There are moments when Beyonce not only references her past but displays clips from it like awards on her mantel. In “***Flawless,” she frames an anthem of exuberant self-love and feminist rage with clips of her appearance on Star Search as a pre-teen with her group Girl’s Tyme. The first one is their presentation, a hopeful moment before they performed as Ed McMahon rattles off their names before the song segues into the Beyonce of today performing the track off her latest album. The song ends with another clip of McMahon giving a band full of white dudes that do not include a young Beyonce four stars and Girl’s Tyme only three.
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For Beyonce, the moment serves as one of many examples of the hurdles she’s overcome, moments of imperfection, and another pixel in the composite of her life that peppers her self-titled surprise album/video behemoth (14 songs, 17 videos) that was released in the wee hours of Friday morning with no warning or promo. But the choice of that particular clip on that particular song, one that features a sample of Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s TED talk titled “We should all be feminists,” is a carefully crafted statement of her womanhood. Like her body and her career, Beyonce owns her feminism. She shapes it to fit her strengths, her weaknesses, and her dreams in order to better herself and express her thoughts on what it means to be a successful woman in 2013 living in the shadows of opinions that believe women are incapable of having it all. On her fifth album, listeners can get a full picture of Beyonce’s coming-of-age story that sees her unmask herself from the guise of speaking to us through Sasha Fierce, and find her own terms on which to have the career and family she has worked hard to have.
Since earlier this year, when Beyonce not only “came out” as a feminist but controversially named her tour the “Mrs. Carter Show,” mainstream feminism has continuously questioned her motives. Her sexuality has been called demeaning and her devotion to her husband has been deemed too traditional, old-school, and regressive. This year, however, it’s become a war between the defenders and the detractors, between “black feminists” and “white feminists,” with the former feeling excluded from the overall worldview of the type of feminism we see most argued about and out in the media and literature.
It seems retroactive to segregate the ideology. As Adichie defines it in the portion of her TED talk featured in “***Flawless,” a feminist is a “person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.” However, to ignore the lived experiences of a woman of color versus a white woman would be ignorant, and to ignore the experience of a woman of color seeking success as a public figure and pop star would be especially ignorant of the lack of representation in the media that has only gotten more noticeable over the years.
Beyonce is the most powerful woman in music who has become the epitome of idealized beauty and one of our generation’s most respected and recognizable cultural icons. But what did it take to get there? As “***Flawless” not so subtly reminds us, at one point in her career, she lost to a white male rock band on national television. She came up in a later incarnation of Girl’s Tyme, Destiny’s Child, against mostly white competition in the field of pop when people like Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and groups like Spice Girls and *NSYNC were dominating charts and saw their faces covering every type of consumable product for kids to purchase.
Today isn’t much different. Her album has been mostly viewed in the direct competition of pop luminaries and newbies like Britney Spears, Katy Perry, Lady GaGa, Miley Cyrus and Lorde. Though it has been a year of cultural appropriation at the hands of many of those competitors, appropriation of a culture and musical genres Beyonce is most closely associated with, Yonce is one of the few to proudly declare her feminism. Still, it has been repeatedly questioned because her expression of it isn’t the “correct” kind.
For Beyonce, experiencing feminism means owning all parts of herself. She’s a perfectionist who wrote, produced and directed a documentary by herself. She’s taken great care to make sure the image we see of her is actually cultivated by her, actually represents her. On her fifth album, owning all parts of sexuality are just as important. Subverting the taboos and tropes of pop and the media in general, Yonce, as she calls herself repeatedly on the album, becomes explicit when discussing the type of female sexual pleasure that would get a NC-17 rating from the MPAA (“Blow” being the most overt). She makes her husband Jay Z her video boy as she moves beyond the more ambiguous love songs of her past and makes it obvious that he is the man she loves and that this is the way she loves him. “Drunk in Love,” which features a verse from Mr. Knowles-Carter, comes in the lineage of “Crazy in Love” and the sexual domesticity of the single “Countdown” from her fourth album.
On “Partition,” she makes her first reference to feminism in the French section towards the end of the song that translates roughly in English to the “Do you like sex?” scene from The Big Lebowski. It states “men think that feminists hate sex” (“Les hommes pensent que les féministes détestent le sexe”). By openly expressing her own desires both physically and emotionally, Beyonce not only responds to the ridiculous assumptions people make about feminists and feminism, but takes her body out of a discourse that has seen black women continuously sexualized or desexualized on other people’s terms. To not only express the intimacy she shares with her husband but her own motherhood, something that has often been stolen from portrayals of black women in the media given minstrel tropes like the Mammy caring for children not their own, Yonce has taken a grasp of her domesticity. In doing so she displays the full circle of her maturity into her womanhood and what that all means.
What makes Beyonce’s fifth effort a masterpiece (we said it–Bow Down), is how clearly she captures the journey. The songs take us from a diatribe against body-shaming and a national obsession with perfection (“Pretty Hurts”) to the aforementioned expressions of sexual intimacy like “Drunk in Love,” “Blow,” and “Rocket” mixed in with more painful songs dedicated to the lingering past (“Haunted”) and persistent mistrust, like the grown up version of “If I Were a Boy” titled “Jealous.” The Drake-featuring “Mine” begins with a piano-driven intro that feels like the most honest statement of her post-baby marriage and accompanies the most abstract of the videos before the sweet, straightforward love song “XO” takes her to her husband’s hometown of Brooklyn as she galavants around Coney Island for a day.
We reach motherhood and the joys and heartbreaks that come along with it in the final pair of songs. “Heaven” is said to be about the miscarriage she suffered from before finally giving birth to Blue Ivy. It’s the type of message that takes a lot of strength to express, especially for the woman who had to endure it. To follow it with a song named after and featuring her infant daughter is the most powerful moment of all, and showcases just how much one woman can overcome, another one of life’s hurdles Yonce would not let stop her. “Blue” may be the most powerful love song the singer has ever recorded, but that may just be because it is so blatantly dedicated to the person who has changed the course of her life the most.
In the video set, the final clip is for the only song without a lone audio counterpart. “Grown Woman” features a series of home videos manipulated to sing along to the track, an expression of maturity and the type of ownership she lays out for us over the course of her album. It ends with a regal scene, first featuring her mother on a couch looking down at her grown-up baby girl sitting on the floor. Then it’s Beyonce’s turn to take the throne with Blue in her arms and a few other fictionalized children surrounding her as if she’s picturing her future. In the scene, her satisfaction comes not only from the power she has over who she is but the people that are in it and the joy in being able to do with her body whatever the hell she wants.