26 December 2011

Beyoncé, Gaga, Race, and Sexuality, or, 1+1 Doesn’t Always Equal 2

[This week I’m going to attempt a few “year-end” type posts. Being on semester break, now’s a god time for me to collect some thoughts that have been rattling around in my head all term, but I haven’t had time to put on “paper,” so to speak. I don’t know exactly how many there will be, as I’m pushing these out while I also catch up on other research.]

As music critics and fans compile their 2011 lists, there’s been a lot of reflection on the extent of Gaga’s and Beyoncé’s political/radical/feminist “cred.”  Is Gaga really feminist? Is Bey really feminist?  Most responses seem to fall into one side or the other of an overly simplified binary: either they are, or they aren’t.  One phenomenon I find particularly interesting is the tendency to laud Gaga’squeerness by comparing her positively to a supposedlyone-sidedly-heteronormative Beyoncé. I think this gesture is problematic for a number of reasons. These reasons, which I’ll discuss in (relative) detail below, also help illuminate some other key issues/problems/questions relating to race-gender politics and aesthetics both in Bey and Gaga’s work, and in contemporary pop music in general.

So, some reasons why it’s problematic to say that Gaga is laudibly “queer” whereas Beyoncé is unfortunately “heteronormative”:
1.    The argument/analysis is too reductive. Gaga is not thoroughly “queer” or “radical” in her politics, just as Beyoncé is not reducible to her normativity. Similarly, songs and performances don’t have one self-evident meaning; artworks “work” in all sorts of complex, often contradictory and completely unanticipatable/uncontrollable ways.
2.    This argument fits too well with the stereotype that all the queers are white, and all black people are heterosexist/heteronormative (or, that black sexuality is hyper-hetero). It’s a racist stereotype or implicit bias that assumes that blacks are dumb, regressive homophobes who just aren’t smart enough or “enlightened” enough to have progressive sexual politics; it also erases black queers.
a.    It also, I think, relies on an overly superficial “queer test”: being “queer” means being literally and overtly gay, lesbian, or otherwise recognizably non-hetero in overt displays of sexuality. But queerness isn’t limited to sexuality—that’s, uh, a significant point of a lot of queer theory—that “queerness” extends beyond sexual practice, because sexuality itself is a broader system of social organization. Just like gender or race, sexuality certainly includes, but is not limited to bodies and behaviors—sexuality organizes institutions, epistemes, aesthetic values, etc. If Beyoncé’s work is queer—which, I think some of it is—it is not in the “overt display of sexuality” way, but in the deeper, queer-theory way where “queerness” is a critique of heteronormativity as a broad-based system of social organization.
                                               i.     Some examples of this are:
1.    Single Ladies, which I discuss here.
2.    “Run the World”—if this is a sort of Rubin-esque structuralist critique of the fact that heteropatriarchy runs on girls—which I think it is, at least in part—then Bey’s attempts to re-claim girls’ work can be read as a queering of heteropatriarchy. If heteropatriarhcy is grounded in/structured by the “exchange in women,” upsetting this economy upsets heteropatriarchy, ergo queering it. In fact, for a woman to “run” a world—in this case, the world of entertainment—critiques heteropatriarchy, its gendered and sexualized norms, as well as its racialized ones (as I discuss in my post on the performance…)
3.    I’d love your thoughts on other examples.
b.    I think we also have to be careful in recognizing the ways that racialization occurs through queering, and queering occurs through racialization. This is Jasbir Puar’s point in Terrorist Assemblages, where she argues that Muslim “terrorists” are racialized as unruly, non-white bodies via their association with a specific kind of “queerness”—a queerness that is more anarchic, less “civilized” than the homonormativity displayed by “good” American gays and lesbians. So there can be ways that Beyoncé’s work uses race to intervene in discourses of sexuality and queerness. I’d like to flesh this point out more, sometime, in some future post.
3.    It is egregiously blind to race. I’ve listed some of the ways this argument fails to account for race in #2, but there’s one other significant way that the claim “Gaga is queer, Bey is hopelessly hetero” overlooks race. I think this one is important enough to deserve its own bullet point. Gaga has license to queer femininity—to make her body monstrous, either through monster-drag or king-drag—because she is white. In other words: her gender identity is not already qualified by non-whiteness. In the hegemonic, mainstream eye, Beyoncé’s blackness already qualifies her femininity. She often plays around with femininity by adopting stereotypically white feminine iconography, e.g., in “Why Don’t You Love Me?” (where she does the 60s housewife thing), or in “Video Phone” (where she does the 40s pinup/Betty Page thing). So it’s not that Bey just uncritically adopts normative het-fem identities/images. She just troubles femininity most obviously through race—which is not to say that she’s not also troubling its heteronormativity. If race and queerness are mutually intensifying, then Bey’s playing with femininity via race is also an experimentation with its sexuality. So, for example, in a climate where there’s a new “Why Can’t (Middle Class) Black WomenFind a (Good Black) Man/Get Married Already?” article every day, Beyoncé’s “Countdown”—i.e., in a culture that frames black heterosexuality as always already broken, Bey’s “Countdown,” which is about her long-term relationship with a successful black man, who also happens to be the father of her soon-to-be-delivered child, is actually pretty radical. If the homonormativity of whites is conditioned upon the always-already “queered” status of non-white/black sexuality (i.e., it’s fundamentally, irreparably broken, black people can’t ever maintain boring, white-bread hetero relations), then “Countdown’s” apparently square het story actually undermines white homonormativity.[i]
4.    It privileges the visual content of videos and lyrical content of songs over the, uh, actual musical content of songs. Musically, Gaga is much more traditional than Beyoncé, who’s one of the most musically experimental pop artists on the charts today. This musical “work” alters the meanings of the visual and lyrical content of their performances, so reading the visual and the lyrical in isolation from the musical gives us an incomplete, often mistaken gloss.
a.    I want to emphasize this point: Beyoncé’s music is very avant-garde. “Single Ladies” is basically a clap track, sound effects, and some singing on the top. It doesn’t sound or work like your standard pop mega-hit. It’s more Steve Reich than Celine Dion. Many have written about the musical innovation in “Countdown.” But in the popular imagination, Beyoncé is not represented as a musical “artist”—maybe a talented singer, but never as someone who is an experimental songwriter or performer. Yes, yes, she collaborates on her songwriting—but so does Gaga, so did Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones, so did Lenon and McCartney, so does John Zorn, and so does everybody else.  I’d say Bey is at least as musically innovative as Nicki Minaj, but Minaj gets more credit for being innovative, perhaps because she’s a rapper and not “just” a singer. We have a longstanding tendency to view female singers as mere puppets, as only voicing the words of others. Moreover, we tend to view female pop singers as making music for teen girls, and not as artists making music for adults to both think about and enjoy.
b.    I am continually shocked by otherwise intelligent and carefully-thinking critics and academics who just cannot admit that Beyoncé’s work may be critical—they seem to have some implicit biases that blind them to the possibility that commercial pop by a black female singer can be anything than conformist drivel. Throughout my work on this blog, and in more traditional academic venues, I’ve pointed out the moments in Bey’s and others’ works that trouble dominant interpretive frameworks and cannot be reduced to “mere conformism.” If you look carefully at the work, the evidence is there. But some implicit biases must be working to prevent people from actually seeing the evidence that is quite clearly there.

