By Daniel Garrett
Beyonce Knowles, 4
Mastered by Tom Coyne
Executive Producer Beyonce Knowles
Columbia Records/Sony, 2011
“You couldn’t learn age, but adulthood was there for all. Mourning was helpful but God was better and they did not want to meet their Maker and have to explain a wasteful life. They knew He would ask each of them one question: ‘What have you done?’”—Toni Morrison, Home (Knopf, New York, 2012; 123)
I like Beyonce Knowles—I like her voice, I like many of her songs, I like her face, body, personality, and energy. I like her film appearances. I like her ambition. I like Beyonce, but I am ambivalent about some of her musical choices, as with too much of her album 4: her choice of themes and preferred interpretative attitude are becoming more questionable, which is surprising as some of her songs, such as “Halo” and “Sweet Dreams,” have proved mature taste and easy mastery, though it is possible that she, subsequently, has decided that those songs are too refined for these times. On 4, she presents herself as a loving and smart but tough-talking girl not afraid to be gruff or raunchy, and her loud, throat-scraping approach to singing may be designed to impress but it is too crude. In the song “1+1,” a piece of testifying about the primacy of love possibly inspired by an old Sam Cooke lyric, Beyonce sings that “I don’t know much about algebra,” to my ears pronouncing algebra without its r, singing to a guitar-and-percussion rock ballad arrangement, an interesting genre change; and she pleads (softly) with her lover to “make love to me.” (Any man Beyonce would have to beg to make love to her is a man she should leave.) Beyonce hits the word “you” with a gospel reflection. Her tone is censorious, and pitched to an emotional extreme—declarative, insistent, outraged—in “I Care,” about an indifferent if not cruel lover, a singing tone apparently calculated to evoke sincerity and soul. Beyonce stands her ground and shouts down a lover in the song, which has atmosphere—with its clapping beat, the echoes on Beyonce’s voice, and the la-la-la chorus. However, “I Miss You” has a sung opening that is quiet and reflective, whispery, over an electronic beat, a tiny, dense techno beat, a mostly sustained mood. Hope, disappointment, anger, and resignation in a short relationship form the subject in “Best Thing I Never Had,” a song which became one of the lead singles from the album, and which embodies much of its attitude. Beyonce sings the song from the perspective of a hurt but resolute lover, glad that she did not continue a commitment to the wrong man, the lyrics sung over piano runs, a big, slashing beat, and orchestral rise. It is a song about a mundane relationship; and while mundane relationships also have their share of drama, the drama is mundane too. That becomes harder to tolerate from an established singer of great success: one expects better taste, more interesting subjects, and more imaginative treatment. The expectation of significant discernment explains the idiosyncratic choices of certain singers, an idiosyncrasy that sometimes repels their least thoughtful admirers, something Beyonce need not worry about with her album 4, which mostly collects a selection of songs that seem to have been written by a contracted committee.
The song “Party” basically treats sexual intercourse as part of a night’s entertainment. It is a very contemporary attitude—it has been a contemporary attitude for at least three or four decades. Yet, it is disappointing. And, the rap by Andre Benjamin that has been attached to the song jams together different themes and is childishly humorous, the quality of mind poor, even when it attempts an adult thought about growing old and prominent enough to become a younger generation’s hero. Sensual awareness is a great part of being alive; and sexual freedom—the ability not just to do, but to know and to choose—is a significant part of individuality. Sexuality is a field and a power—and for the young it is often the most forceful and intimate part of their experience; and yet sexuality can be misused, personally, socially. It can be exploited for the pleasure of others. It can be exploited for easy social connections. It can be at the root of misguided power.
Beyonce recognizes the power of sex, not surprisingly, as its power is trumpeted from almost all culture, high or low. In Toni Morrison’s 1987 novel Beloved, Morrison presents a woman who has become a friend to a man’s mind; and in her 2012 novel Home, Morrison describes sexual pleasure and refuge within a treasured intimacy: “And while sometimes being near her made it hard to breathe, he was not at all sure he could live without her. It wasn’t just the lovemaking, entering what he called the kingdom between her legs. When he lay with the girl-weight of her arm on his chest, the nightmares folded away and he could sleep” (Knopf, New York; 21). So much of sex is public property, rather than private practice. We are enticed by it in advertisements, gossip about it on television and radio and in print and online publications, and it is used in cultural theory and political rhetoric as a way of organizing populations. Popular songs are full of it—and yet the singers do not seem to know they are talking about anything more than the momentary intermingling of limbs.
