Beyoncé, song-videos, and bodies

Beyonce

So, this may be slightly out of left field, but here are my top eleven Beyoncé tracks! I’ll save you remonstrations about the subjectivity and limitations of lists – this is just a list of my favourite Beyoncé songs, ordered according to my taste, and my mood as I write.

Basically, it’s an excuse to talk about one of my favourite artists, Beyoncé Knowles. I consider her solo music and her work with Destiny’s Child as equally applicable here.

(The first entry is much, much longer than any other.)

1. Single Ladies

Single Ladies, the song and the video, is one of the greatest art works of the twenty-first century. If Mark Fisher can claim the same of Billie Jean and the twentieth century, then I have grounds to do so with this.

I say song and video for two reasons.

First, it’s fair to say that contemporary pop videos are, in a lot of cases, almost as an important component part of textual meaning production as songs ‘themselves’. In other words, often videos of songs are as responsible for producing affect in relation to our experience of different tracks, as the sound of the music is. This is less the case now, of course (though plenty of other textual discourses mediate the meaning of music, for example the atmosphere and social codes in a club when we see a DJ, or the dress and behaviour of conductors when we see a symphony, or the acting of the performers in an opera, etc.), but videos are still key to a lot of songs’ impact. Try to imagine ‘Thriller’ at a remove from its video, or ‘Bittersweet Symphony’, or ‘Gangnam Style’…it’s hard to believe that these songs would have had anything like the same impact if they had been released in an era without videos. (Admittedly this is in many respects a nonsensical thought experiment, since these pieces are more song-videos than songs, and as such it’s unfair to amputate them and then ask, ‘are they whole’?) The video of ‘Single Ladies’, needless to say, is fairly central to its production of affect/pleasure, offering narration and possible recoding of some of the song’s ideas.

Second, it is the case that Beyoncé is an especially bodily performer. I wrote an article which, essentially, substituted ‘Beyoncé’ as the subject into Foster-Wallace’s ‘Federer as Religious Experience’, where the writer had tried to get to grips with his sense that watching Roger Federer gives us of being not only embodied creatures, but also that those bodies are capable of amazing feats of proprioceptive kinaesthetics. Beyoncé does a similar thing: her performances are a channel to magical thinking, trafficking in the most bewildering feats of vocal/movement signifyin’ as they do. Sit and watch her Glastonbury show, and bathe in the spectacle of our generation’s James Brown, one of the greatest live performers of recent times, and the teacher of sublime lessons of embodiment and joy. Considering all this, it makes sense that with this, her most ‘iconic’ of videos (and I mean that term in both of its senses), I would place it pretty much on a level with the song as analytical text.

So, why exactly do I find this song-video so interesting?

First off, it’s so joyous. It’s hard to make joyous music, to achieve that effect of being light-on-your-feet and exuberant, without coming across as being either cloying or self-conscious. ‘Single Ladies’ is neither of those things; it is genuine and generous in its joy.

It is also, like very little music out there, complex in its simplicity, and simple in its complexity. Its sonic palette is limited to some repeating percussion sounds, harmonised voice/s, little touches of synth and synth bass at certain points, and some whishing and blorping sound effects. The only other recent (hit) track to be so sonically sparing, so Kurtagian or Webernian (at least in this respect), is Nicki Minaj’s ‘Beez in the Trap’. The extravagance of this reductionism crosses over into the realm of the avant garde…

…The voice moves spritefully around an E major scale, shifting vividly into the parallel minor for the bridge (‘Don’t treat me to things of this world…’). A kick drum beats out a simple syncopated repeated pattern (semi-quaver/dotted quaver, crotchet, dotted quaver/semi-quaver, rest), whilst a light clapping sound in quavers repeats throughout. The synth pops in with a slightly dissonant B-C, B-A X2 motif on the repeat in each chorus, and does similar enough things in the bridge. That’s about it. There are no harmonic instruments, and the melodic ones, outside the voice/s, are simply the touches of synth. There are also no pads for the ear to latch on to, and to ground the track in some sort of sonic/harmonic context. It’s all rhythm and voice here, with simple interlocking parts building into a glorious groove, and the FX giving the track a sense of light, estranging, future shock.

This is all to the good, but the video itself, the voguing hand move, the Astaire and Fosse-inspired dancing threesome, the frankly sexual and thrusting hip revolution as the body moves to the ground, and the feet and fist stomp that is everybody’s favourite dance move – these are all essential to our sense of ‘Single Ladies’ as being a piece of joy and of joy-making power, made of sound, song, dance and visuals, that is unparalleled.

