Beyonce has pushed Rihanna to be the best Rihanna she can be

I tuned into the VMAs last night to see a celebration of the dominant force Black women and Caribbean musicians and musics are having on U.S. culture right now. And even though Beyonce’s Lemonade performance was incredible, I was most struck by Rihanna’s extended performances on the eve of her Vanguard Video Award, and even her speech itself, which vocalized the Caribbeanness of the night–almost every song performed had Caribbean musical influences. As Rihanna said of Barbados upon receiving the award, “When I think about the Vanguard Award and receiving this tonight, all I could think of was my country. They’re gonna be so proud, this is the first Vanguard Award to land anywhere close to my country. My success, it started as my dream. But now, my success, it’s not my own. It’s my family’s, it’s my fans’, it’s my country’s, it’s the Caribbean as a whole, it’s women, it’s Black women.”

Riri’s opening performance (watch here), with its bubblegum pinks and dozens of dancers moving in sync, made me think that the existence of Beyonce has pushed Rihanna to craft more total performances than she was inclined to do earlier in her career. Rihanna never was a dancer like Beyonce is, often choosing to stand or sway, or do small unchoreographed Caribbean dance moves as she sang, but on her ANTI World Tour she appears to have pulled out the choreography stops and pushed herself as a dancer and a performer to something larger, more fully Pop. And in her opening performance last night, Rihanna focused on her dance moves, giving a visual performance that captured the attention of the arena and left the assembled celebrities standing and screaming for her at the end.

But what really blew me away was Rihanna’s performance of “Work” (watch here), set over a dancehall mashup track produced (I think, from the digital signature) by DJ Mustard, in which Rihanna appears with a big white t-shirt pulled over her head, a long black du-rag tied over it. Behind her is a riser stacked with dancers participating in her song, this mob of black and brown partiers inspired, too, by Kanye West’s recent performances with stages packed full with his clique. With last night’s dense human scene Rihanna channels the Jamaican club depicted in the first video for “Work,” but she also, by donning the “masque” of drag, troubles the male gaze she solicits in both of the “Work” videos. Grimacing and leering as she dances, in her VMAs performance of the song Rihanna at times makes herself ugly in a way that Beyonce never does, in a way Beyonce actively fought. In this performance of masculine ugliness as well as hyperfeminine sexiness Rihanna reminds us that she is Caribbean in a way that Beyonce, despite her mastery of Caribbean dance moves, will never be and never wants to be. (Depite the political content of Beyonce’s newer work, her identification with Creole culture may mark the edge of her progressivism.) Beyonce’s playfulness stops at the edge of her beauty.

Rihanna performs “Work” at the 2016 VMAs, image via capitalfm.com

In the space of the VMA awards, where Black labor produces white capital, Rihanna’s performance of “Work” is an embrace of the “Caribbean Carnivalesque,” what Caribbean rhetorician Kevin Browne explains is the emergence of folk energies that inhabit “the liminal spaces between revelry and revolt” (14). Negotiating with the space given her by MTV’s neocolonial representational regime (read up on the history of MTV on this one), Rihanna’s performance of “Work” rejects the male gaze that circumscribed the hypersexualized performances of the evening by Beyonce, Nicki Minaj, Ariana Grande, and Rihanna herself. In the context of an album of ballads that sound like something by Amy Winehouse or Adele (themselves ironically the white inheritors of soul), Rihanna’s “Work”–“You see me I fi work, work, work, work, work”–signifies on the gendered, nationalized emotional labor asked of Rihanna to make herself intelligible as a commodity whose Caribbean exoticism is part of her appeal. By performing this much-mocked song with a t-shirt pulled over her head, Rihanna pushes the limits of her white audience’s illiteracies even as she explodes Caribbean ways of celebrating, performing, and critiquing onto an MTV stage. Thus, on a night that left some pitting Beyonce and Rihanna against each other, Rihanna rose to the bar Beyonce sets for all performers today but also showed us what makes her what Queen B will never be – a rude gyal.

Works Cited in this Post

Avidly’s “On Beyonce’s Face,” 2013.

