Beyonce: Back to Pop Stardom

liar.jpgWelcome back, welcome back, welcome back

I don't really know how or why this happens, but pop stars always get sick of being pop stars. If they actually manage to navigate the minefields of shifting popular tastes and remain pop stars for more than a few years, they always want to break into movies or sing shitty fake jazz or, in the worst-case scenarios, go completely insane. I guess there's this accepted wisdom that careers in pop stardom don't make for legitimate vocations and that there's more rewarding work to be done in other fields. You can see the same logic at work when an actor like Will Ferrell eases up on the manic stoner-comedies and starts taking roles in bad Woody Allen movies or shooting-for-clever joints like Stranger Than Fiction, a route that almost always ends up in tearjerker territory. If I could eradicate this line of thinking from the planet forever, that's exactly what I'd do; it almost always leads to boring middlebrow work that plays against the strengths of the star. But short of that happening, we're going to have to make do with those moments when pop stars take a moment to dabble in something else and then realize that they're better off just being pop stars. Beyonce seems to be having a moment like that right now.

Beyonce's been taking film roles for a few years now, but most of those roles have been in forgettable popcorn movies like Austin Powers: Goldmember or The Pink Panther. Her big leap into film stardom was supposed to happen last year with Dreamgirls, and it didn't quite work out the way she must've expected. If you've been anywhere near any media outlet in the past three months, you don't really need me to tell you that Jennifer Hudson turned out to be the movie's real rising star, not too surprising considering that (1) Hudson's performance in the movie was flabbergastingly great while Beyonce's was just adequate and (2) the entire premise of the movie was that Jennifer Hudson's character was a better singer than Beyonce's character and Beyonce's character was just more successful because she was more conventionally pretty and because her voice had less character, which made it easier for white listeners to handle. Considering that Beyonce's character is a thinly veiled version of Diana Ross and that Beyonce herself is pretty much the closest thing this generation has to an actual Diana Ross, it's not all that hard to see how the fictional characters and real-life celebrities could've gotten all tangled up in the public mind. In any case, Jennifer Hudson's story makes for better copy than Beyonce's; everyone loves an underdog. As Joshua Clover pointed out here, the idea that Jennifer Hudson is a better singer than Beyonce comes from a deluded, weirdly fetishized view of pop music, but Beyonce left herself open to it by taking a role in the damn movie in the first place. You could see the results trickle out during the awards season that just ended. "Listen," Beyonce's big scenery-chewing ballad showpiece in the movie, was presumably put in there just so it would be eligible for a Best Original Song Oscar, and Beyonce was one of four songwriters credited. The song got nominated, but there was some weird Oscar rule that only three songwriters could be nominated for one song, so she got left off of the nomination lists. The song didn't win, anyway; some Melissa Ethridge piece of shit did. At the Oscars, Beyonce had to share the performance spotlight with Jennifer Hudson, who won Best Supporting Actress that night and who sang "Listen" alongside Beyonce even though she didn't sing the song in the movie. Since the movie started filming, there have been all sorts of rumors about an on-set rivalry between Beyonce and Hudson, and the two have always talked a good game about actually being very good friends, but both of them seemed intent on outsinging the other on the Oscar stage. Before the movie's release, Beyonce had seemed intent on rebranding herself as Hollwood royalty, doing stuff like singing "Listen" instead of "Irreplaceable" at the Grammys even though "Unbreakable" was the much more popular song. Now that her movie-star aspirations have been somewhat deferred, the past week has seen Beyonce throwing herself wholeheartedly back into the role of pop star, and it's good to have her back.

Two new Beyonce videos debuted yesterday, and both of them are flashy, ostentatious affairs seemingly designed to remind all of us how hot Beyonce is. (Now that I think of it, her new Sports Illustrated cover is probably part of the same campaign.) The first of the two new singles, "Upgrade U," isn't anything new; the song is one of two Jay-Z duets on B'Day, her album that came out last fall. And it's a particularly unremarkable song. The Swizz Beatz track is somehow simultaneously thin and overbearing, and it doesn't give her any room to stretch out with her vocals. ("Check On It" was great, but Beyonce should really consider ending her working relationship with Swizz before he gives her anymore clangers like this one.) Jay's verse is the sort of limp, lazy money-talk nonsense he's been farting out ever since he came out of his fake retirement, and the lyrics do this unsettling thing where they conflate relationships with corporate mergers, which may actually give some insight into the way ridiculously rich people think when they start dating each other. The video, though, redeems the song a bit. The images are straight-up money-porn: Beyonce writhing on piles of jewelry, Beyonce in the trunk of a Rolls Royce, stuff like that. I can't tell whether or not it's meant to be entirely satirical, but images like Beyonce eating a massive diamond are enough to convince me that it's at least done playfully. And then there's the bit where Beyonce lip-syncs Jay's rap in male drag, which would be a lot more convincing if she weren't wearing massive bambo hoop earrings. It's still a pretty powerful image, though; she seems to be implying that she can hold up both sides of a relationship just fine by herself, and the actual Jay, when he turns up at the end, looks entirely superfluous.

Still, I'm a lot more amped on "Beautiful Liar," the new duet with Shakira that leaked almost simultaneously as a song and a video. Beyonce and Shakira have been talking about their collaboration for a while now, but it always sounded like a horrible idea, considering that they're both alpha-female vocalists with horribly clashing styles. The track itself, though, finds a nice middle ground between their two aesthetics by gorging on their shared weakness for luxurious Middle-Eastern synth bits. So the Stargate production team comes up with horn fanfares and vaguely flamenco guitars, and Beyonce and Shakira treat the track the way two rappers would, each taking a verse to themselves and largely staying out of each other's ways. When they do actually harmonize on the chorus, it's not really that much of a stretch, and the backup singers chanting both of their names are transcendently cheesy. The lyrics are sort of a lite version of female solidarity: they're both dating the same guy, they both find out, and so they both say fuck it and move on. But neither of them really sounds human; they're both ethereal angels visiting us from the future, and it's virtually impossible to imagine either of them giving an actual dude the time of day. All of this might just be an excuse for the video, which is just as epic and over-the-top as you'd hope: faces emerging from shrouds of fog, Beyonce walking on water, a weird shot at the end where Beyonce and Shakira crawl toward each other on a lit-up neon platform, looking like identical hair-masses. This is some truly silly shit, and I love it without reservation.


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