making love in five / Still the one I do this four / I’m trying to make a three / From that two / He still the one."
If you listen to the content of the lyrics, she uses the “countdown” to describe the various ways she and her “boo” have a committed, non-instrumental relationship. And, for all the song’s focus on Beyoncé’s male partner, she constantly returns to the lyric “If you leave me you’re out of your mind.” So she’s not talking about her BF to boost her own self-worth, or our perceptions of her worth, femininity, etc. In fact, she gives us a strikingly even-handed depiction of a seemingly egalitarian relationship. First, she says “There's ups and downs in this love/Got a lot to learn in this love/Through the good and the bad, still got love.” This is not idealized, fairy-tale romance; rather, it’s the frank assessment of someone who’s been in a decade-long relationship. Then, later in the song, Beyoncé states that “Yup, I put it on him, it ain't nothing that I can't do/Yup, I buy my own, if he deserve it, buy his shit too.” Reminding us of her financial independence, Beyoncé clarifies that she’s with this man because she wants to be, not because she has to be; in fact, she suggests that interdependence isn’t necessarily a bad thing. She’s neither fully dependent, nor fully independent of her male partner. They’re, uh, partners. They rely on one another and put up with one another’s shit. And if you still are so excited about this person want to write a song about him after you’ve been dealing with his shit for ten years, y’all must really have a strong relationship—and that itself is quite an accomplishment. Long-term relationships require work. In fact, it’s probably harder to stay with one person for a decade than it is to sleep with over a thousand people in a few months. So, the song’s lyrics and its “hook’ (the countdown itself) reverse he traditional male cataloging of female conquests. Here, we have Beyoncé counting down all the often complicated reasons why she loves her partner of ten years.
I mentioned earlier that the video also critiques Harris’s catalogue of “all the girls” he gets. Bey’s video uses the same bright color palette to differentiate among leotard-wearing female dancers. However, while Harris’s video has platoons of female dancers (who are actually pretty white and East Asian…) don this “rainbow” of colors, “Countdown” positions Beyoncé as the wearer of the entire spectrum of colors—this points to her internal complexity. She might be in love and interdependent with this dude, but this doesn’t prevent her from being a complex, contradictory, fully-realized subject. And, in this video, she does indeed “carry a bit of weight”—her increasingly large “baby bump” is featured throughout the video. In the same way that she refuses reduction to “wife” or “girlfriend,” Beyoncé’s working through her pregnancy (she released an album, several videos, and performed at the MTV VMAs) refutes attempts to reduce her to “mother.” In fact, you can’t reduce her to any one role, any one “type”: she’s not just a black girl, or a “carry a bit of weight” girl, or a thick girl, or a pretty girl, or a southern girl, or a girl from Texas, or whatever. And this reduction to “type” is what makes traditional cataloguing possible—women aren’t valued for their individuated “use value,” but only as a (stereo)type.
So, there are a number of ways “Countdown” critiques traditional “catalog” songs: (1) by counting down rather than up, it reverses the logic; (2) by focusing on mature, long-term, egalitarian relationships; (3) by centering a woman’s perspective; (4) by enumerating the internal complexity of female subjectivity rather than listing flat, undeveloped female stereotypes. I know this song has gotten a lot of critical acclaim for its innovative composition, but we also need to recognize its—and Beyoncé’s—musicological and feminist innovations, too.