On 13 December 2013, singer Beyonce Knowles released a surprise self-titled ‘visual’ album.
The promotional lead of the album was a song and video entitled ‘Drunk in love’ which depicts Beyonce on the beach singing about her sex-life with husband Jay-Z. At first the video seems nothing out of the ordinary for Beyonce/Jay Z or any mainstream pop/hip-hop/ r’n’b artist, however, towards the end of the song Jay Z adds a cameo verse that contains the astonishing lines;
“I am Ike Turner, turn up baby know I don’t play. Now eat the cake, Anna Mae. I said eat the cake, Anna Mae”.
Beyoncé mouths the words behind him, smiling. The disturbing reference derives from the film “What’s love go to do with it” which documents Tina Turner’s (real name Anna Mae Bullock) life story, including the rape and beatings she experienced at the hands of a jealous husband. The scene is heart-wrenching and painful to watch in its depiction of the public humiliation experienced by a woman undergoing the control of an abusive husband. It gets to the heart of both the feeling of shame and the sense of violation that victims of abuse suffer. (When Tina turns down a cake that Ike Turner, her husband, orders to the table, he shoves it in her mouth and smears it across her face after shouting “eat the cake, Anna Mae”. He then hits her backing singer, who then warns Tina that she’ll die at the hands of Ike’s abuse, if she doesn’t escape it.
The nature of the scene makes Beyonce and Jay-Z’s trivialisation of it extremely disconcerting, if not appear ruthless, malicious and a slap in the face to a tremendously influential performer, and to all women who have experienced the horrible reality of abuse. There is no doubt that Tina Turner has been a huge influence to a performer like Beyonce; this is strongly evident in Beyonce’s live shows.
There is also no doubt that a very large part of Beyonce’s success rests upon the work of earlier black artists who never received the credit or recognition they deserve. These influences range from early Blues and Jazz to snapshots of the rhythmic structure from the early Negro spirituals. But also, early female vocalists/blues artists like Bessie Smith/ Ethel Waters and, as recent as Etta James, who was livid to discover that Beyonce had played her in ‘Cadillac records’ (a film based on the formation of Chicago based Record Label ‘chess records’).
Beyonce is the single most successful female black vocalist of all time. This incredible commercial successs, however, seems unfortunately to be in the spirit of the status quo of neo-liberal capitalism – namely a worshipping of individualism, and an utter disregard for the reality of class division and oppression that are innate to the neo-liberal capitalism that Beyonce has no criticisms to make of whatsoever. How else could she write such a ridiculous song as ‘Girls Rule the World’? No they don’t, Beyonce. It’s this post-modern viewpoint that makes it acceptable to treat intimate partner violence with the levity shown in ‘Drunk in Love’.
It’s no wonder that many young women who support Beyonce are confused by what she stands for. Amidst the 17 videos she released on December 13, one video, ‘Flawless’, stands out in particular for the confusing and hypocritical message it broadcasts to the young women who look up to her. The song contains a sample from Nigerian feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie;
We teach girls to shrink themselves
To make themselves smaller
We say to girls
“You can have ambition
But not too much…..
I am expected to make my life choices
Always keeping in mind that
Marriage is the most important
Now marriage can be a source of
Joy and love and mutual support
But why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage
And we don’t teach boys the same?
We raise girls to each other as competitors
Not for jobs or for accomplishments
Which I think can be a good thing
But for the attention of men
We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings
In the way that boys are
Feminist: the person who believes in the social
Political, and economic equality of the sexes
This is of course a positive message. It contrasts with the rest of the song though, as Beyonce tells us to ‘bow down (presumable to her), bitches’ and boasts about how ‘flawless’ the diamonds are that she possesses – yet more worshipping of greed and individualism. If being a feminist means striving for a society where the oppression of women is ended, you should be deeply radical given the very capitalist system’s patriarchal and sexist fabric. Beyonce as ‘feminist’, illustrates how the word has been totally co-opted by capitalism, and the danger of her being held up for young women as a feminist icon, is highlighted by her mockery of intimate partner violence.
In reality Beyonce’s success exemplifies the dearth in the mainstream of talented artists who truly represent their audience and can avoid being sucked into the self-serving interests of the profiteering and commercial music-industry.