Black Girl with Long Hair’s “Unaware of Jamaican Patois, Critics Blast Rihanna For Speaking “Gibberish” On Her New Single ‘Work’,” 2016.

Yaba Blay’s “On ‘Jackson Five Nostrils,’ Creole vs. ‘Negro’ and Beefing Over Beyoncé’s ‘Formation’,” Colorlines, 2016.

Kevin Browne’s Tropic Tendencies: Rhetoric, Popular Culture, and the Anglophone Caribbean. Pitt U Press, 2013.

Andy Green’s “Flashback: David Bowie Rips Into MTV for not Spotlighting Black Artists,” Rolling Stone, 2016.

Rihanna, 2016 MTV VMA performances of “Don’t Stop the Music” medley and “Work” medley.

Neetzam Zimmerman’s “Beyoncé’s Publicist Asks Internet to Remove Unflattering Beyoncé Photos; Internet Turns Unflattering Beyoncé Photos Into a Meme,” Gawker, 2013.

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YOU ARE HAIR: Pixie Cut Mania

I am SO excited to share this.

In March, I presented in the film podcast Bonnie and Maude‘s live show, YOU ARE HAIR. Yes, it was all about hair. Now you can watch the clip, interspersed with my visuals, below. (You *should* watch the whole thing. But to watch mine, select “Playlist” in the upper-left-hand corner and choose video #3.)

In my talk, I discuss the winter wave of celebrity pixie cuts, focusing specifically on Beyonce and Miley Cyrus–how they debuted their cuts, and how they were constructed in their music videos. Enjoy–and he sure to check out the rest of the night’s program here! Special thanks to Kseniya and Eleanor for hosting and producing these clips!!

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

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Is Beyonce the Trillest Feminist Ever, or Whatever? An Annotated Bibliography

o-BEYONCE-BOW-DOWN-570

click the pic to listen to “Bow Down” at Huffpost.com

Beyonce’s inauguration performance, half-time show, and the recent release of her new single “Bow Down” have provided grist for the production of an enormous amount of writing.

Or, to use another metaphor:

Beyonce’s inauguration performance, half-time show, and the recent release of her new single “Bow Down” not only made waves, they have left a wake of scholarship and criticism behind them.

joan morgan beyonce tweet

As the whole country, and certainly the popular media, have accepted Beyonce’s Napoleonic christening of herself as “Queen Bey,” these last three Beyonce experiences have spawned conversations about whether Bey is a feminist, post-feminist, capitalist feminist, black, black enough, the Queen of Pop, ratchet, anti-feminist, and so on. A few days ago she released “Bow Down,” which commands the listener, “Bow down bitches, bow down bitches.” You know. ‘Cause she’s the queen. And you ain’t.

If I have any argument to make in this post, it’s that Beyonce knows she can say whatever she wants and the whole country will flip their shit about it. Whatever her use of “bitch” signifies about feminism, post-feminism, or anti-feminism, the one certainty here is that Beyonce used it on purpose and knew it would problematize our picture of her as a Michelle-Obama-hugging-post-racial-feminist. Because Beyonce has her image on lock.

Mostly what I want to do here is simply marvel at the size and scope of the cultural conversations generated by this song, that halftime performance, that inauguration lipsync and non-apologetic press conference. As pop culture scholars, we should be thanking her for pushing the envelope, rocking our boats, giving us something to type about. And here I defer to my colleagues and offer a selection of rockin’ readings about Queen Bey, listed in order of how much they fascinate me, though all are fascinating. (I didn’t find boring links for y’all!)