“I’d rather die young than live without you,” sings Beyonce Knowles in the repetitive ballad “Rather Die Young,” about a man she refers to as her James Dean. The premise of self-sacrifice in Beyonce’s “Rather Die Young,” even if it is not as dumb as I suppose, certainly is disturbing, as is Beyonce’s singing in it: how long can Beyonce maintain this throat-scrapping sound, hitting musical chords hard, without damaging her vocal cords? The song’s simple melody, if it can be called that, is derived principally from the title’s words, sung over and over. I hear the wailing of “Start Over,” focused on the indeterminacy of a relationship, and wonder, Is this an instinctive personal response, or is it commercial pandering to a taste for the excessive, obvious? Some of Beyonce’s singing in the song—its narrator considers rejuvenating the relationship—exudes an intriguing tenderness, but much of her singing has an indulgent harshness that seems intended to indicate passion and strength, a harshness that may subvert traditional sentimentality and be taken as a form of integrity—but it is repellent to good ears, and to good taste. (Much of art is about impression and perception, but the composition’s lyrics lack the distinction of insight or the beauty of poetry.) Beyonce, who does not want to bore, is using different tones, but they do not make sense always in terms of emotion or context. The best of that kind of thing may be “Love on Top,” which has a romantic theme, with a gritty, triumphant singing tone, and an appealing musical rhythm. “I can feel the sun whenever you’re near,” she sings—and “nothing’s perfect but it’s worth it after fighting through my tears”—and “finally you put my love on top”—in the rousing uptempo romantic song, though her singing is forceful rather than passionate.
It is the age of Beyonce. It is also the age of Oprah Winfrey, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Denzel Washington, Toni Morrison, and Barack Obama; and the age of J.J. Abrams, Adele, Julian Assange, Jeff Bezos, George Clooney, Johnny Depp, Rashid Johnson, Nicole Kidman, Terrence Malick, Radiohead, Rihanna, Saoirse Ronan, J.K. Rowling, Zoe Saldana, Columbus Short, Will Smith, and Mark Zuckerberg. No artist, no one, exists in isolation. Our stories compete for attention. It was a surprise that when Beyonce’s 4 came out it did not get more attention—the work of Adele, Lady Gaga, and Rihanna received more publicity and discussion. It could be that Beyonce has reached the apex of fame that makes it possible for some people to take her for granted, but I would rather think that she herself has trained her audience to expect better than she provided. She is reported to have recorded and submitted to her record company seventy songs or more, allowing them to choose the songs for the album. That is an abdication of responsibility. It is arguable that she gave the company demonstrations of creative possibilities, rather than finished productions.
Some of the songs (“Countdown” and “End of Time”) on the album have a brassy, multi-rhythmic quality that I identify with southern brass bands—is that part of (the Texan) Beyonce’s genuine taste?—but the sound could be something one of her producers scavenged from Scandinavian dance music or elsewhere, eager or desperate for a unique sound. “I’m gone in the brain,” Beyonce sings in the frantic “Countdown,” about the continuing pleasure in love, and she gives advice to “ladies,” including “grind up on him, show him how you ride it.” Erotic realism, or vulgarity? Her voice sounds double-tracked in the introduction of “End of Time,” forming her own chorus, and the song mixes brass and electronics (and the drumming is rapid, nearly martial—something that is becoming a more common sound in American music, possibly due to the nation’s being at war for so long). “I gave my all, did my best, brought someone a little happiness,” Beyonce Knowles claims in “I Was Here,” written by Diane Warren, a song that is both simple and melodramatic, but generic; and Beyonce gives it believable emotion, though not thought: that is the expression of today, attitude and emotion without thought. Celebrating the talents and power of women is “Run the World (Girls),” within which Beyonce’s line readings are varied, and somewhere she murmurs “hope you still like me,” but she then asks, “Who run this mother?” and “Who run the world?” The world is creator (mother/creator) and the world is man (mother-destroyer/world). Alas, women do not run the world.
Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. “There are no substitutes for courage, individuality, intellect, and passion: ethnicity, gender, and sexuality cannot do the work of character or creativity,” says Daniel Garrett, who has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader. He has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth.