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If you’ve ever seen Beyoncé Knowles astride a concert stage or a red carpet, you know she is a woman with a flair for dramatic entrances. But no previous coup de théâtreprepared the world for the arrival of the singer’s fifth full-length solo record, “Beyoncé,” the “visual album” that airdropped onto iTunes at midnight on Dec. 13, 2013. For months, the music press had seethed with speculation about Beyoncé’s delayed record release, with rumors of disastrous studio sessions and dozens of scrapped songs. “There is utter disarray in Beyoncé’s camp,” the websiteMediaTakeOut.com hissed. It was an unheard-of turn of events for Beyoncé, whose career had been a testament to, as it were, array: a regal, orderly parade from hit to hit, milestone to milestone, strength to strength.
Sure enough, the alleged behind-the-scenes chaos turned out to be the usual behind-the-scenes order, in disguise: While the gossip mills whirred, Beyoncé stealthily recorded 14 songs and shot 17 videos, which she unleashed in that December sneak attack. Purely as a feat of information management, “Beyoncé” was impressive. The National Security Agency couldn’t stop its secrets from spilling all over the place; Beyoncé kept the lid on a project which, conservatively, involved hundreds of individuals — studio musicians, cameramen, key grips, personal assistants, even record executives, as a rule the least trustworthy people on the planet. The arrival of all that music, all at once and out of the blue, was an unprecedented shock-and-awe move, which rocked the record industry back on its heels and convulsed the Internet. A single Beyoncé video is capable of staggering the senses; the simultaneous release of 17 of them — an onslaught of sound and spectacle and costumes and choreography and, in the case of a video like the one for “Rocket,” stately slow-motion images of billowing silk sheets and water droplets tumbling onto Beyoncé’s bare midriff — it was a lot to process. We can only imagine the feelings of Beyoncé’s pop diva competitors, whose carefully plotted monthslong album rollouts were instantly rendered quaint, and moot. That whining, whirring sound you heard on Dec. 13, mingling with the strains of “Drunk in Love” — that was Lady Gaga, in her gloomy castle keep, chainsawing a meat dress into sackcloth.
Beyoncé is 32 years old. She was 9 when she began singing with Girls Tyme, the group she formed with friends in her hometown, Houston; when the successor to Girls Tyme, Destiny’s Child, first cracked the Top 5 on the Billboard Hot 100, in 1998, Beyoncé was just 16. She never seemed like an ingénue, though: Even as a teenager, she had gravitas. In one of the centerpiece songs on the new album, Beyoncé gazes backwards: “Look at me — I’m a big girl now . . . I’m a grown woman.” But the innocence-to-experience cliché doesn’t square with Beyoncé’s life, or art. From the beginning her message has been professionalism, perfectionism, power — ideals exemplified in her fearsome live performances and dramatized in songs that view romance through the lens of finance. Hits like “Bills, Bills, Bills” (1999), “Upgrade U” (2006) and “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” (2008) have found Beyoncé figuratively hunched over a balance sheet, weighing the costs of affections dispensed and luxury goods accumulated. She’s a fit star for our new gilded age, and an apt match, musical and otherwise, for her husband Jay Z, another arch-capitalist. In recent years, Beyoncé has toned down the materialism a bit, but ambition remains her calling card. In the torrid 2011 single “Run the World (Girls)” she sang: “We’re smart enough to make these millions/Strong enough to bear the children/Then get back to business.” The song is a postfeminist anthem, sure. It’s also a business plan that she’s followed to a T.
In 2014, Beyoncé’s grip on the zeitgeist has become a stranglehold. A recent “Saturday Night Live” skit revolved around the gag that Beyoncé-worship has become compulsory in the United States, that Beyoncé refusniks will be tracked down and eliminated by deadly government goons, the Beygency. (“He turned against his country . . . and its queen,” boomed the voiceover.) As “SNL” suggests, Beyoncé has become something more than just a superstar. She is a kind of national figurehead, an Entertainer in Chief; she is Americana. Someday, surely, her “Single Ladies” leotard will take its place alongside Mickey Mouse and the Model T Ford and Louis Armstrong’s trumpet in a Smithsonian display case.
Historically speaking, this is no small achievement. Black women have always been dominant figures in American popular music, but no one, not even Aretha Franklin, has reached the plateau that Beyoncé occupies: pop star colossus, adored bombshell, “America’s sweetheart.” Inevitably, Beyoncé is also a flashpoint, provoking ire from naysayers and ideologues of all stripes. In March, Bill O’Reilly decried “Partition,” a song that details a Beyoncé-Jay Z tryst in a limousine, for setting a poor example for “girls of color.” (Postmarital sex between consenting adults: immoral.) Last month, the black feminist author and activist Bell Hooks told an audience at a New School symposium: “I see a part of Beyoncé that is in fact antifeminist, that is assaulting — that is a terrorist . . . especially in terms of the impact on young girls.” There is a growing scholarly literature on Beyoncé; the Women’s and Gender Studies department at Rutgers University has offered an undergraduate course called “Politicizing Beyoncé.” Beyoncé is, as a cultural studies professor might put it, popular culture’s most richly multivalent “text.” The question these days is not, What does the new Beyoncé record sound like? It’s, What does Beyoncé mean?
