Friday, 30 March 2012

Beyoncé Single

My niece Popcorn, who is not even two, is famous within the family for being able to sing and dance. She even has a basic grasp of pop culture.

"Popcorn," said her daytime nanny, who is a singer-dancer-actor by night, "who sings 'Billy Jean'?"

Popcorn gazed at us with huge blue eyes and smiled her gap-toothed baby grin.

"Jackson," she said.

Further questioning revealed that she associated a song of which I had not heard with Beyoncé. In related news, I just read an article about how much children are influenced by their nannies. The mystery of Popcorn's precocious musical gifts is solved.

Alisha is the only Catholic I know personally who will give a sincere and detailed defense of Michael Jackson. Apparently--I write as someone who knows almost nothing about dance and pop music--he was an incomparable innovator and an incredible dancer. Beyoncé, too, is an incredible dancer. And it occurs to me, as I copy out Alisha's aesthetic judgments, that it is an impoverishment to see pop culture always from either a consumerist's or a moralist's point of view. It is always a revelation for me to talk to Alisha about pop music and dance because she sees them as a dancer sees them.

And so it was with "All the Single Ladies." Until yesterday I had never SEEN the "All the Single Ladies" video, despite readers' repeated attempts to send me links to it. (The internet access for the Historical House is curtailed due to the fact that the Historical House is also a workplace.) So I have been unable to give my opinion of "All the Single Ladies." But I can now, and I'm glad I talked to Alisha first. Alisha tells me that the web is full of sites in which people argue whether or not it gives a positive moral message, so I realize I am coming late to the table.

Alisha tells me that the video is brilliant in its black-white-and-grey simplicity. I agree that it is astonishing how Beyoncé and the two back-up dancers, with the help of clever editing, grab hold of the viewer's attention and hang onto it for the full length of the song. I notice also that they are are all long hair, faces, hands and legs. All three are wearing dark body suits that cover their shoulders and breasts. Beyoncé's bodysuit bares one shoulder but covers the opposite arm, which ends with a metal glove. (A homage to Michael Jackson?)

The result is that the dance moves, which are certainly very body conscious, are not salacious. The long, long legs of the singer and dancer reminded me strongly of the legs of ballerinas. What is important here is line. The dancers are not sexpots; they are dancers. They are like living sculptures; to channel Camille Paglia, who channels, Nietzsche, Apollo is co-opting Dionysus.

(I can't believe I mentioned Nietzsche at 8:26 in the morning.)

So the images, for all the legginess, hark at something strict, and something that points towards perfection, as does ballet. And this suits the theme of the song, which is simply that the singer is accepting the attentions of another suitor because her boyfriend of three years won't marry her.

As a writer, I love the sound of "another brother", and as a North American I realize that this implies that Beyoncé's boyfriend and new suitor are African-Americans. So there is a social message to this song, because it touches on the uncomfortable situation in the United States about the reluctance of a large number of African-American men to marry. Of course, the song has a universal appeal, because men as a group can be foot-draggers when it comes to marriage. However, I suspect Beyoncé's song has a particular resonance for African-American women. It also suggests to women, that we too, like the strong-willed heroine of the video, should insist that "if he likes what he sees" he should "put a ring on it."

The "it" is the word that makes me uneasy. "Put a ring on it" can mean "Put a ring on my finger", and certainly Beyoncé's left hand is well-highlighted by her metal glove. "It" could also mean their relationship, the ring serving as a seal. But I also feel uneasily that "it" also means the singer herself ("If you like what you see..." or her body. This would turn the singer into an object, or reduce her to her body. However, I have to admit that the video highlights just how much in control of her body Beyoncé is. It doesn't just flop about or be acted upon some other will; Beyoncé can keep her body in line and make it do what she wants in the service of her art. She is in charge.

So I think that it is a positive song, with a good moral message, and an impressive video, especially for those who, like Alisha, know something about modern dance. But it should also be seen as a specifically American, and even more specifically African-American, cultural artifact, responding to a situation specific to the African-American community, while mirroring a more recent situation in others. One of the weirder aspects of Europe is the European appropriation of African-American art; it can go badly wrong and then be truly giggle-worthy or even completely inappropriate, disrespectful to the foreign traditions and harmful for one's own.