Now, finally, to the lyrics and the apparent ‘message’ or metameaning. There is a cocktail of signs and codes in this song-video, and I don’t want to spend too much more time unpacking them. Suffice it to say, I don’t think the seemingly conventional interpretation of the song – that it is a tribute to heterotraditional marriage, which seemingly endorses men’s role as agents, and women’s as objectified (‘it’) property, is plausible. Sure, that’s somewhere in there, and I can see why people might take it that way, but the situation is much complex than that. For example; why on earth is Beyoncé wearing a robot hand on her ‘wedding’ hand? Why, if the song is purportedly endorsing a traditional, property-based view of marriage, does Beyoncé sing in the bridge, often the moment of narrative resolution in pop songs:

‘Don’t treat me to these things of the world
I’m not that kind of girl
Your love is what I prefer, what I deserve
Is a man that makes me then takes me
And delivers me to a destiny, to infinity and beyond
Pull me into your arms
Say I’m the one you want
If you don’t, you’ll be alone
And like a ghost I’ll be gone’?

It’s Her Factory has a really interesting reading of the track, in fact, which picks up on these two elements. For her, ‘Single Ladies’ is an ‘Afrofuturist feminist critique of heterosexual courtship’. The robotic sound effects of the song, the small baby robots crying for attention, point up the cyborgian codes of the text. The robot hand, in this reading, represents the kind of property-relation that women have historically been subjected to within marriage and patriarchal structures more generally. Women, here, equate to robots. Beyoncé is lampooning this kind of relation and idea, offering instead an alternative vision of love as being more important than property:

‘Instead of humanist marriage, Beyoncé says she wants an extraterrestrial relationship, one that, like Buzz Lightyear, can transport her offworld, “to infinity and beyond!” Preferring robots and extraterrestrials to traditional hetero-capitalist gender roles, “Single Ladies” uses Afrofuturism to queer white heteropatriarchy’.

Now, I don’t fully go along with this reading, since it needs to privilege some elements over others, such as the general interpretation of the song, which counts, and the bridge lyrics over those of the verse, which would by contrast seem to give credence to the view that lyrics should be taken as more of a straightforward narrative. The reading, then, privileges some elements, whilst also being somewhat over-certain of the veracity of its own perspective. So, whilst instinctively I would go along with the feminist Afrofuturist take, and would point out that the more general affective feel here, so important to whatever political meaning audiences take from things, is of a very strong and gifted woman being owned by no one but herself and her own talent (despite the amount of clothes she’s wearing, which isn’t a problem to me, but is to others, though that’s another debate entirely), I don’t think the evidence is quite there to support the feminist Afrofuturist reading fully. (Although, of course, seeing the lyrics and song as operating within a kind of ‘double utterance’ signifyin’ space seems perfectly credible, where the verse simply narrate a different perspective to the chorus/bridge; this would open the interpretation out to even more complexity and to a bit of ambiguity.)

In any case, I’ve rabbited on for far too long. Suffice it to say, ‘Single Ladies’, with its joyous funk-cyborg complexity in simplicity, is one of my favourite things ever

2. Independent Women

This was the first moment when I really took notice of Beyoncé as Beyoncé. Though it has that slightly questionable girl power feel in its lyrics (gender positive lyrics are all very well, but song lyrics will make little but a jot of difference in terms of productive resistance to structural oppression), the song itself is wonderful, with its, once again, funk bass pushing against all the other elements, its really effective and punchy use of each member and each moment of its form, and its glorious, a capella bridge.

3. Sweet Dreams

There’s a bit of the case of the ‘Single Ladies’ about this one, in that that fantastic arm-on-upper torso gesture (on ‘my guilty pleasure’) in the video really lifts an already inspired piece of music into virtuosic body-knowing. The song itself, well it’s all about that glamouring bass/drum/voice tattoo heard right at the beginning…