Of course, the meaning begins with sound — with the tone and timbre of Beyoncé’s voice, one of the most compelling instruments in popular music. Beyoncé has traditionalist skills. She can belt an adult contemporary ballad like Barbra Streisand; she can deliver a fiery gospel testimonial; she can channel Michael Jackson (“Love on Top”) or imitate Prince’s falsetto (“No Angel”). But she is unmistakably a product of the hip-hop era, a singer who has assimilated the aggression and slippery rhythms of rap into a virtuosic and strange vocal style. We have gotten so used to Beyoncé, it may be hard to grasp what an oddball she is, how different her approach to rhythm, melody and harmony are to those of previous generations. You can hear that eccentricity in the wild timbral shifts and skittering syncopations of “Drunk in Love,” a half-sung, half-rapped hit that sounds, in the best sense, like a song Beyoncé is improvising from scratch in real time. Like all innovators, Beyoncé has pushed back boundaries, expanding our sense of what music should sound like. To the extent that we hear Beyoncé as “pop,” it’s because she has taught us to do so.
She’s taught the world to see music differently, too. The 17 videos for her latest album capture the star in a head-spinning variety of attitudes and alter-egos: as a beauty pageant contestant; as a moll with a flapper haircut; as a roller-disco queen; as the leader of a militant street mob with her hair dyed green; as a Houston homegirl, vamping on a street in the city’s hardscrabble Third Ward, with a nasty-looking dog on a leash; as a stripper, an ardent lover, a wife; and, in “Blue,” as an earth-mother-with-child, strolling a sun-dazzled strip of Brazilian coastline with her daughter, Blue Ivy. More than three decades after the rise of MTV, there are still those who view music videos as debased or “inauthentic.” But Beyoncé’s music is inseparable from her movie-star magnetism: the way she stares down a camera, strikes a pose, wears her clothes and, especially, the way she dances. And why not? Popular music has always been an audiovisual medium. If Beyoncé is the dominant figure in 21st-century music, perhaps it’s because pop has circumnavigated back to its 19th-century vaudevillian roots, to a time before disembodied voices came to us through hi-fi speakers or noise-canceling headphones, when music was, exclusively, a performing art. Beyoncé is the greatest old-fashioned singer and hoofer, the supreme show-woman, in an era when, once again, we’ve learned to love a splashy musical show.
Of course, she’s more than that. Literally and figuratively, Beyoncé is a moving target — it’s as difficult to get a fix on her as it would be to keep up with her on the dance floor. Beyoncé represents down-home earthiness and impossible glamour, soul-woman warmth and diva hauteur, a nose-to-the-grindstone work ethic and garish 1 percent excess. Her new album is sexed-up to the point of lewdness, with punch lines about body fluids on evening wear and intimations of rough sex. Yet the sex — in the limo, in the kitchen, everywhere, apparently, but the bedroom — is married sex, family-values sex, which, the album makes clear, produced a bouncing baby girl, a result perhaps even Bill O’Reilly can feel good about.
Beyoncé’s songs are packed tight with such contradictions. Think of “Single Ladies,” an anthem of feisty feminist solidarity that endorses the most retrograde diamonds-are-a-girl’s-best-friend brand of transactional romance: “If you liked it, then you should have put a ring on it.” Or consider “***Flawless,” on the new album, which throws together a dizzying mix of sounds and signifiers. There’s a clamorous trap beat and pitch-shifted vocals; there are shout-outs to Houston (“H-town vicious”) and to Jay Z’s record label, Roc Nation (“My Roc, flawless”). There are coarse mean-girl threats (“Bow down, bitches!”) and a sampled snippet from a TEDx talk by the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie titled “We Should All Be Feminists,” which wags a finger at mean-girl threats: “We raise girls to see each other as competitors.” The video intersperses an excerpt from 10-year-old Beyoncé’s appearance on the TV talent show “Star Search” with the current-day Beyoncé, clad in Kurt Cobain flannel, executing a spectacular dance routine in a dank basement surrounded by skinheads. It’s all tied together by a refrain — “I woke up like this!” — which, among other things, does double duty as a boast about effortless beauty and a mantra of enlightenment. What does Beyoncé mean? What doesn’t she mean.