So it’s been a little over a month now since Beyoncé released her surprise album Beyoncé to the masses. It took less than two weeks to become certified platinum and has remained at the number one position on the Billboard album chart until two weeks ago (the Disney animated musical Frozen soundtrack bumped her). Beyoncé says she took control and released her album when she felt it was ready. I must say for an entertainer to release an album without any promotion to the public and sell well over 600,000 copies essentially on day one is indeed badass! Beyoncé’s ability to move product at such speeds showcases her immense power as a successful and popular performer. This is a feat that has not been achieve by any artist . . . ever! Music writers and academics praised her for this boss move. But was it really a boss move? Did she really take control to release the album when she wanted? Although she is extremely successful, which allows her wide-ranging autonomy in terms of her artistry, it however does not giver her complete control over what she produces . . . the product! Columbia Records, in which she is signed, has the ultimate control of the product of Beyoncé. I’m sure her production company Parkwood waged a vigorous fight as to when to release the eponymous album but in the end, Columbia won that battle and worked a deal with iTunes to boot. To be clear Columbia Records is her boss and they control her image and her output. She is simply an employee. However, what was boss was that Columbia Records was able to make it seem like Beyoncé dropped an album in the middle of the night all by herself. Furthermore, the fact that Beyoncé and her ‘crew’ were able to keep the recording of her album and the production of her videos, which were shot world wide, a secret for over a year is the bossiest of moves!
Not to be outdone by the uproar surrounding the sudden release of Beyoncé is the content therein. With its 14 audio tracks and 17 accompanying videos, it is a massive endeavor. The album is both an audio and visual statement. Immediately, some music writers, fans, and the listening public branded it a work that conveys Beyoncé’s feminist sensibilities. MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry, among others, excitedly called it her “feminist manifesto” as it lyrically expresses her sexual freedom and visually articulates the power of her body while navigating life as the wife of Hip-Hop mogul Jay Z and the mother of two-year old girl, Blue Ivy.
Those critical of Beyoncé and her album argued that she is in no way a feminist for reasons that range from her marriage to Jay Z–an oft term misogynistic rapper, to her highly sexualized image which is usurped by men to generate a fortune, to the lack of her involvement in meaningful feminist conversations, and finally one feminist writer suggests the fact that she calls herself “Mrs. Carter” completely removes her from the realm of a feminist. As a man it is difficult for me to speak on Beyoncé’s femininity as her album attempts to intimately connect with women and their shared experiences. However, what is certain is Beyoncé does complicate the actions and image of a feminist. And with that I may have said too much!
(Feminist comedian Pia Glenn complicates things as well . . . in a funny way. Check it out then continue reading)
So what does Beyoncé mean to men? She isn’t attempting to connect with men in terms of her lyrics. So all we are left with is her image. Truth be told, Beyoncé operates in a world of men. No doubt we see her. Recently I asked a group of men (all over 30y/o) through my Facebook page what they thought of the image of Beyoncé and what her image means to us? Rather than get what I thought would be manly visceral responses of “oh she’s hot”, “that girl can move”, “she flawless”, to “Jay’s a lucky so and so,” I received, very unexpectedly, well thought out responses. The overall theme of the responses was first that Beyoncé in terms of her music was simply not appealing. I get that! We are men and her music is not speaking to us. And as men, approaching a certain age, our ears may be timed out of the Beyoncé sound. Secondly, their responses overwhelmingly suggest her image is highly manufactured to sell product. In essence her body and overall image is refined and designed to grab the attention of the masses. The masses?
Beyoncé’s scantily clad performance wardrobe, publicity photos, and music videos suggest she is targeting a specific audience. Her image is seemingly salacious and no doubt triggers a response from men. I understand that girls and women whom look at Beyoncé may see someone who is secure with their body image and exudes confidence as an attractive woman. Many may even desire to embody that image for themselves. How are men to process what we see and not enter into the realm of desire? One of the men among my Facebook group reminded me that there is a considerable amount of gay men who both desire and praise Beyoncé’s body and femininity. Gay men process Beyoncé entirely different than heterosexual men. (This is an entirely different conversation for another time.) Going back to the Facebook group, they revealed an interesting dynamic of Beyoncé–her image is highly manufactured. So who is responsible for the creation of her image? I say men . . . and women who understand the desires of those men (they uphold the gender dynamics of masculinity!) Let’s be clear, women images in the music industry, and hell the film industry as well, in which Beyoncé has dabbled are driven by the desires of men. It’s no coincidence that women who occupy this artist space fit an aesthetic rubric and are deemed the most attractive women in Western society. These women fulfill the fantastic desires of men in terms of image. A vivid example of men creating fantastic images of women can be seen in super hero comic books. Women characters are created, polished and intended to titillate the fantasies of boys and men. Hyper sexual images: busty breast, long-legs, small waist–all together impossible physical specimens, who remain graceful while kicking ass wearing revealing costumes, wrapped in capes, and running in heels are fantasies of men. Such is Beyoncé. She is the caricature of femininity created from the vantage point of masculinity. Her image is the absolute creation of man. Beyoncé’s image is imagined and controlled by men.
Last month when Beyoncé’s album caught everyone off guard and then began to stir up feminists’ voices, I wondered about Beyoncé’s image; it was the only thing I had to hold onto since her music and “manifesto” did not resonate with me. What did her image mean to men? I wanted to really explore this but that Facebook group conversation about her image steered me in another direction. The group led me to ponder the creation and purpose of her image. It is clear to see her image is designed to sell product. Sex sells . . . to both women and men. Some women see her as a strong beacon of beauty and as a feminist role model. However, if one looks a little closer at her image they will see a manufactured image to fulfill men’s fantasies in a masculine world. The take away is that Beyoncé is not dressing in super shero tight clothing on her own accord, rather, men are dressing her in super shero tight clothing to satisfy fantasies. No, she didn’t wake up like this! Beyoncé’s image is a mighty product, which she has no power over. She has been told to stand, deliver, and entertain from this image to be successful and maintain the life style she has accrued. The moment Beyoncé decides to assume agency of her image and wear sensible clothing and comfortable shoes during a performance will be the end of her support by men who have spent time and money perfecting what we see. Her image will have no value and fall dramatically out of the fantastic.
In the end, Beyoncé controls very little. She controls neither the dispensing of her music nor the control over her image. What she does control is her content (somewhat). She can engage in social commentary and self-aggrandizement to communicate with her fans, but she has to be mindful not to tear down her image in the process.