By Jeff Weyant
The person in this video – referred to sometimes as Beyoncé, other times as Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter, depending on whether the speaker wants to characterize his or her subject as a pop star or as an ultra-empowered feminist/cultural icon – confuses me. But then I’m easily confused. For example, it was at an embarrassingly-progressed stage of life when I learned that the pronunciation of the noun “lingerie” had nothing in common with the verb “linger.” Still, understanding in some important way the actions of a professed un-single lady seems meaningful in spite of the present confusion.
The origin story of our eponymous star, thankfully, isn’t all that confusing. It doesn’t require a J.J. Abrams-directed prequel trilogy nor an Alan Moore graphic novel. One long sentence will suffice: Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter was born in Houston, Texas, where as a child she pursued the age-old tradition of singing and dancing which naturally led to the just-as-age-old tradition of performing, a gig which quickly developed into a prominent role at the front of the famed 1990’s/2000’s musical act Destiny’s Child which, after many successful forays into the labyrinthine maze known as the Billboard Charts, went on hiatus (due to normal stuff like “internal conflict,” “exhaustion,” and “former bandmates suing current lineup”), forcing the eponymous star of this article to release a solo album that righteously stormed the already-stormed Billboard Charts and became the basis for the young Houstonian’s vault into the record books (in terms of sales) and into the hearts and minds of billions of people the world over (in terms of everything else), culminating (so far) in the universally-acclaimed performance during this past Sunday’s as-usual-highly-Nielson-rated Super Bowl, a performance which, for most, cemented her legacy (at the tender age of thirty-one) as one of the greatest most awesomely badass female performing artists ever of all time forever.
It’s well-established, then, that Beyoncé is at the top of whatever edifice our culture considers representationally important. She’s friends with basically everyone cool. She sang (perhaps without vocalizing in the present moment) the national anthem at the recent presidential inauguration of her good friend Barack Obama. She gilds with gold whatever she touches. She has a strange website where the background animation is a repeating GIF of her doing something regal in attire befitting her station. And, oh yeah, she’s married to her male counterpart in the musical world, Jay-Z. In sum, she is, according to the third entry at Urban Dictionary, “[t]he female artist of the decade who is hated on by people who are jealous of her fame and extremely great talent. She is also one of the most beautiful women in the world and the top female black artist.” Sad to say, this is one of the more sincere entries on that great website.
All this is common knowledge. And yet The Artist Currently Most Often Referred To As Just Beyoncé perplexes me. Because on the one hand she seems to have expertly crafted a public image that portrays her as a strong-willed, beautiful woman able to achieve her dreams using nothing but copious amounts of elbow grease and a glistening can of Pepsi, the kind of generous, self-sacrificing individual who acts as spokesperson for campaigns like Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! initiative aimed at curbing child obesity, the sort of human being one imagines intelligent feminists created in a laboratory somewhere in Minnesota to be their incredibly effective mascot, effective because she doesn’t overwhelm the opposition with facts and logic and violence but instead with solicitations of admiration and worship against which most of us are essentially defenseless. Because who can ever quibble with the vicissitudes of Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter, the woman who finally conquered the unconquerable heart of Jay-Z (he of 99 problems of which a bitch ain’t one), the woman who donates to charities constantly and seemingly effortlessly, the woman who reunited Destiny’s Child for a brief moment in front of the whole world last Sunday around 7:15pm Arizona time?
Well, me, I guess. And also apparently Harry Belafonte.
“And I think one of the great abuses of this modern time is that we should have had such high-profile artists, powerful celebrities. But they have turned their back on social responsibility. That goes for Jay-Z and Beyonce, for example.” – Belafonte to the Hollywood Reporter
There’s a lot to unpack here (people like Beyonce rarely travel light) and I think it’s best to return to Urban Dictionary. The first and second entries are the same (which doubles as a metaphor about Beyoncé) and they help shed light on my confusion: After saying that Beyoncé “shows who she is,” it is revealed that she, apparently not in contrast, “is extremely careful about how she portrays herself in the media” and that “People take this for a fake or flighty character, but she doesn’t give too much of herself away because she wants to keep a piece of her own integrity and protect her self [sic] and those that she loves.” Comprehensibility issues aside, this provides the most immediate and pressing question concerning Beyoncé: is she quote-unquote for real or is she merely a marketed manipulation, an artificial construct created to win the souls and wallets of everybody everywhere as quickly and as lastingly as possible?
