A Tough Love: “Beyoncé,” Mutuality, and the Dirty South

In a previous post, I discussed some of the lyrics on R. Kelly’s new album, “Black Panties,” alongside the words of Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams in his essay “The Body’s Grace.” Looking at the lyrics to “Marry the Pussy” alongside similar lyrics in songs like Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” and Miguel’s “How Many Drinks,” I noticed a similar ability to disguise male desire and male need in the trappings of celebrating women. Each of these three songs is about what a male agent wants, and each of these three songs denies or obscures the agency of the women they’re sung about or to. But in making women (or women’s body parts) the objects of desire, these songs lull critics into thinking they are pro women, so that Jezebel calls “Marry the Pussy” a “magnificent ode to pussy,” and another source I can’t find calls rapist R. Kelly’s album “sex-positive.”

still from "No Angel" -- Bey's homage to  Houston

still from “No Angel” — Bey’s homage to Houston

To illustrate how men’s needs and desires are centered in the songs listed above, I composed some fake lines to compare with the familiar screed of the singer seeing the girl across the club and knowing she wants it. Sort of joking, I wrote,

So I went over and asked do you wanna dance
And you said you’d give the Kels a chance

What’s important here is that the two characters in the song actually exchange words, and the female actually verbalizes that she’s interested, which occurs again when they actually get to business later in Kels’s crib.

When I wrote those lines, I thought they were pretty silly, but my curiosity was piqued–could we actually find lyrical examples of mutuality and enthusiastic consent, or did the nature of a song as a soliloquy foreclose that picture?

And then, on “Rocket,” a song off her new self-titled album, Beyoncé sang, “If you like, you can touch it baby. Do you, do you wanna touch it baby?” And on “No Angel,” she sings, “Tell me, do you wanna ride?” These solicitations aren’t just rhetorical questions–they’re crucial depictions of communication between lovers.

In his essay “The Body’s Grace,” Williams argues that sexual intimacy is a risky enterprise periled by fear of exposure and rejection. He writes, “I can only fully discover the body’s grace in taking time, the time needed for a mutual recognition that my partner and I are not simply passive instruments to each other. …Properly understood, sexual faithfulness is not an avoidance of risk, but the creation of a context in which grace can abound because there is a commitment not to run away from the perception of another. Ultimately Williams argues in favor of gay marriage, suggesting that only through public commitment can two lovers find “the fuller, longer exploration of the body’s grace that faithfulness offers.”

partition stills

And in fact, hot on the heels of her Mrs. Carter tour, “Beyoncé” is Beyoncé’s most sexually explicit album, whose songs frankly cover sexuality in topics range from drunk sex (“Drunk in Love,”) to cunnilingus (“Blow”) to the female orgasm (“Rocket”). In the visuals to the album, in which Jay-Z repeatedly appears as the male sexual partner ‘Yoncé sings about and to, Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s relationship surely seems to be blessed by marriage. (Though perhaps that blessing is more for the public than for them: with her sexuality sanctioned by marriage, Beyoncé is free to be fully sexy and sexual without fear of being demonized as a ho.) Even in the video to “Partition,” when she dances, stripper-style, under a leopard-print light, and a velvet rope slides between her ass cheeks, it’s her husband, Jay-Z, in the audience, and no one else.

*

Seemingly unrelated to its sexuality is the deep Houston flavor of this album. Besides the shoutout to Houston in “Haunted”  and to H-Town in “Flawless,” and the visual homage that is the video to “No Angel,” the album is linguistically southern, with ‘Yoncé not merely entering but revelling in the performance–perhaps the full-fledged debut?–of her Southern accent. For example, the beach-dance anthem “Drunk in Love” begins, “I been drankin,’ I been drankin,” flaunting Black English in both pronunciation and conjugation of the copula. And while the lyrics to the always too-short “Yonce” are a litany of hiphop/R&B cliches–“up in the club,” “hat sittin low,” Beyoncé’s pronunciation wallows in the thick southern vowels and clipped consonants of “low” and treble,” not to mention the Southern giveaway, “mane” and the lyrics’ litany of dropped final consonants. And don’t forget “I woke up like dis,” with that th–>d and the final -s dropped (dripped?) away.

