Why Almost Everyone Loves “Bowing Down” To Beyoncé

To be clear, this is not really about Beyoncé’s new album. It’s not about her incorporation of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s feminist TED Talk on the track “Flawless.” It’s not about her anti-marketing strategy. And it’s definitely not about judging whether the music is “overrated” or not.

Because beyond any of the numerous aspects of the album’s production that Beyoncé had under her control – the probably insane non-disclosure agreements regarding the album’s release, the video treatments, the feminist lyrics, the genre-spanning production – what is just as fascinating about the new album are Beyoncé’s fans reactions to it, and the repeated hyperbole that they use when they talk about her, especially in contrast to their own lives.

It isn’t news to anybody that Beyoncé’s fans elevate her to the level of royalty, and, most of the time, to the level of a goddess. It’s become just as commonplace for the casual fan to refer to Beyoncé as “Queen Bey” as it has for some of the press’ most respected music critics. But if you comb through enough tweets and status updates about Beyoncé, you’ll see another interesting trend: that, in their veneration, her fans repeatedly tend to openly highlight their own supposed personal insignificance and lack of achievement to the pop queen’s grandiose accomplishments.

Here are some anonymous Beyoncé-related samples from the recent Twitter archives:

“I can barely make my bed in the morning. @beyonce is on a world tour and puts out an album and a shit ton of videos. what am i doing?”

“Beyoncé made more money in the past hour than I have in my whole life.”

“I don’t want to sound like a crazy stan, but listening to Beyonce’s new album is why we were put on this earth”

“Let it sink in that 2-year-old Blue Ivy Carter already has a verse on a Beyonce song, once again proving she is more powerful than us all.”

A recent Buzzfeed review of Beyonce’s new album takes a cursory stab at dissecting this phenomenon: “Even casual fans approach her as a sort of deity, in large part because thinking of her as a superhuman being is part of what makes her music and performances so much fun.”

 

As an explanation, this only covers half of the phenomenon; going out of the way to portray oneself as servile, incompetent, and generally inadequate doesn’t really align with the idea of what most people would consider “fun.” Still, it does address why people gravitate towards Beyoncé in the first place: she is indisputably one of the most powerful performers in the pop world, if not the most powerful; and her album sales, fan following, raw talent, and performance ability dwarf those of almost every other mainstream pop artist. Fans love her music, but they also love her success. They aspire to be like her, but know that they’re nowhere near her level. Beyoncé’s music is empowering, but it’s also intimidating. She is so successful, so rich, so famous, and has her entire show and persona so locked down that it’s almost difficult to completely identify with her.

What a negative comparison does accomplish, then, is to provide a way for fans to associate themselves with Beyoncé’s greatness, even if it is only in an inverse formulation. After all, negatively defining yourself against something still links you to the very thing you’re defining yourself in contrast to, simply by association. And the cultish denigration of their own lives Beyonce’s fans engage in may just constitute a roundabout way for them to connect themselves to Queen Bey’s own monumental success. From this angle, what initially seems like self-castigation might actually read as empowerment, because in the face of Beyonce’s chart-conquering albums and all-around pop music domination – feats that feel daunting to even hope to aspire to – it’s almost all that fans can do to connect with her and derive power from her immense success by showing how mundane their lives are by comparison.

And yes, Scrooge, this self-deprecation is most of the time just an egotistical attention grab from people whose names will, in all likelihood, never, ever be mentioned in the same breath as Beyoncé’s. Sure these negative comparisons are just a way for people to ride the tailcoats of the world’s most successful pop megastar and garner a few more retweets, followers, and page views. And of course, this gets increasingly annoying and insufferable the more you think about it. But honestly, we’ve got more important things to worry about here. Like preparing for Blue Ivy’s imminent, entirely baby-talk solo album. Just picture the tweets about that.

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How The Songwriters Behind One Direction Secretly Control Your Mind

About a month ago, after One Direction dropped their latest release, Midnight Memories, most reviewers couldn’t help but point out the album’s shameless knock-offs of some of the biggest pop hits of the ’80s including “Jessie’s Girl,” “Pour Some Sugar On Me,” and pretty much any song by Asia, just to name a few. And, yes, while the songwriters behind the squeaky clean boy band’s smash singles make their musical points of reference pretty obvious to any listener older than 12, they also manage to pull off some patently ingenious lyrical references that slipped by most recaps of the album – mostly because that was precisely what they were designed to do.

Upon a first listen, the first verse of “Better Than Words” sounds like pretty standard fare for a One Direction song: a just-generic-enough description of crazy, undeniable love that sweeps you up in its whirlwind of affection and excitement.

Better than words
But more than a feeling
Crazy in love
Dancing on the ceiling

But, if you haven’t noticed it already, each line is also a song in its own right. The second line. The third line. And, you guessed it. These aren’t just lyrics in a One Direction song, they’re built-in references to seminal pop hits. And they’re placed directly next to the title of the One Direction song, itself the very first line of the song.

