January 22, 2014

Test Spin: Beyoncé, Beyoncé

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Beyoncé’s fifth studio album, Beyoncé: The Visual Album dropped in secret over a month ago. And while there’s not much left to say about the absolute genius of the music, the art direction, the featured performers, the world-ending PR stunt, there’s still plenty to discuss about what this album says about Beyoncé’s feminist evolution.

For one, she’s finally using the f-word: in a Rolling Stone interview last April, Beyoncé declared herself a “modern day feminist,” upping the ante from her 2010 statement in the Daily Mail that she was “feminist in a way” because she valued her female friendships. “***Flawless” takes the teased track “Bow Down Bitches” and adds an excerpt from Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie’s TED Talk “Everyone Should Be a Feminist,” alongside shots of Beyoncé raving in an alley and addressing the women of the world with “we flawless. Ladies tell him, ‘I woke up like this.’”

While Beyoncé initially got a ton of flack for telling bitches to bow down, this reworking makes her intentions much more clear. Feminism is about solidarity, but it’s also about guaranteeing that women can compete with each other and with men and that they can be as proud of those accomplishments as men get to be.

Further, the subtlety with which Beyoncé weaves social commentary in with get-up-and-dance power tracks should serve as the new standard (here’s looking at you, Lily Allen). Several shots in “***Flawless” show Beyoncé on a couch with a white man sitting silently on either side of her — the direct inverse of countless hip-hop videos in which black women fill the same silent star-framing role. Where sleek black cars and back-seat hook-ups are traditionally the territory of hip-hop’s men, Beyoncé claims them for herself in “Partition” and gives the male gaze absolutely no part in its presentation. She also excerpts the French translation of Julianne Moore’s famous lines in The Big Lebowski — Beyoncé is spitting the f-word in two languages now.

The only moment of the album that causes serious unease is Jay-Z’s appearance on “Drunk in Love.” Aside from it being an obviously weak verse (“your breastseses is my breakfast”?) it also includes the line “I’m Ike Turner … so eat the cake Anna Mae, said eat the cake Anna Mae!” Wait, what? “Eat the cake Anna Mae” is a quote from a scene in the Tina Turner-biopic.  In the scene, Ike Turner expresses his jealousy of his wife’s success by shoving cake on her face and then beating her in front of a diner full of people. Beyoncé is mouthing the words behind him; she obviously knows their implication, but there is no way to know what she was thinking with this one. Is it supposed to be an admission by Jay-Z that he sometimes feels jealous of his wife’s unparalleled success? If so, it’s a tacky one.

“Grown Woman” is pure female solidarity — the video features footage of Beyoncé and fellow members of Destiny’s Child throughout their childhood, their glory days, and into the present, all overlaid by the repeating “I’m a grown woman, I can do whatever I want.” While it’s not as aggressive as Yoncé brushing off her critics with a scowl and a puff of cigar smoke or as well-articulated as the Adichie sample, it’s just as important.

In fact, Crunk Feminist Collective published an endorsement of Beyoncé’s homegrown hip-hop feminism, saying, “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.”

“Pretty Hurts” is an open letter to the media industry about the way it warps the psyche of girls in America. “Perfection is the disease of a nation,” is kind of a strange lesson to hear from the mouth of one of the most perfect-looking women in the world, but I’m tired of hearing that Beyoncé’s personal beauty invalidates it.

And anyway, when are we going to stop fighting over what a feminist looks like and who gets to call themselves a feminist? Feminism is a movement about equitably redistributing power, not about splintering it further based on appearance or race or education or occupation.

I’m not offended by Beyoncé bragging about her success or her talent or her ass (“your man ain’t ever seen a booty like this”) because I know, and she knows, that she is standing in a position in which no one else is going to do it for her. Men aren’t handing over a place in hip-hop; elitists aren’t handing over a place in feminism; she sincerely hopes that the “bitches” aren’t handing anything over either — at least not now that she’s told them they don’t have to. Feminism means different things in different situations, even while it is always as simple as Adichie recites: “Feminist: a person who believes in the social, economic and political equality of the sexes.”

Beyoncé discusses “Partition” and the “liberation” she felt while creating The Visual Album.

Music video by Beyoncé performing Self-Titled, Part 4. (C) 2013 Columbia Records, a Division of Sony Music Entertainment