“You must not know about me.”
No lie, B. I must not know about you. Every time I get to thinking you’re — dare I say it? — replaceable, and relegate you to the comfortable status of guilty pleasure, you get restless. You seem to move — again, dare I say it? — a little to the left. While I am mostly unmoved by the political content of your so-called “feminist” anthems — “Survivor,” “Independent Women,” “Irreplaceable” — your unexpected flashes of strangeness hypnotize me. “Hypnotize” is the right word, since these flashes are almost always visual.
I am thinking of your ecstatic interpretation of West African dance in your “Déjà Vu” video, which sparked a wildfire of formal Internet petitions demanding a return to “real” dancing. I am thinking of “Ring the Alarm,” where you’re like Basic Instinct’s Sharon Stone loose in Guantanamo. I’m thinking, and again, of “Upgrade U,” where you’re done up in semi-drag, Jay-Z’s voice dubbed and rat-a-tatting out of your gloss-slicked lips. But it’s been a year or so, and there’s a barrage of other images that mute and mock the ones I like. And so there is a paid-out stretch, a thin stretch, where I don’t listen to you, I only hear you. And your voice, though agile, full of power, in a word, accomplished, turns me chilly.
Oh, Beyoncé. There is no doubt the girl is up to something, and that she is explicitly interested in girlness. She went to great lengths, recently, to form an all-female backing band called “Suga Mama” to celebrate and make visible female musicianship. I’ve already rehearsed her list of songs lauded as empowering. OK, maybe. But it is difficult to make a case for her feminism, which loses a lot of life in this material world. Back when Aretha famously inverted Otis Redding’s “manthem” “Respect” for the 1960s working woman of color, it seemed, somehow, enough. But decades passed, and Madonna rolled through with “Material Girl”’s icy input on the subject.
By the time we get to B, it’s cruel and clear that money will not emancipate us. Cue to “Upgrade U”: It’s hard to decide how large-and-in-charge it is to see B’s mouth stuffed with a diamond the size of a baby’s fist. Just when you think you had it all … she sings … it’s in your mouth and it chokes you, I would conclude. The only way she can wiggle free of her jewel-studded corset in the video is by slipping into baggy jeans and a button-down, then taking on the voice of her boyfriend. Her mimicry is impeccable, even as she keeps her hoops and lip gloss poppin’. It is so impeccable, so authoritative, that it seems to require extra degradation of her female incarnation — extra body oil, extra writhing, extra diamond-studded masochism — in order to keep it cool for the common man. And fear not! In the end, Jay-Z swoops back into his own body and saves the day from drag. You can never be too careful when playing with fire. B’s always sure to let the heat diffuse.
But now she’s back with a new song and a new video — a smooth, cinematic, melancholy little story done in black and white about the freedom she would have to flirt and fight if she were a boy. The plot is simple — her character takes on the life and behavior of her man for a day, and sees if he likes how he’s treated (he does not). “If I Were A Boy” has all the weaknesses of her other girl-power songs, all their lyrical compromise and vocal vapidity. And yet, not having seen her for a while, I am again overwhelmed by the power of her physical presence. She is — I’ve diagnosed it — a genius of gesture. As soon as she takes on the character of a young, middle-class, boy-brained police officer, she is utterly casual, utterly careless, possessed of a natural surety that contrasts sharply with her usual brand of almost desperate power and fiercely disciplined displays of confidence. The performance is pitch perfect, the cock of her cop cap just so, so much that it is difficult to imagine that the swagger is not her own.
What prohibits that ease elsewhere? As in “Upgrade U,” the costume changes are quick. The video ends with proper roles restored, as though that swagger were a mask and her tense, tight beauty the true face of things. But the two cast doubt upon one another that the maintenance of either persona would not incite, so that “you must not know about me” becomes a kind of injunction that protects against deciding between the two. Who?
Carina del Valle Schorske is a senior in Ezra Stiles College.