Friday, October 24, 2008

Beyoncé, Don't Be Hatin'

Oh, Beyoncé .

For a long time, Beyoncé was my girl. I knew I shouldn't like her thanks to all the Destiny's Child hijinks back in the early years of this decade, but damn, that girl knew how to deliver hits. And she was so professional, so poised and just so great. "Crazy in Love" didn't start to get old until last year, that's how good it was.

A guy I know once noted that all Beyoncé/Destiny's Child songs are about how their men have screwed them--and while they do have positive songs about men, they're few and far between and are usually not the singles. It's funny that Beyoncé is still singing these songs, because she's married now to her beau of six years, Jay-Z. "Crazy in Love", after all, like many of the songs on her multiplatinum Dangerously in Love, is about him.

Beyoncé has a new album coming out November 18. Her obvious competition now is Rihanna, who, thanks to her glut of singles the past few years, will soon be taking a break. Beyoncé's done the curious thing and released two single simultaneously, one for R&B/urban radio and one for the pop audience. It's kind of an odd strategy--I'm not in favor of rushing singles, as I feel they can cannibalize one another and shorten the album's lifespan. Both singles--one a ballad, the other a club jam--will inevitably be compared to one another, fighting it out for greater prominence.

Both singles are lacking, but "Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)" edges out "If I Were a Boy" just by its sheer danceability. "If I Were a Boy" drags. Both songs share thematic similarities--both men screwed up badly and she's gone for good. A DJ on the radio, introducing "Single Ladies", called it the song that all the girls are going to go wild for in the club, and it's meant for that with its calling of "All the single ladies (repeat) / Now put your hands up" in the opening. Who knew women were clamoring for a song about being dumped because their man wouldn't marry them!

"Single" is a term that can mean two things: a person is not married, or they are not in a relationship. It's generally meant as the latter, but here she uses the census definition. Like many “single” songs, the girl has just broke it off with her man, and is all about having fun with her friends. This sentiment is seen in Pink's extremely frank "So What" and in many Destiny's Child/Beyoncé songs. It's a true enough feeling, one that seems to get too much airplay, but ok.

But where I object is the overt message of the song, that in order for the man to keep her, he should have put a ring on it. It's also noteworthy that the lyric is "If you liked it then you shoulda put a ring on it"--not her, not me, not my finger, not my love. What is this it? Sex? Companionship? The relationship? Her? I guess it is easier to rhyme with (although it only rhymes with it here, so it's a poor excuse). Why?

The problem also with celebrity is that we know Beyoncé got her man, she got her ring. She won, essentially, if that's the game you're playing. So she’s saying that if you want to get married and the guy doesn't, if he's not ready for that commitment, then throw him to the wind--he's not treating you right. She "cried her tears, for three good years"--either waiting for him or putting up with him, and now she's done.

What's fascinating is that apparently Beyoncé is not that type of girl. She didn't want an engagement ring. So why--if she considers herself untraditional--does she espouse such retroactive thinking in her music? "Single Ladies" does sound very much like her last single (also only sent to R&B/urban markets), "Get Me Bodied", a favorite of mine. She's talked about her multiple personalities through her music, especially her wild and crazy stage persona Sasha, and "Single Ladies" is very Sasha.

"If I Were a Boy" is her imagining of what it would be like to be a boy. This sentiment has also been expressed before (but what hasn't in popular music?), recently in Ciara'sLike a Boy”, even reminding me of Madonna's "What It Feels Like for a Girl" (album version). “If I Were a Boy” really only works with the music video—again featuring a lyin’, cheatin’ boyfriend. Seriously B, one gets the idea from your music that you’re married to one hell of a loser if that’s all you sing about. Beyoncé has two love interests, one black and one white, a twist notably used in Rihanna’s “Unfaithful”. I’ve seen this in videos featuring mixed-race lead female singers, as a way of showing both sides, although the boyfriends tend to be black. The song alone is spare, but her vocals just don’t hold interest, while in the video the swoops in her voice underscore the tension in the plot. The lyrics seem particularly stupid, especially the chorus:

If I were a boy
I think I could understand
How it feels to love a girl
I swear I'd be a better man
I'd listen to her
Cause I know how it hurts
When you lose the one you wanted
Cause he's taking you for granted
And everything you had got destroyed

I don’t think loving someone else, at its core, is that different from gender to gender. And of course, if she’s becoming a male version of herself she’s going to project that she’s going to do all the wonderful things she wants her boyfriend to do.

If Beyoncé is trying to do something different and expand her reach, more power to her. But she’s one of the most successful artists of this decade (along with the aforementioned Rihanna), and so much of her music is based on attacking men. In this world, they’re all horrible people and women should be independent women, but they somehow go back to the losers time and again. They never learn. Beyoncé needs to move beyond this awful stereotype, especially as her own relationship is widely looked upon as an example of doing it right. She’s setting her listeners up for failure by constantly invoking that men suck, and her male fans are getting quite the slight. After all, she’s married to a guy that’s widely known to be devoted to her (he sings her praises constantly, as do other rappers wishing they were able to tap that), so why malign an entire gender? Her women don’t look so good, either. So Beyoncé , please, if you’re ready to grow up career-wise, please consider your subject matter.


John said...

"It's also noteworthy that the lyric is 'If you liked it then you shoulda put a ring on it'--not her, not me, not my finger, not my love. What is this it? Sex? Companionship? The relationship? Her? I guess it is easier to rhyme with (although it only rhymes with it here, so it's a poor excuse)."

This is why we need a better public school system: Pronouns can't just change what they're substituting in mid-sentence! People like you and I will get confused? Now I think that the message of the song is to put a ring on the girl's va-jay-jay (what a silly word) or something!

Hmmmm. Maybe it's a great big advertisement for the NuVa Ring, then? Perhaps the next big musical push for contraception since TLC started wearing condoms as fashion accessories?

petpluto said...

"Perhaps the next big musical push for contraception since TLC started wearing condoms as fashion accessories?"

I say we go with John's interpretation.

Seriously though, wonderful post. I don't listen to Beyonce much, not because I don't like her but because I just... ...don't. I have no good reason for it. But your examination of the issues - especially the "it" issue and the "all men suck, but women keep going back or flitting from loser to loser" being toxic to both genders - is awesome. Definitely food for thought.