OK, so what? What does this prove besides the fact that the One Direction songwriting team has a pretty decent knowledge of the Billboard charts of the last 35 years? Well, to feature the title of their own song as the first lyric, and then to follow that with several recognizable song titles (that most likely light up the subconscious pop music recesses of your brain) is to suggest a subtle connection between these tunes that immediately draws you in as a listener. “You remember these great songs, right?” the lyric whispers. “Then you might like this one too…”

This might seem far-fetched, but it’s how the brain works. And making reference to well-known past pop hits does more than just prime you as a listener to be more receptive to One Direction’s song, it also establishes the band as fans of pop music themselves, blurring the boundary between them as performers and their listeners as fans. This is the same logic behind other, less subtle, One Direction lines such as this one. When One Direction sing about other pop artists in this way (“Katy Perry’s on replay…”), they place themselves on the same level as their fans, depicting their lives as fundamentally similar to the people who would see them as unattainable idols otherwise. The message is incredibly clear and incredibly clever: One Direction listen to Katy Perry – just like you. Though you might know deep down that they are ultra-famous pop stars in their own right, simply hearing them make reference to another hugely famous artists makes the One Direction boys a bit more relatable to the teenage girls who are their core demographic, which of course helps move records off the shelves and perpetuate the rabid fandom surrounding the group. Of course, this isn’t new. It’s just another trick in the utility belt that the slickest songwriters in the world use to manipulate your perception of their music. OK, I admit that a description like that might seem a bit over the top. What I really mean is this: as long as these guys keep pumping out songs that are this catchy, the aural manipulation is fine by me.

Lana Del Rey Stole Half An Hour Of My Life And I Will Never Get It Back

I really tried to give Lana Del Rey the benefit of the doubt on this one. I swear. I was hoping that her half-hour long short film Tropico, “an epic tale based on the biblical story of sin and redemption,” wasn’t going to be another poorly–conceived attempt at grand symbolism and “deep” meaning that would inevitably force me to question why I ever derived any satisfaction from her music in the first place and would once again make me come face to face with the full scope of her guileless superficiality and lack of insight. But you know what Mick Jagger says.

So, just for convenience’s sake, even though the biblical triptych of innocence, sin, and redemption is the central conceit of the video, I’m going to ignore the overwrought and overused religious parallels that Lana cuts and pastes with bowling ball-level subtlety and focus more on her decision to include voiceovers of her reading excerpts from Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg poems, which is exactly as pretentious as it sounds.

A brief primer for those of you who skipped high school English class to smoke weed and drink your Dad’s leftover Canadian Club (apparently, like Lana): Whitman was a dude who loved the body. His body, in particular, but people’s bodies in general. His hope was to promulgate a mode of relation to others that was sexual, but was not bound up in the narrow cultural trappings of sex; a relation that was carnal, but not necessarily reproductive; outwardly focused, but not necessarily directed towards a single person; intimate, yet expansive. This sensual project had an associated political goal as well: the constitution of a more interconnected American community through the deep and authentic tenderness of complete strangers for one another. He saw his poetry as a conduit to accomplishing this.

Keeping Whitman’s intentions in mind, Lana’s overdubbed recitation of certain sections from his poem “I Sing The Body Electric” (a title that she cribs for her own song) comes off as darkly ironic in the context of Tropico. Where Whitman’s words are meant as statements of affinity to build a national community through affection, in Lana’s treatment and placement, they read like the exact opposite. Case in point: in the video, she sultrily reads the line “The curious sympathy one feels, when feeling with the hand the naked meat of the body,” over slow-motion shots of mens’ hands slapping strippers’ asses in a dimly lit strip club. So poetic, bro.

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I’m going to go out on a not-so-big limb here and venture that Lana isn’t using the poem in an intentionally ironic way. Though it would be great if she were deliberately juxtaposing these depraved images with Whitman’s words as an ironic reflection to demonstrate exactly how far America has veered from the poet’s idealistic vision of a community of strangers bound by sensuous ties that include, but aren’t limited to sex, I’m pretty sure that she’s just reading the poem because she thinks that lines like, “The womb, the teats, nipples, breast-milk” are fitting accompaniments for shots of naked bodies because of the very words they use, regardless of their original meaning. But still, even if she doesn’t mean it ironically, Lana’s misguided use of Whitman’s words actually does reflect just how far America has strayed from Whitman’s vision – simply because somebody like Lana, reading Whitman in 2013, sees language that is meant to describe a type of community-constructing erotic closeness that extends towards perfect strangers as a fitting complement to hyper-stylized shots of grubby dudes makin’ it rain on dejected strippers.