Here is the famous video. It occurs to me that the back-up dancers' bodysuits are similar to the leotard I wore in ballet class. Of course, I wore mine with pale pink tights and not with spike heels. I never made it to pointe shoes, but it occurs to me that the stilettos of the video provide the same function: they lengthen and refine the line of the legs.


Anna said...

Beyonce is a Rules Girl.

TGWWS said...

YES! Paul!

"Why go out for a hamburger when you have steak at home?"

Maggie said...

I would be remiss if I didn't add this delightful tidbit:

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

I'm afraid I find the dance moves repulsive. "Unladylike" seems a strange accusation, given how outrageously salacious the moves are (really, Dorothy! their legs spread wider than their shoulders, thrusting their hips in imitation of the marital act...this is not salacious? Have you been a bit desensitised perhaps?), but since the point of the song is "if you like this, you can have it in marriage," something we all agree is a sentiment for ladies, I think "unladylike" is probably the most accurate, though perhaps insufficient.

If you saw someone behaving like this in real life, even a bit, I think you would be inclined to note the irony. If you want a good man to put a ring on your finger, don't act like a whore.

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

As for salaciousness versus ladylike behaviour, perhaps a good rule of thumb would be to imagine the same moves being done by a real lady. Maybe someone like the Queen, or Grace Kelly, real role models for behaviour for ladies.

Or even better, imagine seeing a five year old in one ovf those horrifying child beauty contests imitating these moves. All the more horrifying because this obviously hyper-sexualised behaviour - that we are now so innured to that someone like yourself, a genuine lady, would regard as acceptable - is actually being imitated by five and six year-old girls. Little girls imitate the older women that society holds up as models. This was true when those models were women like Grace Kelly who led with their wit, intelligence, style and modesty. It is true today when the role models are women like this singer.

If we can't stand to imagine a little girl imitating this kind of thing, if we are horrified at the very idea, I think it's a good indication that it is something none of us should be looking at. What corrupts children, in fact corrupts everyone.

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

THink I was making it up?

Seraphic said...

Well, we wouldn't be seeing people acting like this in real life because it was a dance. You don't see people dancing Swan Lake in the streets, either.

If I were still the teenage girl or college student I was, I would have no idea what you are talking about. I would not think the "hip thrusting" was an imitation of the marital act (about which I knew nothing) but merely a dance move. And this is no doubt what most children think. When I was a teenager in the 80s I was shocked by undress, and thought Madonna's corsets and outerwear simply atrocious.

I doubt I'm desensitized--which comes across as an insult, by the way. As I alluded above, I was trying to see the dance from the perspective of an authority on modern dance.

I am reminded of the outrage that greeted Elvis's dance on--what was it? The Ed Sullivan Show? I'm sympathetic to the shock African-American dance moves would have the first time they were seen by a huge white audience, but my guess is that most teenagers had no idea what the adults were fussing about. It's not the innocent who are going to see the sexual act mimicked in African-American dance moves, but the sexually experienced.

One scene that illustrated this was the hilarious dance scene in "Little Miss Sunshine", which totally sends up beauty contents and over-sexualized dancing. The little girl has no idea, but the parents all do.

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

But we do see this. Not in the form of a choreographed dance, nothing so formal, but this tone of behaviour, this lascivious, highly sexualised approach is something you see all the time. Get on a bus any evening in the centre of any city in the western world and you will see it, young women and young men who think that this is the acceptable model for behaviour. It is what I've devoted my life to fighting.

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

Also, I didn't mean to be insulting. I think it is simply almost unavoidable to not have become desensitised to these kinds of images, even aftter many years of being out of their range, living in the country and the like. But imagine what someone born in my grandmother's time would have thought of it, and it is easy to see that we are all desensitised.

Andrea said...

Love the dialogue here, the good discussion on whether this is appropriate or not. Interesting to hear two women, both devoted to modesty, discussing this. However, since I'm not one to sit on the fence for much,
I must say I tend to fall in to the Hilary camp on this one.

Seraphic said...