Ok, here we go:

Maco L. Faniel contextualizes Beyonce’s “Bow Down”  in southern rap history and aesthetics (Maco L. Faniel Blogs)

Mark Bittman eviscerates Beyonce for her PepsiCo endorsement deal (fascinating for Beyonce’s cultural saturation, even into the food column – The New York Times, “Why Do Stars Think It’s O.K. to Sell Soda?”) (I also wrote about that post before)

Rahiel Tesfamariam and Joan Morgan sound off on Twitter about “Bow Down’s” use of “bitch” (check out their whole feeds from 3/20 and 3/21)

RN Bradley considers “Bow Down” as a flirtation with the ratchet (Red Clay Scholar)

Avidly examines the masks of Beyonce’s face, at the Superbowl and in the more distant past (Avidly, “On Beyonce’s Face”)

Guthrie Ramsey argues that the scandal over Beyonce’s inauguration lipsync is part of a historical American obsession with authenticity (Dr. Guy’s Musiqology, “Beyond Beyonce Gate: Looking for the American Authentic”)

Anne Helen Petersen decodes Beyonce’s Tumblr and then argues for Bey’s ambivalent relationship to feminism (ok, these could be at the top of the list, but I link to Petersen all the time, so read those other great scholars first- Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style, “Decoding Beyonce’s Tumblr”)

GQ’s cover story on Beyonce has no philosophical problem sexifying and celebrating Bey simultaneously (interesting mainly for the sexy pics and the philosophical problems raised, but not acknowledged- GQ, “Miss Millenium”)

David J. Leonard thinks haters on the Halftime Show are enforcing a “politics of civility” (NewBlackMan, “Beyoncé, The Super Bowl and the Politics of “Civility””

In the wake of the Super Bowl, Gawker’s Rich Juzwiak christens Beyonce the King of Pop (Gawker, “Beyonce Knowles is the King of Pop”)

Ann Powers argues that Beyonce’s Super Bowl show is kind of the apex of black American female pop performances (NPR, “The Roots of Beyonce’s Super Bowl Spectacular”)

Sophie Wiener suggests that Beyonce is probably, but not neccessarily, a feminist (The Atlantic, “Is Beyonce a Feminist?”)

and, just for fun:

@Bittman, Beyonce, and @ByronHurt

via nytimes.com

via nytimes.com

A few weeks ago, food writer and New York Times columnist Mark Bittman dipped his toe into the sea of pop culture studies with his column on Beyonce’s PepsiCo deal, “Why Do Stars Think It’s O.K. to Sell Soda?” In the piece, Bittman’s eponymous question proves to be rhetorical. Instead of exploring why “stars think it’s o.k. to sell soda,” he explains why they shouldn’t: because soda’s empty calories “directly cause weight gain” and are linked to “obesity and [therefore] early death”.

Bittman’s piece focuses on superstar Beyonce’s enormous endorsement deal from Pepsi in compensation for her performance at the Pepsi Superbowl Halftime Show and her image being emblazened on limited-edition Pepsi cans, an effort on which Pepsi is spending $50 million. In this column and elsewhere, Bittman advocates for legal limitations on soda (for example, making food stamps ineligible for soda purchases), and so he has a clear sense that Beyonce’s choice is a bad one for the health of her fans. He writes that “Knowles is renting her image to a product that may one day be ranked with cigarettes as a killer we were too slow to rein in.”

But  Bittman misses an opportunity to understand this Beyonce deal when he rushes to moralize it. Given Beyonce’s political activism, even her advocacy for Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign, Bittman see’s her choice to pose for Pepsi as mere hypocrisy. To Bittman, soda is an obvious killer, an ingestible non-food that should be regulated with “anti-tobacco-style legislation and [tried in the court of] public opinion.” Looking at Britney’s Pepsi ad above, for example, it clearly markets Pepsi as hip, aspirational, youthful, energetic, democratic, carefree, and sexy. Those are still characteristics fans associate with Beyonce, and her acceptance of the Pepsi deal suggests that Pepsi still reads hip, youthful and fun – what may be the bigger shift here from Britney days is not that Pepsi has changed but that a black woman can be the face of hip, youthful, sexy and fun.

Bittman’s equivalence between soda and cigarettes is a false one precisely because of their differences in the eyes of contemporary American consumers.  Beyonce has accepted an endorsement deal from Pepsi without damaging her image of “success, health, talent, fitness, and glamour” (Center for Science in the Public Interest qtd in Bittman). This speaks not only to the strength of Beyonce’s star image but also indicates that soda is not perceived by most as it is by Mark Bittman. He laments that “Seemingly, no celebrities turn down endorsement deals for ethical reasons,” but of course we know that Beyonce would turn down any endorsement deal, no matter the payday, with a cigarette company. She doesn’t even shell for alcohol. (Carcinogenic cosmetics are another story.) Beyonce’s proud acceptance of this deal is an indicator of public opinion on soda: we don’t see it as a killer, not yet. Bittman would do better to understand the meaning of her choice and what it means about soda’s public image.

