Well, this is an interesting development. Beyonce Knowles is either an excellent actress or she’s fucking crazy; maybe both. The quick-and-dirty video for “Ring the Alarm” is probably a smart move for Beyonce after the soft-focus sweep of “Deja Vu,” which I loved but everyone else hated. Unlike “Deja Vu,” the “Ring the Alarm” video isn’t going for sexy; it’s just a fast montage of disconnected and disconnecting images: B rocking the famous Sharon Stone white dress in a weirdly inexplicable Basic Instinct parody, sitting in a big room on a rocky shore and screaming at the camera, fighting a couple of SWAT team guys in a dark hallway. It doesn’t have a story, and it doesn’t make sense; like just about every other one of her videos, it’s all iconography and nothing else. “Deja Vu” was a tremendous disappointment commercially, and so it makes a lot of sense to follow it up quickly with a jagged little banger, rushing the video out a day or two after the track leaks to the radio and then to the internet. And more importantly, the song is pretty great, an urgent, staccato read of the old wronged-woman archetype. It’s severely stripped down, nothing beyond siren-noises and titanic handclaps and trebly synth plonks and breathing noises. And Beyonce sings it with a frantic intensity, screaming on the chorus like Kelis and wailing with force and purpose on the verses.
But this video still reads as a pretty big risk, and that’s because Beyonce looks like she’s clinging onto sanity by the thinnest of threads. She’s starting to get that look of glazed alien paranoia in her eye that Diana Ross has had for at least as long as I’ve been alive. It’s fun to watch her punch out the camera and headbang, going back to those old angry-kid standbys, but the quieter shots are a lot more unsettling, the ones where she’s looking all fearsome and panicked, eyes darting around and hair falling haphazardly all over her face. And then there’s the shot of her sitting on a couch in that beachside room wearing a white slip and looking like the girl from The Ring. Even the SWAT team guys in the interrogation room look a little taken aback. After “Deja Vu” came out, some jokers wrote an online petition asking Beyonce to reshoot the video because of its “erratic, confusing and alarming” properties. I can’t wait to see what these chumps are going to say about this one.
It’s hard to envision “Ring the Alarm” becoming anyone’s favorite Beyonce single, but it’s a pretty savvy entry into the tabloid-entertainment canon, the pieces of art-commerce that grab a ton of attention by making reference, however obliquely or unintentionally, to actual events in the romantic lives of the celebrities who made the things; think Mr. & Mrs. Smith or “Cry Me a River.” We love to tear this shit apart, to analyze all the little glimpses that might offer us some illusion of understanding of the trials and tribulations of the rich and the famous. I haven’t mentioned any of the rumors of a Jay-Z/Rihanna affair in this space because who even cares, but the whole thing is starting to look like a masterful exercise in media manipulation. Like, if someone intentionally leaked that story, whether it was true or not, to the internet universe, everyone involved in the love triangle benefits. Jay gets to look like the irredeemable ladies’ man who tried to stay with one woman and just couldn’t manage it. Rihanna, a one-hit wonder at the beginning of the year, gains something approaching a personality, and she becomes the girl sexy enough to tempt Jay-Z out of the first stable relationship he ever had. And now Beyonce gets to take advantage of our sympathy and unleash a burst of public rage in the form of this song, and maybe it’ll become her “You Oughta Know.” Look, I don’t know anything about these people’s private lives, and you probably don’t either. But it doesn’t seem all that far-fetched to me that they’re pulling everyone into their secretive little soap opera, that we’re all being played like violins. Beyonce has been groomed as a performer since her early childhood; if some video director points a camera at her and tells her to look crazy, she’s going to look really fucking crazy.