Normally I would say, "Ick, ick", but I am trying to see Beyonce's video from the point of view of Catholics who love modern dance and pop music. I am trying to see it as DANCERS see it, for once.

I'm also trying to think of another dance form that could be seen as sexually objectionable, and I seem to recall there is a reader here who has been shamed for her interest in "immodest" swing-dancing. Other people are made very uncomfortable by tango--I knew an elderly lady who was forbidden from playing tango music on the piano by the nuns who taught her, and then others See belly-dancing as if it were burlesque.

Interestingly, we see nothing wrong with breaking into the Can-Can, when the original Can-Can in 1890s France was highly immoral: the whole point was to see what was under the dancers' skirts.

In "Mary Poppins", Julie Andrews shows off the frilly hem of her knickers in one of the dance scenes. In 1962, I am sure nobody really cared although the chimney sweeps mimed shock. But JA's gesture does point to one feature of white, western dance: showing that which is usually revealed (ankles, knees, frilly knickers).

I'm not sticking up for rude, oversexualized behaviour in public.

Charming Disarray said...

"If we can't stand to imagine a little girl imitating this kind of thing, if we are horrified at the very idea, I think it's a good indication that it is something none of us should be looking at. What corrupts children, in fact corrupts everyone."

What is appropriate for a grown woman is not necessarily appropriate for a little girl. There is a huge difference. What's horrifying is making the claim that a grown woman has the exact same standards of behavior as a little girl.

Alisha said...

First of all, let me reassure you that Popcorn just really likes the sound of the chorus and bounces up and down to it. It's extremely cute and not at all sexualized, trust me.
I agree with Seraphic that it's important to first distinguish between performance and real life. Ask yourself, overall, what is the piece saying? Is there anything that's laudable about it? What makes it appealing? This video is hugely popular - has inspired parodies and people everywhere to learn the choreo. Is it because a huge part of the world population wanted to dance in a way that you characterize as whoorish? No! I highly doubt you'd find very many people who would say that's why they like it. Aside from the fact that it's a catchy song, the sense I get from this video is a physicalized rebellion coming from a frustration or even anger from not having been appreciated before by a previous boyfriend: that's a legitimate experience that a lot of people can relate to.
While some of the movements are definitely sexual,I personally don't find it to be gratuitously so, or designed as a come on - quite the opposite. The movement and attitude is very exaggerated and over the top and not particularly inviting, actually. What is highlighted in these dancers is their attitude and physical skill - (some of the moves, including the ones mentioned, are ridiculously hard to do). They are not fawning over a guy who is looking on voyeuristically or who is using them as accessories/eye candy as you will find in a lot of music videos...I've seen a lot and those definitely give me a strong sense of disgust.

Alisha said...

While some of the movements are definitely sexual,I personally don't find it to be gratuitously so, or designed as a come on - quite the opposite. The movement and attitude is very exaggerated and over the top and not particularly inviting, actually. What is highlighted in these dancers is their attitude and physical skill - (some of the moves, including the ones mentioned, are ridiculously hard to do). They are not fawning over a guy who is looking on voyeuristically or who is using them as accessories/eye candy as you will find in a lot of music videos...I've seen a lot and those definitely give me a strong sense of disgust.
I think what's important to remember here is that it is not all black and white (even if the video is!) A music video is not a moral lesson, and it's not supposed to be - art and entertainment are often more descriptive than they are prescriptive. That doesn't mean it can't contain certain morals or that the artist doesn't have a moral responsibility to the viewer on some level. But that doesn't mean that the work they present will be sanitized or free of contradictions because guess what? That is the human condition! We are not always pretty, good, ladylike etc. We sin, we are messy, we are angry, rebellious etc. The question becomes whether or not how the message is portrayed does a disservice or harm to the viewer.

Alisha said...

I'd be the last one to say that all modesty is relative, but it's true that culture, convention, and experience with dance and movement, has a huge effect on how we view things. For example, I think most of us in 21st century North America would consider the waltz a very elegant and ladylike dance. Not so when it first became popular - it was actually considered lewd because gasp! people were touching!!
Secondly, in North America, (other than swing dancing which is historically American, with African roots), we don't have partner dance as part of our culture that is NOT associated with something romantic. Not many of us grew up dancing with our relatives at home - yet this is often the case in other parts of the world. We are really ill at ease and embarassed with our bodies and expressive movement, in general. Personally, I would love to see confidence with movement, dance, physical expression taught alongside modesty, ladylikeness, as part of the theology of the body. I've never even heard of it spoken in the same breath, but it's the theology of the BODY for heaven's sake: the body moves, dances, exercises, is the expression of our soul - I think we're missing out on a huge lot by sitting around talking about our bodies in theological terms rather than being on our feet and actually moving.
I've never seen people dancing like this on the bus (they would have a certain amount of admiration from me if they were able to do that and keep their balance!!) I know the attitude which you speak of but I personally think it's the fault of Christians not being involved in the arts and giving direction to the passion displayed in movement like this. That's what people are responding to - energy and passion. As for Grace Kelly and the Queen, God bless them but I will never be able to relate to them. I'm not that elegant, refined or calm and never will be. Nothing of their bearing reflects the energy that is part of me. And speaking of Grace Kelly as a role model, you may want to consider her close friendship with and regard for Josephine Baker, hardly someone known for modesty restraint!
In this I think it's important to pay attention to the Scripture "Test everything, retain what is good." That is what I hear in Seraphic's blog post.

Hilary Jane Margaret White said...

The main difference is that the grown woman knows what it is about, understands what the hip-thrusting dance moves are imitating. It is why when the little children imitate the moves in a horrifying beauty pageant it is the parents we blame for their lack of moral care. Therefore, it seems clear that the grown woman imitating in her behaviour style the hyper-sexualised concepts behind such dances - the kind of behaviour that we see drunkenly roaming the streets in stiletto heels and miniskirts on Friday nights in most British cities - are all the more culpable. We don't hold the child responsible, we don't say that the child is trying to be sexually provocative. But we certainly have some stern words for the mother who does not teach her child that this is not appropriate, not for children or for adults. Who does not sheild either her child or herself from these influences. Inasmuch as this singer is an adult, she is culpable of corrupting both the young children who see it and think nothing of behaving this way, and the older women who see it and think the same thing. The main difference is that the only ones we don't blame are the children.

healthily sanguine said...

I like the song, could do without the video . . . but you guys, this is a POP song. I'm not sure where the high-tone artistic discussion about modern/cultural dance fits in. I don't mean that Beyonce et al. aren't doing a great job dancing, but the context is a Top 40 radio hit, not performance art and not African American cultural expression. Judge accordingly.

healthily sanguine said...

My last comment is bound to come off as snobby, so I will also add that, coming from a Hispanic background, I feel that the works of Shakira, Jennifer Lopez, etc. do NOT represent an expression of Hispanic culture. In fact, if you watch J. Lo in her videos/shows, she's doing largely the same thing as Beyonce. Yes, she can dance, yes she can create a pop music empire--but I'm not going to set this on the same level as Ballet Folklorico!

Clare said...

Dance is sexual, period. Most actresses and dancers throughout history have been regarded as somewhat dodgy women, because the public presentation of passion was considered highly unladylike.

Dance--well done, which I think Beyonce's is--is an expression of how we think and feel about the erotic. And I actually do think the content of Beyonce's dance quite well reflects the content of her song, and both are, on the whole, positive.

Grace Kelly is the uber-lady. She's also blonde, white, skinny, and often seems to me rather a cold fish. If being ladylike means that's the only model for feminine presentation, and that women are denied access to the cultural discussion and expression of the erotic, I'd rather eat nails than be a lady.

Seraphic said...

@HS. Actually, R&B and anything that springs from R&B IS an expression of African-American culture because African-Americans invented it. It doesn't matter who the artist is, R&B, funk, rap, jazz--those are all African American cultural expressions, celebrated (at best) or appropriated (at worst) by artists from any culture. German opera is German, even if the lady what sings it is Chinese.

Actually, I'm glad you mentioned Shakira because Alisha and I watched her dancing to "Oh oh oh" (or whatever it is called), the World Cup in South Africa anthem, and she was most definitely doing an AFRICAN dance. So, again, it's not the artist, it's the dance moves and the music that spring from a particular culture.