As Hamlet would say, aye, there’s the rub.
My answer, as is probably already clear, is that Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter, as we all know her, exists only on paper. Somewhere in the cavernous recesses of the body we identify with the aforementioned quadrinomial title is the “real” Beyoncé but the only one we’re allowed to see is the one designed to make the most money and in general be the most awesome at all times (generally for the purposes of making money but also for making the hidden Beyoncé feel really nice about life) and that this, of course, is harmful and bad and uncool.
Very few people have wondered aloud about this (mainly because such individuals are universally reviled upon receipt of said public wonderings – Harry Belafonte a case in point) but it bears pondering nevertheless: Why is the most visible spokesperson for one of the nation’s most visible anti-child obesity campaigns also the most visible spokesperson for the leading cause of child-obesity? It’s a surprise to no one that fat children are fat largely because they imbibe truckloads of sugary soft drinks which are not only obesity-inducing but also the cause and suspected cause of lots of other awful health issues, like death, death, and death. Pepsi, who paid for Beyoncé’s ringing endorsement at the Super Bowl, accounts for an embarrassingly-large part of the market share for sugary soft drinks. Beyoncé, then, wants you to lose weight but to keep buying Pepsi while you do it. Which makes, naturally, no sense whatsoever (and is also expressly harmful, because children are more susceptible to whatever’s in front of them more often, and since no one sees the Let’s Move! campaign nearly as often as they see Beyoncé drinking Pepsi, it’s easy to guess which advertisement wins out).
The standard workout routine for Let’s Move! consists of walking to the store to buy more Pepsi products.
Another troubling part of her resume is World Humanitarian Day, which is, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), “a global day to celebrate humanity and the spirit of helping people.” One assumes, rather appropriately, that such a day is to be marked by the selfless, altruistic spirit of an individual like Mother Theresa and not, say, by the arrogated arrogance of an individual like Kanye West. It was interesting, then, that the UNOCHA decided to commemorate this day (which was actually more like a month, but whatever, it’s their terminology) by having Beyoncé stand alone in a white gown in front of the United Nations General Assembly in New York and sing one of the most incomprehensibly self-involved songs in the history of civilization.
Performed on August 10th, 2012 but released worldwide on August 19th, “I Was Here” seeks to impart to the listener the singer’s ardent wish that they be remembered for all the awesome things they did while alive, a small part of which concerned helping other people. The chorus is (and I’m not making some elaborate joke here, this is literally accurately factually what she sang to the world): “I was here, I lived, I loved, I was here, I did, I’ve done everything I wanted and it was more than I thought it would be, I will leave my mark so everyone will know I was here.” If you notice the distinct lack of altruism in this chorus, you’re onto something. Because it’s only occasionally in the verses (and frequently vague at that) that we get any sense that this song is even partially concerned with the welfare of other people. Given the time and venue, it sounds more like a South Park parodic imitation of what a celebrity would sing at such an occasion rather than what they actually sang. But no, it’s real. Painfully real. As if my generation wasn’t already expertly skilled at naval gazing, Beyoncé gave us more validation: do good not because it’s the right thing to do but so that everyone will remember how good you were.
To make matters infinitely worse, Beyoncé has repeatedly failed to question her public associates’ actions and decisions, however harmful they might be. For instance, she values highly her public friendship with Barack Obama but has to yet to comment publicly on anything he might be doing that could construed as, well, “bad,” for instance the sanctioning of the continual slaughter of innocent civilians (mainly children) in Pakistan using fancy remote-controlled airplanes, or really any of his other empire-building initiatives the world over, actions which seem contrary to the spirit of World Humanitarian Day, and she and Jay-Z first endorsed gay marriage only after President Obama gave his own support (and for what it’s worth Beyoncé also didn’t speak out against the various failures of George W. Bush either, unlike her good friend Kanye West, which suggests Beyoncé’s more interested in cultivating relationships with the powerful than using those relationships to make the world better).
Kanye West is more authentic which makes him more obviously obnoxious. But that’s probably a good thing.
