8/29/07

Thoughts of Knowles

Work in progress.


LOOKING SO CRAZY RIGHT NOW: DANGER, DESIRE, AND CULTURAL CONSUMPTION IN THE WORK OF BEYONCÉ KNOWLES

Beyoncé's work is concerned (both formally and aesthetically) with destruction. Her songs don't function around "choruses" so much as break-downs / breakthroughs. Hooks and samples are syncopated into mantras. Her "riffing" leads invariably to explosive conclusion. Every song finds Beyoncé reaching some sort of limit (emotional, musical, lyrical) and abandoning self and voice. She sings her way out of her own songs.

[I can't find the article right now, but I read a brilliant piece about how Beyoncé may well help the Western Empire defeat the Islamic fundamentalists. Like Elvis and Rock and Roll, Beyoncé's flavor of coded, commodified, and indelibly American sexuality serves to destabilize oppressive aspects of global cultures. I did not come up with this theory, but I am expanding it to say that, basically: Beyoncé's "Bootylicious" is arguably the West's most powerful weapon of Imperialism.]

"Irreplaceable" is lyrically triumphant, mean, tough. Her vocal melody, however, is tragic, belying the meaning of the lyrics. Beyoncé entirely self-consciously subverts the ballad form (and in this subversion tops radio charts all over the planet). Part of this subversion is a certain implication of the listener in the emotional schema of the song. We are to understand that she sings new kind of ballad, employing a form she is familiar with to her own ends. The humor of the song includes the listener, we know what she is talking about. Beyoncé's songs are thus written "for the fans" because of some empathic bond between she sees between herself and women, lovers, hearts everywhere. We are in collusion with Beyonce, in our tacit understanding of the difficult, specific emotional stance of the song (this is what songs are for: to express the inexpressible). By the end of the song, 'to the left' includes us, we know these words. The song's emotional landscape includes us, and therefore the formal sleight-of-hand includes us as well. By including us in the psychic discourse of the wronged lover, Beyoncé collaborates with the listener in reframing the ballad form.

Every Beyoncé song is sort of a sing-along, since we are all supposed to be familiar with Beyoncé's work. This familiarity is readily available to us, one need only turn to the radio, Internet, television or newspaper to encounter some aspect or mention of Beyoncé Knowles (this is what 'Superstar' means). And it behooves us to familiarize ourselves with her work; Beyoncé's work is America's work. She references, includes, assimilates and recasts the entire history of American Pop and Soul music.

Where Warhol employed methods of pastiche, using the visual lingo of advertising and blue-collar American commerce, Beyoncé similarly draws upon traditions of American soul music.
This serves a number of aesthetic aims:

a) Beyoncé appropriates postmodern popular culture by literally inserting herself into the discourse of modernity, thereby rendering void any discourse that does not include her. Where Warhol screened Monroe in varying hues to reify her icon status and nullify her humanity, Beyoncé works as both subject and maker of her own art. Marilyn screening herself, to make herself look like Aretha Franklin. Beyoncé's overwhelming influence, popularity, and media presence recast the mediums in which she works (balladry, melisma, soul, funk) with her own songs as culmination, end-point. In designating the first Destiny's Child album as "Neo-Soul", Beyoncé necessarily inserts Destiny's Child's entire career, iconography and legacy as the vanishing point of Neo-Soul.

b) In canonizing soul music and black culture, Beyoncé challenges the American idiom of popularity versus ethnic identity. It is no longer a function of her racial, political, gendered, class- or location, specific identities. The desire Beyoncé sings is neutered, commodified, and intricately reconstructed beyond personality. This elevates elements of actual identity into dominant social discourse (while simultaneously rendering them, again, flat, facile, and void).

c) By introducing soul music to white teenage girls in the Midwest (and across the world), Beyoncé reinvents and comments upon not only the discourses of Soul music in general, but her own work. Beyoncé's work is so over-reaching and all-encompassing that the only thing it can be compared with is itself. Beyoncé is able to create an art which contextualizes and comments on itself.

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