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.