4. Halo

This could be piffle, with its ‘inspiring’ lyrics, its trite chords, and its somewhat unadventurous (though effective) arrangement, but in B’s* hands it’s gold. It’s all to do with the voice, about which I haven’t actually said that might thus far. What is remarkable about Beyoncé’s voice, I think, apart from its general trenchancy and dexterousness in terms of basic R&B and ballad voice production, is the almost unmatched technical polish and control it achieves within the most fervent of emotional, upper-register climaxes. Whether we’re talking about a throat-tearing futuR&B whizz bang effort like ‘Single Ladies’ or an old school banger like ‘Déja Vu’, or a ballad like ‘Listen’, there are usually moments where at its very top, where other singers would switch to head voice, if they even could maintain intonation and pitching, Beyoncé sticks with her growling chest voice, bringing the listener along into a body-affect of the most thrilling intensity and heft. You can hear it a bit in the live performance above of ‘Halo’, but I would recommend going to the bridge of Déja Vu, the ‘ yeah, yeaaaaaah’ of ‘Get me Bodied’, or just watch that bloody Glasto performance, for illustration of what I mean.

If you watched the most recent series of X Factor, you will have seen a similar enough thing with James Arthur, though he’s not quite at her level just yet.

5. Get me Bodied

Banger! The title could be taken as a manifesto for B and her work…

6. Déja Vu

The first single and opener of B’s second album, B’Day, which might be her best single work in this medium (though all of her albums are a little inconsistent). Another astonishing vocal performance here, this time in the context of 1970s funk updated with some splashes of modern colour and a great intro/verse from Jay Z. But what really makes the song stand out is its array of amazing little details, from the subtle syncopations of the anchoring bass, to B’s voice on the structurally very interesting extended bridge after the rap section, to the wonderful rhythmic displacement that happens when Jay Z says ‘Cause you gon’ need help tryna study my bounce, flow, blow’, where the expected rhyming pattern and stress cycle of the rap suddenly moves, on ‘bounce’, from a set of firm downbeat, downbeat, downbeat accents, on to an hilariously and confusingly syncopated stress.

7. Listen

Beyoncé’s performance of this song – which was shoehorned into Dreamgirls and added to B’Day as a bonus track – with Alexandra Burke in the final of X Factor (above), needs to be seen to be believed. It’s that voice, again, which pushes the thing, which at bottom is a solid and well put together ballad, into really interesting and moving territory.

8. Bootlyicious

Holy hell this is a lot fun…Though it doesn’t quite supersede its Stevie Nicks source (a Nicks top ten would probably be lot of fun), this song is seared into my mind as a carrier of a part of 2001…

9. Love on Top

Well, this is just something else entirely. Girl group and early-1990s R&B pastiche of the most thrilling and effective kind, this is the kind of song that saves lives. Honestly, I can’t really marshal too many words as to why this brutally simple song – the chord sequence, for one, is profoundly trite – has such a powerful effect on me, other than to say that the kind of sonic space it conjures up hits straight at the heart of so much about music that was current when I was at a, let’s say ‘impressionable’ age, and, secondly, that its incredibly cheeky use of an ever-rising key modulation scheme, going up and up and up and up once more, reminds me of something Brian Wilson would do, and did do, after a fashion. Also, B’s voice, as the chord platform is rising, just crushes it.*

10. Countdown

The estranging elements of the song were said to attract ‘hipsters’, but it’s the melding of head-spinning and twirling neo-soul arrangement and form, a great vocal performance, the typically endearing lyrics, and the queer hook of the countdown itself, that sell it for me. The video is a work of majesty, too, though I won’t really discuss it here, since it came along long after I had processed and enjoyed the song.

11.Irreplaceable

Girl Power! I know what I said earlier about these kinds of lyrics, but there’s a part of me that just eats this stuff up. In any case, this skews to the pop end of Beyoncé’s output, but gloriously so. Notable are rather elegant narrative construction of the lyrics, the simplicity of the music and its ‘to the left’ hook, and the especially impressive modulation of the vocal performance, which slowly becomes more expansive in terms of ornament and decoration, and more intensely extrovert in terms of its strength; cf. ‘I could have another you’, which starts out falsetto, and ends howl.

*Honourable mentions to ‘Say my Name’, ‘Crazy in Love’, and this live performance of ‘Run the World’.

*It will be noted that I skew to Beyoncé’s second and third albums here. Whilst I really liked 4, I felt it lacked anything of the calibre of ‘Single Ladies’ or even ‘Déja Vu’, though songs like ‘Countdown’, ‘Love on Top’, ‘End of Time’, and others, aren’t in fairness all that far off…

*Please excuse my embarrassing use of this shorthand.

*And this term.

Thanks for reading!

2 Responses to “Beyoncé, song-videos, and bodies”

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