In the introduction to his article “Rap’s Dirty South,” Matt Miller ruminates on the connotations of dirtiness. He writes, “Dirt and dirtiness have negative connotations of uncleanliness, disorder (Douglas), corruption, unfairness, and sexuality, but dirt can also be a powerful symbol for place and land (Yaeger), and, in a biblical sense, for human life itself. At the same time, the idea of the South and its role in American political and cultural life—often bearing connotations of poverty, ignorance, rurality, and violence—has been a unique and volatile force in the culture of the U.S.” In many of these ways, Beyoncé’s new album is her most southern–and, not coincidentally, her dirtiest. The album’s lyrics bespeak not just sexuality but sex, and the grace of marriage–which is also a pardon in the eyes of a slut-shaming public–gives Beyoncé license to perform this sex/uality for her husband with an explicitness she hadn’t broached on earlier albums. And perhaps by virtue of her ascendance as solitary Queen of American Pop–count her performances at the Superbowl Halftime Show performance and President Obama’s 2012 inaguration as my evidence there–Beyoncé has also finally been freed to out herself as really Southern. Texan, in fact. She “bout that H-town, coming, coming down,” she t/raps, on “Flawless.”

Still from "Yonce"--Southern grillz

Still from “Yonce”–Southern grillz

This album’s sexuality and linguistic play are related. Both are forms of sensuality and playfulness, in body, sound and language, and are deeply connected to this album’s celebration of Southernness, of the dirt in “dirty south,” of ratchetness. One innovation of this album is to name and celebrate a dirty south sexuality, and to link it–musically, visually, and linguistically–to American and global black ways of being. In fact, the visual album progresses cleanly through a critique of white western conceptions of beauty on “Pretty Hurts” to an embrace of black American beauty on “Beyoncé” and, arguably, “Drunk in Love,” to an affiliation with global blackness on “Blue,” which is set in Rio, and “Grown Woman,” which samples calypso and West African musics, dance moves, speech, and imagery. In the videos to these last two tracks, Beyoncé transcends a Western virgin/whore dialectic by exlicitly associating black beauty with black motherhood, a maternal beauty linked up with the sexuality explored on “Drunk in Love” and “Partition” through the presence of Beyoncé’s real daughter, Blue, with the real husband, Jay-Z, who appeared on those earlier tracks.

Beyoncé has been accused of peddling respectability politics, and she’s not immune from that critique here, where she glorifies marriage as the appropriate site of loving. But in her celebration of black love–and black style, black sexuality, black speech, black dance–this album presents the radical respectability of a fulfilled, sexually healthy black family life, where mother and lover are not incompatible roles. And this album is so much about roles–more so, it seems, than it is about the vocals. Beyoncé is showing us how much more she is than a singer–besides being an artistic and marketing visionary, she’s a mother, a lover, a wife, a dancer, a model, a roller skater, a feminist, a celebrity, a rich person, a black woman, a Houstonite, a southerner, a beauty queen, a former child star–perhaps this is why the album is noticeably lacking Bey’s powerhouse vocals. In fact, the vocals are prominently breathy, unrefined. She steps back here as a singer to more fully display herself as a woman.

grown woman stills

Further reading:

My Beyonce bibliography from March on Beyonce’s southernness/ratchetness, especially Regina Bradley’s “I Been On (Ratchet): Conceptualizing a Sonic Ratchet Aesthetic in Beyonce’s “Bow Down” on her blog Red Clay Scholar

M. Shadee Malaklou’s “Reading Beyoncé’s SUPERPOWER as a love letter to BLACK RADICAL INSURGENCY: An open letter to white feminists who want to remind us that Beyoncé’s music is just “art”” on Jesusfuckingchristblog.com

Emily J. Lordi’s “Beyonce’s Boundaries” on NewBlackMan

Over at Crunk Feminist Collective, check out “5 Reasons I’m Here for Beyonce, the Feminist,”

BattyMamzelle’s “****Flawless: On Beyonce: The Album, the Woman, the Feminist,” which includes its own “further reading” list

Mikki Kendall’s “Beyonce’s New Album Should Silence Her Feminist Critics” in The Guardian

and, arguing with Kendall, Mia McKenzie’s “On Defending Beyonce: Black Feminists, White Feminists, and the Line in the Sand” on BlackGirlDangerous

Comments on the African content in “Grown Woman” from the Fela! blog and blog Awake to Africa

Marc Lamont Hill discusses the new album with Joan Morgan @milfinainteasy,  Kaila Story @doctressstory, Imani Uzuri @gypsygirlbliss, ahiel Tesfamariam @RahielT , Rosa Clemente @rosaclemente  and Treva Lindsey @divafeminist on HuffPoLive

Paula Mendoza’s “Will the Real Feminist Please Stand Up” in the Michigan Quarterly Review

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