[i] I wonder if the Beyoncé Knowles/Sasha Fierce split isn’t also relevant here, and worth examining further. In interviews about “I Am…Sasha Fierce,” Bey indicated that she herself is pretty “boring”—square, “white-bread” even. She invented Fierce as a character or persona through which to channel a more “extreme” performative identity/effect. So Bey might not at all be excessively sexual, excessively confrontational—she might just be, as Touré’s recent article suggests, the nicest little blonde girl ever. But that doesn’t sell when you’re a black female artist, because you’re always already read through the controlling images of your excessive sexuality. So Bey invents Fierce to intervene in “misinterpretations” of her performances of her “self.” But she doesn’t use Fierce to facilly reproduce stereotypes—she uses this character to exacerbate the misinterpretations, to make arguments ad absurdam that critique the very stereotypes she seems to traffic in.


  1. amen.

    i think the gaga/beyoncé pairing is endlessly fascinating precisely because it makes visible all the amazingly busted assumptions and arguments you demolish here.

    a few cents-worth i'd like to add in, though:

    on (1) -

    i've always found readings of gaga as in any way queer or radical deeply unconvincing, and more an expression of critics' fantasies than what's actually going on in her music.

    lyrically, gaga's message is actually quite overtly conservative: a minoritizing, essentializing, biologizing 'born that way' understanding of sexuality, of precisely the kind dear to the hearts of advocates of selective abortion and hormonal 'cures'...

    and on top of that, she's blatantly disconnected from queer culture and vernacular musical culture (and particularly so from african american queer and musical cultures) - most obviously when she tries to give herself honorifics that can't be self-awarded: the ball-scene's "mother" and jazz musicians' "monster".

    on (2)a -

    it'd be interesting to look at the critical response to gaga's work, and see just how much of her alleged 'explicit queerness' actually depends on beyoncé's performance in the "Telephone" video. i'd bet that the answer is A Whole Lot.

    on (4) [and (2)a(i)3] -

    some of beyoncé's *videos* are similarly far more formally complicated and interesting than most of gaga's. "Single Ladies", for instance - which could perhaps be put in a minimalist queer music video lineage with "Untitled (How Does It Feel)" and "Cold War"...

    and perhaps more relevantly, "Why Don't You Love Me", which takes on the visual iconography that goes with its retro(gressive) lyrics, and rips it to shreds. it does everything "Far From Heaven" tried to do, and does it more thoroughly and with more complicated racial politics. and the rosie the riveter reference could be read as a nod to both feminist critiques of white suburban patriarchy and to african american women's workplace feminism of the 1940s war economy.

  2. Thanks, Rozele.

    I agree with your comments about 1a, and your comment on 2a is really interesting! It's worth looking into further...Your read of both SL and WDYLM videos also gives me more to chew on...