(Side note: While we’re here, though, let me praise Mark Bittman. That the food-centric writings of a cookbook author are so incisively political speaks to the centrality of food and food policy to many national debates and struggles. His writings on food politics cut to the core of so many facets of American life, government, and community right now: public health disaster, big business corruption, pollution and global warming, revolving doors between government agencies and corporate board rooms, and–let’s not forget this–the thousands of grass roots movements in food, community, and sustainability taking hold across the country every day.)

Byron Hurt’s new documentary, Soul Food, is streaming on PBS.org until January 22. It uses the death of Hurt’s father as a jumping-off point to an exploration of how food health and security impact African American community. Most interesting to me in the film were folks’ contrasting responses to soul food’s roots in slavery: some people took eating the chicken feet white folks wouldn’t eat as a badge of honor, while others rejected slave foods for their association with enslavement. The film is a great exploration of so many foods we think of as plain American: mac n’cheese, fried chicken, stewed greens, but put in the context of African-American history, experience, and culture.

The film was also a surprising compliment to Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, which (as a story of the Great Migration) is a book about travel, about eating on the go, and about the movements of traditions and cultures of which food is a huge part. Anyway, check out the film and let me know what you think!

Loving Kimye: An Exploration (part I)

Awwwww

Awwwww

Before I can attend to my complicated and important feelings about the future birth of little Kimye, Jr., I must first offer a long-overdue defense of the deep and indefensible love I feel for the pop culture coupling that is Kim and Kanye. If you are like some people (my boyfriend), what needs defending is that I would profess to love two celebrities–any people, really, who are personally unknown to me. If you are like some other people (most people; certain friends) the question is: why love Kimye at all, when there are Knowleses and -Z’s about?

First, my beau’s pained question: wherefore the love for a celebrity? In her introductory article, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Brangelina,” the excellent star studies scholar Anne Helen Petersen explains star formation  (hint: when we’re talking about stars, we’re really talking about ourselves). She writes:

Celebrity is a particularly modern phenomenon, symptomatic of a culture that attempts to “know” a person through mediated forms (the magazine, the newspaper, the newscast). Stardom is a particularly potent form of celebrity. … [a] star is formed when audiences combine information about the star’s onscreen performances (the type of person she plays on screen; Reese Witherspoon, for example, is “America’s Sweetheart”) with information about the star’s off-screen life (her romances, her children, and other gossip). Put differently, a Star = Textual Information + Extra-textual Information. Each star’s “image” is the result of this alchemy.

[Certain] actors become superstars because their images—what they seem to represent, on- and off-screen—embody something vital to contemporary American identity. It’s no accident that Tom Cruise’s brand of white, working class-turned-suave masculinity resonated in the 1980s, or that Julia Roberts’s postfeminist approach to sex and relationships gained traction in the early 1990s. As Richard Dyer suggests, “stars matter because they act out aspects of life that matter to us; and performers get to be stars when what they act out matters to enough people” (Dyer, 17, 1984).

Petersen’s formulations above present challenges for Kimye because neither is a traditional screen actor. As an artist and a reality TV star, both Kanye and Kim traffic in representations of their real lives, not representations of fictional lives. (In Kanye’s case, despite the fact that rap is so often fictional, we can see this potential conflation for listeners in the strong presence of the first person “I” in all Yeezy’s raps.) But perhaps this makes their “alchemy” all the more potent. Even though I know both rap and reality TV are fiction, I am allowed to operate under an even more profound delusion of “knowing” these two characters because of their extreme availability. So the questions become, what do Kim and Kanye mean to me, and what does their union mean to me? Why are they so resonant? Why do I want to celebrate their mitzvot with parties of my own? And be their friends?