The proverbial list goes on and on and it all leads to the same thing, the only viable explanation for Beyoncé’s contradictory actions: she’s a self-interested pop star who cares more about her coffers and her self-worth than she does about the strangers she influences and who willingly help fill those coffers. She donates to charity only if it helps augment her global brand, she offers conflicting messages to impressionable youth, and she maintains a cone of silence around the only things that really matter in life, opting to say nothing at all even when she’s in a position to do the most good. And when she does do something beneficial to somebody other than herself, she has to publicize it endlessly so everyone knows that she was here.
Which brings us to the halftime show at the Super Bowl, which was, fittingly, a summation of her entire career. For while her lyrics on Sunday didn’t necessarily point overtly to a self-aggrandizing agenda (unlike, say, those of her husband) the visual display was more than enough to compensate.
Beyoncé was given free license to immortalize herself in the annals of cultural history. It was no surprise then, given her track record, that the halftime performance was essentially a fifteen minute public service announcement designed to inform the world that Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter exists and is important and is finally worthy of your undying adoration. To say it was maddening to watch is, as is usually the case with these sorts of things, an understatement.
It begins (after a Pepsi intro) with a Vince Lombardi quote broadcast over a stampede of screaming strangers running onto the field, followed by pyrotechnics which illuminate three objects: opposing profile light displays, a giant statue, and the shadowy outline of a female figure, all three of which bear a striking resemblance to Beyoncé herself, a supposition made certain when the shadowy female figure is revealed moments later to be the eponymous singer. The self-deification is agonizing: like all formidable and long-lasting deities, Beyoncé is a tripartite goddess (two-dimensional profile, three-dimensional and huge statue, and three-dimensional and human-sized avatar), greeted and adored by onrushing worshipers. In addition, every other individual on stage throughout the performance will be dressed and made up such that they resemble the reason we’re all watching (a lot like Eminem’s army at the Grammy’s in 2000, except without the cultural critique).
Probably not purposeful but if it was it makes Beyonce the Emily Dickinson of contemporary pop artists.
As the first musical number rolls along aimlessly (because all musical numbers at the Super Bowl roll along aimlessly because they have to be part of a larger, necessarily awkward medley to fit the time and entertainment constraints of being loud and obnoxious as much as possible for fifteen minutes) we are gifted a telling visual: the camera goes birds-eye and Beyoncé is supposed to fit snugly into a circular design meant to enclose her prostrate figure. It and she fail to align and we’re left with an odd image, which can be read two ways: either Beyoncé’s façade isn’t and will never be perfect, allowing people like me to cast those much maligned slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, or it was a purposeful deviation sent as a subliminal signal to people like me who spend way too much time thinking about this shit that the multitudes of Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter can’t be contained by the puny constraints of time and space. Your guess is as good as mine.
At this point we’re three minutes in and I’ve already had enough but against my better judgment I brave the interminable tragedy of Beyoncé’s unutterably depressing self-aggrandizement (depressing because it appears to be contagious) for twelve more minutes, during which the singer jumps around and sings breathlessly out of tune renditions of her Billboard-topping catalogue, making me realize that even Madonna ceded the stage last year to other performers. But not Beyoncé. She declared, once and for all, that she is the contemporary female equivalent of Kanye West, the sort of person interested in two things, making money and cementing one’s legacy as the most awesome and beloved and respected and adored person ever. The only difference is that Kanye, while musically a genius, is otherwise an idiot, particularly with respect to public relations. Not so with Beyoncé, who managed to accumulate laudatory couplets from the entire universe for behavior that we label as megalomaniac in others.
Fittingly, then, the only appropriate way to conclude is through the words of Beyoncé herself. After the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, she was quick to release a charity single, a cut of “God Bless the USA,” the proceeds of which were intended for the New York Police & Fire Widows’ & Children’s Benefit Fund. She went on CNN to premiere the single, participating in a short interview with Piers Morgan afterwards. Now, did she publicize her own awesomeness unnecessarily when a simple anonymous donation would have sufficed? Yes. Did she, instead of donating herself, merely create an opportunity for others to contribute? Yes. And did she needlessly and harmfully invoke the Judeo-Christian deity in the aftermath of a political assassination of a prominent figure in the Muslim world? Yes. But, as she told Piers Morgan, “I cannot think about anything more appropriate to do to help these families.”
Which is basically all you need to know about Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter.