Pop Culture

Everyone Knows: What We Tell Ourselves About Beyonce

We all saw the video. It was a grainy silent film. Its reel blinked and shuddered like some kind of digital Charlie Chaplin creation, but without the slapstick. Maybe even without the pathos. Its characters dressed the part: Solange in her drop-waist dress, Jay-Z in his white tuxedo coat, Beyonce still and sphinx-like in her Great Garbo dressing gown. Everything old is new again.

We peered down into that shadowy elevator. It contained our universe’s biggest stars, who in turn became black holes and absorbed us.

***

The video’s flickering staticky quality is familiar. It calls to mind surveillance-based horror movies and Cops outtakes, not to mention the audio clips used throughout Beyonce’s most recent eponymous album. That album, like most rap albums, is collaged with clips and interludes, cribbed from sources both real and imagined, personal and cinematic. On Beyonce, we hear excerpts from Ted Talks, pageant interviews, the television broadcast of the Challenger disaster, the French dubbing of The Big Lebowski, award acceptance speeches, babies babbling, and Star Search performance introductions. Most either contain sounds of static and tinny reverb, or are bound by such sounds. The clips start, interrupt, and re-start songs, bring hypnotic chants and brief snatches of melody to an abrupt halt, force total key and time changes within individual tracks. Scratchy record noise has always been the musical equivalent of the paper tear, and on Beyonce it’s used to great and alienating effect. The average listener, prepared for Beyonce’s generally awesome but also generally traditional verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus pop singles, now feels himself on unsure footing. What to make of Beyonce?

And what to make of the elevator video, which alienated us in a different way? Its ultimate power resides not in its noise, but in its silence. Anyone at all familiar with the standard TMZ celebrity video knows its signature loud clatter of street noise and paparazzi jostle. But this! This is different. The airless silence of the elevator video; the sense that we are finally privy to a space everyone in frame had heretofore thought was assuredly, blessedly private! It goes so far beyond our voyeuristic expectations of the average paparazzi video that watching it feels like stumbling on some new, more deviant form of pornography.

Which is how many of us felt while listening to Beyonce for the first time. On this, her fifth album, Beyonce goes so far beyond what we had come to expect of her tightly controlled stage presence and oiled-up, hip-popping, never terribly explicit and sometimes almost campy sexuality that many of her fans took to social media to express how the new album had just “gotten then pregnant.” Frankly, she blows the damn doors right off the dental dam. My friend D., a fellow Beyonce obsessive, bought me the album for Christmas. I listened to it for ten hours straight on the drive home for the holiday, with my jaw hanging open in shock for at least three of those hours. She’s certainly not the first person to have simulated orgasm in song—as happens in “Rocket,” an arousing polyphonic blend of Prince, janet.-era Janet Jackson, and quiet storm R&B slow jams—but it’s the first time in a long time this has sounded sexy. Everything old is new again. (The video for “Rocket,” like most of the videos made for Beyonce, feels disappointingly much less new, much more typical female pop star posing her perfect body for your consumptive gaze. It also trots out a tired series of MTV sex tropes: gripped bedsheets, strawberry-eating, and that known masturbatory object, the gushing faucet.) ‘Yonce makes Sasha Fierce look like Bette Midler.

Beyonce is sexy because it wisely plays in dichotomies. Its songs roll around in myriad personal imperfections and in the dirt and stink of sex, while retaining as its center a rejoinder to keep the faith in one’s flawlessness—and one’s right to enjoy that sex. Beyonce talks about her body and her apparently glorious sex life using the language of the stereotypical male breadwinner; she can’t wait until she gets home so her stay-at-home husband can satisfy her. Sometimes Beyonce likes to be on top and sometimes she likes to be on bottom. The lyrics are frank but rarely graphic, relying on wordplay and implication to retain the sexiest thing of all: a little bit of mystery. Here we have a woman describing her own sexual desires, and how she chooses to satisfy them, within the context of mainstream pop music—it’s sad that this is as revolutionary as it is. The last time a huge female pop star tried to create a whole concept album around her control of her own sexuality—Madonna’s Erotica, plus its accompanying coffee table book, Sex—she was laughed out of the American mainstream for a few years.

I called D. from the car mid-listen to thank him for the gift, and we got into a discussion as to why Beyonce had waited this long to come out of the closet as a freak, so to speak. He thought it was kind of lame that she waited until she was safely ensconced within the framework of a heterosexual marriage to start really talking about her sex life—as if doing so were only justified by its functioning within traditional monogamy. I, on the other hand, loved that she hadn’t pulled out all the stops on her sexuality to sell herself as an artist earlier in her career, and argued that if this had been her first solo album, she wouldn’t be around today—all the while probably unfairly throwing shade toward Rihanna, who with every passing day proves wrong the idea that a woman’s sexuality doesn’t retain power over time. We both wondered if this album was perhaps some kind of attempt by Beyonce to show the world that she’s “still got it” post-baby.

