Why Beyoncé Matters

Why Beyoncé Matters

One moment — BBC presenter Zane Lowe's on-air dismissal of Beyoncé's Glastonbury performance — has haunted Stephen Graham for months. To him it shows up layers of predjudices about music still rife in our society.

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Beyoncé performing at Glastonbury.

I’ve been haunted by one short event from earlier this year. Not long after Beyoncé’s landmark headline set at the Glastonbury festival in June, I watched as BBC presenter Zane Lowe casually dismissed the American R&B and future-pop singer’s landmark performance. ‘That’s how you entertain people, that’s for sure,’ he jibed, before adding, ‘I went and watched a bit of Queens of the Stone Age.’ Watching a music festival on a screen in your living room can be tedious enough to begin, but this brought the experience to a new low.

Of course, Lowe can hear and think whatever he wants, but his tone in that broadcast bothered me. His off-hand rejections seemed to me to assume hoary old oppositions between rock and pop, between men and women, and between ‘entertainment’ and ‘serious’ music – oppositions that we surely should have left behind by this point.

And Lowe’s reaction, despite the general glow of praise in the mainstream press, was far from unique. Across Facebook and Twitter, I read comments like ‘Beyoncé at Glastonbury was complete garbage’, ‘Boring Vegas product’ and ‘It’s a disgrace having her there’. How could even the greatest cynic deny the vitality of this breathtaking performer, I asked? Where does it come from, this hostility?

Some months later, I sense that much of this derives from three closely-related prejudices.

The first concerns the framing of black music such as Beyoncé’s as ‘pure entertainment’. This attitude relies upon a strict division that places ‘entertainment’ (pop, disco) on one side, and ‘serious music’ (rock, hip-hop) on the other. Although race is less of a factor than it would have been twenty or thirty years ago, a gender-based division persists. Women do X; men do Y. Such a dichotomy is clearly helpful to no one, and in fact only limits our ability to see and hear of any of this music in its proper cultural context.

The second prejudice is much less clear-cut in terms of cultural politics. It is inarguable that what New Yorker writer Ariel Levy termed ‘raunch culture’ now dominates Western society. Watching Britney Spears’ video for her song ‘I’m a Slave for You’ in 2001, I was shocked that such a salacious video was being shown before the watershed. Now, with Spears apparently naked in many of her videos, and artists such as the Pussycat Dolls driving a Playboy-aesthetic into little girls’ hearts around the world, ‘I’m a Slave for You’ seems, if not quaint, then certainly ominous.

But it would be short-sighted to condemn female artists (most often the victims of this culture after all) for wearing fewer and fewer clothes in a culture that demands this of them. It would also be missing something fundamental to tar all women who present themselves in this way with the same brush of disapproval. Lady Gaga, for instance, is one artist for whom the concepts of nakedness and sexuality do not function as opportunities to titillate, but rather as ambiguous zones where estrangement and de-familiarisation are the abiding concerns.

As for Beyonce, you’d be hard pushed to identify anything but a powerful, self-confident womanhood in her performances, skin on show or not. This sense of personal confidence, not to mention Beyoncé’s potent musical ability and artistic command, is the level at which people engage with her performances. She wears revealing outfits, but uses her sexuality in different ways to the gothic manner of Lady Gaga, and with a more astute awareness of it than the Pussycat Dolls. Beyoncé even embeds (sometimes naïve, but often cutting) feminist-orientated messages in her lyrics and her interviews — in this, and in her forceful stage presence, you could even say she is critiquing the culture from the inside.

As much a dancer as a singer or composer, Beyoncé’s videos are filled with properly iconic body-moves, from the hand-flip and backward stomp of ‘Single Ladies’, to the communal hip-shaking of ‘Crazy in Love’. Beyoncé’s Glastonbury performance was filled with stunning re-enactments of these gestures. What stuck out for me, was the way she managed to articulate both a sense of embodied liberation and a sense of machinic grace in these choreographed sequences, as well as in the more general capricious prowls and gesticulations that dominated her sweaty performance — a caprice evident as much in the sandpaper power of her vocals as in the fluid and funky movements of her body. The tension between these two elements was the source of much of the Glastonbury performance’s power.

The third prejudice polarising opinion about artists like Beyoncé, I believe, has to do with this area of music and the body being intrinsically linked. Popular music has long been what one might call a ‘body-genre’, a genre where embodied practices such as dancing, kissing, or singing are at the heart of its reception and production. Rock music, though to some extent body-orientated, at best seeks to push bodies to a brutal and de-personalised ecstasy, or, at worst, leave them stock-still in a field. Beyoncé’s total body-music, on the other hand, puts on show a sense of what the writer David Foster Wallace described in relation to watching tennis player Roger Federer as, ‘human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body’. Like Federer, Beyoncé seems ‘exempt from physical laws’, and, in the performance of this exemption, seems to ‘catalyze our awareness of how glorious it is to touch and perceive’.

It is because Beyoncé so intensifies this sense of embodiment, a sense of embodiment which attends all musical experience, that her performance at Glastonbury so raised the anachronistic hackles of a certain type of critic.

In its forty-year history, Glastonbury has hosted seventy-nine headline acts, of which four were female. Beyoncé is only the eighth woman to have participated in the festival as either whole or part of a headline act, out of the many hundreds of total headlining participants. If those pitiable statistics just quoted are to be redressed in any meaningful way at Glastonbury, as much as at other festivals, we need to engage performances like Beyoncé’s with the theoretical seriousness — as well, of course, as the instinctual joy — they deserve.

Published on 5 October 2011

Stephen Graham is a lecturer in music at Goldsmiths, University of London. He blogs at www.robotsdancingalone.wordpress.com.

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