To its credit, Tropico really does try hard to reach for grand themes, but its effort just comes off more like a baby groping for the cookie jar than a deep meditation on the particularly American conflation of religious fervor, capitalism, and pop culture excess that it’s clearly trying to dissect. Like a true postmodern hipster, Lana devours centuries of American culture and regurgitates them without reflection or deliberation. It’s the Urban Outfitters model of cultural appropriation: the same type of thinking that rips keffiyehs and moccasins from their original cultural context and sterilizes them for style-hungry American consumers. But it’s OK, though. Lana’s next album is supposedly going to be called Ultraviolence, so we can hope for some great Clockwork Orange references. There’s no way she can screw those up, right?

…right?

Why Miley Cyrus’ ‘Bangerz’ Tour Might Be The Most Important Tour Of The New Year

When will the public finally take Miley Cyrus seriously? And no, I am not asking that facetiously. I will admit that she certainly doesn’t make it easy, especially considering her slew of press-baiting stunts over the last few months that sent every media outlet into a seemingly permanent salivary frenzy. Still, whether or not she is in control of her public image – the ultimate point of contention anchoring a furious celebrity blog-off several months ago – her (or her management’s) decision to bring Sky Ferreira and Icona Pop on her upcoming Bangerz tour is a totally brilliant move: one that crystallizes and enlarges the cultural impact of what each artist has, up until this point, been doing separately in order to make pop music a safer place for women to rightfully do whatever the hell they want.

The album cover for Ferreira’s new record Night Time, My Time features the melancholy singer staring somewhat crazily and vulnerably out at the audience, nude and framed by dripping shower tiles in Van-Gogh green. It’s more disturbing than it is sexy. But of course, that hasn’t stopped scores of critics from accusing her of employing nudity simply to boost album sales. The story, as she’s told it, is that Capitol, her record label, didn’t want her to be nude in the first place, and even suggested using other photos from past years for the album cover. But Ferreira was adamant. “It’s hard enough to be a woman making music at all,” she told Pitchfork. “But I’m not going to start covering myself up just to seem more credible—I’m going to embrace my sexuality because I have every right to.”

If there’s any statement that makes Cyrus’ recent salacious stunts more understandable in the light of the challenges that female artists face in the pop game, it’s this. While the double standard of female sexuality is (hopefully) not news to anybody, it’s even more pronounced in pop music, where any display of female sexuality is commonly demonized as a PR stunt or a money grab: essentially anything that constitutes the opposite of “authentic” music, which is supposedly focused on pure form and creation. This is, of course, total bullshit. To solely attribute financial motives to a female artist’s decision to pose nude is to subscribe to the same type of thinking that circumscribes female nudity to the porn set or the bedroom. It is to place rules around where and when it is correct for women in pop to make certain choices about their bodies, and strips them (pun intended) of the ability to even have that choice in the first place.

Ferreira is well-versed in the type of double standard that marginalizes female pop stars and their artistic opinions. “If a girl has a breakdown or if the black guy has a blog post, it’s a rant,” she said in an interview with Rolling Stone. “Someone like Billy Corgan can write a whole entire thing and people are like ‘Oh it’s just a blog post’ and Kanye does it and it’s a rant.” And judging by her album cover and her response to the media’s firestorm surrounding it, Ferreira should be taken seriously, because whether she understands it as such or not, she is trying to transform the female body into a site of self-expression as opposed to an object of capitalistic or sexual voyeurism. As if this weren’t hard enough within a generally patriarchal, money-obsessed culture, Ferreira is attempting to do so where all of those factors are amplified: in mainstream pop music.

But, luckily, she isn’t doing it alone. Icona Pop are just as determined to give women an opportunity to behave “badly” without fear of denunciation, to engage in all of the irresponsible things that they have internalized they must not do. See here: Lena Dunham dancing in ecstatic, coked-out joy to Icona Pop’s “I Love It” during the second season of HBO’s GIRLS last January. It’s not just the pulsing EDM synth bass that makes that cinematic moment feel so true to the song – it’s Dunham’s sensation of freedom from socially acceptable standards, and the veritable laundry list of supposedly forbidden feminine actions that the lyrics of “I Love It” detail:

“I got this feeling on the summer day when you were gone / I crashed my car into the bridge. I watched, I let it burn / I threw your shit into a bag and pushed it down the stairs / I crashed my car into the bridge / I don’t care”

Icona Pop

Realizing a sense of joy without a partner, destroying stuff for no reason, asserting ownership over your personal space, and generally not giving a shit. In a society that tells women, “Don’t be a victim,” instead of telling men not to victimize, it’s rare to hear these things promoted as feminine virtues, which makes it that much more imperative that Icona Pop do so, especially within the format of a mainstream pop song that is catchy as hell and could provoke a shout-along from even the most ardent anti-feminist. Which is why Cyrus might have made the best decision of her career so far to bring Sky Ferreira and Icona Pop on the road with her in 2014. There could be no better rebuttal of the flak that she’s received in recent months regarding her newly overt sexuality than to take the stage with fellow female performers who similarly reject the social tendency to restrict women’s desires, bodies, and emotions to a convenient space and time. I know it might not seem like Cyrus is twerking her way to a feminist revolution just yet. But she is definitely assembling the troops.