why Beyoncé’s BEYONCÉ matters
Beyoncé released a surprise visual album last week and broke the internet. iTunes crashed and social media lost its collective shit. The sheer magnitude of Beyoncé’s star power is such that she doesn’t need promo. She doesn’t need to slowly drop singles one by one, or sell merchandise, or convince everyone to buy an app. In staging a surprise release, Beyoncé cut out the middleman. She ignored the pull of stations that would have flogged her singles and channels that would have inundated us with her videos – she gave her art directly to her fans. That’s what music is meant to be about. We need artists to be daring and to break conventions. By the end of the 24 hours after BEYONCÉ’s release, the answer to 2010’s question, ‘who run the world?’, was crystal clear.
The album is good. It’s layered, complex and easily her least accessible project yet. A lot of people aren’t going to like it for that reason. They’ll hate it for its lack of simplicity; they’ll hate it because they expect Beyoncé to record an endless stream of ‘Crazy in Love’s and ‘Halo’s. But Beyoncé is evidently not interested in making carbon copy hits. She’s interested in evolution, in deeply personal art and using her craft to reflect who she is as an artist – and, largely, a person. On BEYONCÉ, we have the usual soaring vocals, but they’re set against beats usually reserved for on-trend rappers; the sonic landscape is reminiscent of the future-R&B popularised by The Weeknd. The songwriting and arrangements are influenced by a variety of intimate recordings – Prince and D’Angelo; Drake and The xx. It feels like Beyoncé’s giving us more of who she is right now than she ever has. She’s come in to her own as an artist in a way we’ve never seen before.
Among other things, the songs and the accompanying videos are sexy. At this stage in her career, the sexualisation of female pop stars is not at play. Beyoncé is not an artist in need of more fans. She’s not an artist in need of more money. She’s not an artist in need of help from a man. Thus, we can only conclude that the album – the raunch, the sexual openness, and the visuals – is her choice. Beyoncé has always seen power in sex and femininity and never has this been so clearly at play. She has chosen to show an intimate side we’ve never seen before. She has chosen to bare her skin in a way that defines confidence. She has chosen to cast her husband as her partner in the videos. And that’s because Beyoncé trying to tell us that not only is sex okay, it’s healthy. She affirms there is nothing sexier than consent and confidence and flying in the face of inhibition – and I’m on board with that.
On the album, we don’t just get sex. We get every facet of Beyoncé at once. She’s a lover. Sometimes she likes adventurous sex. She likes pleasing her partner. She likes it when her partner pleases her. She’s a mother. She is devoted to her child. She’s a businesswoman. She’s the best at what she does and she knows it. She gets sad. She gets insecure. She gets angry. She loves being in love.
I think the resounding conclusion to be drawn from BEYONCÉ is that, yes, she is a feminist. Beyoncé’s feminist credentials have often been called in to question for a myriad of reasons (her less than conclusive replies to the question, her outfits, the ‘Mrs. Carter’ tour). Too often women are made to feel that once a mother, everything else gets less important. That they can’t be sexual. That they can’t have a career. That they can’t be focused on anything beyond child-rearing. But Beyoncé will and she wants us to know it. She’s telling us that women don’t belong in categories, that they don’t exist behind labels. She’s telling us that if you want to be an ambitious career woman with a baby in one arm and a pair of handcuffs in the other, go for it.
Of course, the differences between the rest of us and Beyoncé must be acknowledged. Not all women have access to the same sort of privileges that make ‘having it all’ possible. And perhaps Beyoncé’s position gets muddied a little because of that difference. Midway through the album, ‘***Flawless’ takes the previously heard ‘Bow Down/I Been On’ and teams it with Housten swag, big basslines and the line ‘I woke up like this – flawless’. Cue the ‘well, great Beyoncé, but I don’t look like you’. This is a perfectly valid reaction. To our ear, flawless means outward beauty, and Beyoncé championing that deviates from the image criticism of previous tracks. But ‘***Flawless’ also features a recording from feminist writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk, in which she expresses her dismay at women being taught to aspire to marriage, of having to compete with each other for that goal in a way men never do. Viewed through that lens, Beyoncé’s ‘I woke up like this’ is less a brag, but an affirmation: ladies, you are flawless exactly the way you woke up and no one else can define your worth.
At the time of writing, BEYONCÉ has sold 900,000 copies in 5 days. It’s captivated blogs and publications alike. Its appearance has floored other artists. It’s thrown a wrench in end-of-year lists and it’s inspired countless memes. But most importantly, it’s taken a stand for women who feel boxed in, who have multitudes; for those who have been told they can’t have it all, or who tie their worth to a man. Beyoncé wants us to feel as strong and powerful as she does; even if it’s just for the time it takes to play 14 songs and 17 videos.