Because this is what we do. We tell stories about Beyonce. Unable to obtain any first-hand knowledge of her personal life or creative process, we like to trot out our tried-and-true tropes and assumptions and hang them all over her. She’s the perma-smiling pageant girl frozen into a coat rack for the narratives of stereotype we say we’ve cast off but still fall back upon when left to our own imagining. We say Beyonce stepped on her fellow black women to get to where she is—just look at the many former members of Destiny’s Child whose nonexistent careers litter her wake—because “everyone knows” a powerful woman must have bargained with the devil to get that way, or because we expect women to always be thoughtful of others, to magnanimously “bring everyone along” no matter how untalented, to remain den mother even while on a rise to fame. (Does anyone ever ask Justin Timberlake what he must have done to sabotage the other members of N’SYNC?) We say that Beyonce is trying to “look white”—that she bleaches her skin, relaxes her hair and dyes it blonde, has gotten her nose thinned—all of which may be true, but the racist assumption underlying this gossip is the idea that “everyone knows” there’s no way a natural black woman could ever be mainstream successful, which is another way of saying, if the natural black woman tried, we certainly wouldn’t let her get away with it! We say that Beyonce was never actually pregnant with her daughter, that she secretly hired a surrogate and wore padding for nine months, and even took a certain kind of hormone to plump up her face, so that she wouldn’t “ruin” her body by carrying a baby—because “everyone knows” that powerful women are always narcissistic, or because “everyone knows” the arbitrary rules of aesthetics: childbearing makes a woman’s body “worse,” and anything that makes a woman’s body “worse” automatically robs that woman of some of her power, or because “everyone knows” that pregnant women can’t dance and sing and travel—everyone knows that women can’t really have it all.

What to make of Beyonce, indeed.

***

We tell these kinds of stories about all celebrities. Documentations of celebrity by the media present us with a set of people about whom we know almost nothing, and invite us to engage in rampant speculation. Celebrity gossip is a sad and hollow replacement for the fairy tales of our youth, a jungle gym upon which we exercise our bloated adult imaginations. So the elevator video presents us with the blankest of canvases and a fantastically great prompt.

We all debated what was really going on in there. Is Beyonce the woman abused or neglected, silently standing by her man despite the protestations of her sister? Is Beyonce an Anna Mae after all? (Because “everyone knows” the tendency of black women to be unable to leave abusive relationships.) Is Solange just another deranged female, unable to hold her liquor? (Because “everyone knows” all women, deep down, are crazy.) Did Jay-Z cheat on Beyonce, and was Solange righteously confronting him about this? (Because “everyone knows” that when you see a woman swinging her arms like that, it must be about a man’s infidelity. And furthermore, “everyone knows” that black men can never be faithful.) We even asked if the whole thing had been staged as some kind of promotional, viral-video thing for Jay-Z and Beyonce’s upcoming outlaw-themed co-tour. (Because “everyone knows” that powerful women are control freaks, or that they prize personal success over family dignity.)

Why do we read the things we read into this video? We try our damnedest to be mindful of prejudice and stereotypes, to avoid racism and sexism—and yet we fall back on explanations for the elevator video that embrace all of the above. Even when we think we’re acting out of cultural enlightenment and defending the “right person” in the video, our defense is not based on merit but on assumptions that often reduce the other people in the elevator to stock characters or worse. I proudly stood up for Jay-Z, wanting to defend him against all the cheating rumors—until my girlfriend B. pointed out to me that I was referring to Solange as a “crazy bitch,” and why was that, exactly?

At first I defended myself, saying that I was referring to Jay-Z’s patience with his in-laws, not with women generally. But the more I thought about what B. said, the more I realized that I almost always take the man’s side in any kind of celebrity conflict. Jennifer Aniston: I’ve always assumed, secretly, that it was her fault Brad Pitt left. (“Everyone knows” a woman scorned is probably a shrew.) Uma Thurman: kind of pathetic for finally giving in to Quentin Tarantino after all these years. (“Everyone knows” women of a certain age are much more willing to settle.) V. Stiviano: I am definitely not on Donald Stirling’s side in any way, but I am also totally suspicious of her motives. (“Everyone knows” a woman with that much plastic surgery must be in someone’s pocket.)

I think it is vital for us to examine the ways in which we talk about celebrities—not for their sake, but for our own. It would be an easy, impersonal way for us all to obtain at least a little insight into our prejudices. I for one was shocked by what I found just by peering down into that little elevator.

Liz lives and writes in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.