(Ok, I’ll admit: Kim I don’t want to be friends with so much as I feel a kind of kinship with her: watching her show reminds me of my sister, both because my sister used to watch it and also because Keeping Up With the Kardashians is really a celebration of a goofy, nosy, PG-13 version of sisterhood.

Of course, I do want Kanye to be my friend. Not a romantic friend with benefits, but that friend you flirt with sometimes because he’s your boy and he really has your back, and who at senior prom you dance one dance to, to “Step in the Name of Love” by Kels and you know there are real feelings there but you’re just not right for each other romantically and that’s okay because the bond is strong.

But enuf of that.)

From the perspective of star studies, then, Kanye and Kim’s relationship is meaningful to Americans like me because it symbolizes or represents something that is important to us in today’s moment: “what they act out matters to enough people.” Petersen goes on to explain what happens when stars collide in a romantic relationship:

When the couple has nothing to do with making us feel better about our relationships with fictional characters [i.e., two stars of a romantic movie dating each other for real], then it’s all about how we feel about two images and their fit.  As for their actual interactions, the way they challenge each other, or the fact that love doesn’t always make sense to people outside of the relationship, none of that matters.  Again, it’s not about a relationship between two people, but a relationship between two images — and the way we feel about the resultant image, the “relationship” image as it were.  Just like a star image is the sum of its signifying parts — the way the star appears at premieres, in actual films, in sweats at the supermarket, in advertisements, in interviews — so too is the relationship the sum of the couple’s appearances (or lack thereof) in public, the way they speak of each other in interviews, the way they produce (or don’t produce) children.

So the puzzle pieces here are Kanye and Kim’s “two images and their fit,” working together in a way that is somehow appealing to me. So what are these stars representing for the public? In many pieces, Petersen breaks down how she reads a given star’s image. So, aping her methodology, I’ll give it the ol’ grad school try:

Kanye reads: south side Chicagoan, from the streets but not of the streets (even if his mom is a prof, but whatever), aspirational, talented, kind of like an outsider dork black kid who is so successful he becomes black royalty, best friends with the coolest kid in school (Jay); passionate, out-of-control emotions, an artist but also a buffoon, tempestuous, occasional drunkard loves his mom, loves himself. mama’s boy. Likes curvy women.

Kim reads: Armenian Valley girl, rich parents on the margins of LA celebrity, a comfortable – even commodifiable – sexuality, real white women have curves, making bank by exploiting her own privacy and emotional life, fame whore, family gal, boob jokes with the sisters. Likes black guys.

For both of these two, it occurs to me that for folks who don’t consume their media and just hear about them, Kanye largely reads “jackass” (a la President Obama, who broke my heart that day, but I understand) and Kim reads “nouveau riche ethnic white trash.” As an avowed consumer and even teacher of Kanye’s music, and an occasional watcher of KUWTK and always admirer of Kim’s curvaceous form, I am inclined to see the good in them.

But, in any case, these two images combine really cleanly. Both are aspirational, folks who even on top seem jealous to get higher; both are hard workers; Kanye was a mama’s boy and Kim has family aplenty (and they’re for sale); both urbanites; both have shown their vulnerabilities in public; have been friends for years; both have an established interest in the looks/body type of the other one. So what might I admire or connect to in this relationship? Well, I think it’s the fantasy, first of all, of that special friendship turning into something more after all those years of failed relationships with other people. It also seems to be a fantasy about making choices–good choices and bad ones, artistic choices and capitalist ones–and not having our mistakes ruin our chance at love. And it’s also a fantasy about fame, because all these two wanted was to be famous, and now they are, and their conjunction makes each more famous than they could have been alone. And it’s a fantasy about genuine love, because these two may want each other for the fame, but definitely not for the money.

***

Now, let’s consider the second question: why love Kimye when there are Carters around?

bey jay basketball game

Jay and Bey’s images are quite different than Kim and Kanye’s. The Carters manage their privacy. They got married secretly, then waited a long time to have a kid. Jay’s raps, like Bey’s tumblr, are personal, yet the real person is still hidden beneath a sheeny veil of artistry and marketing. They are black Americana: hiphop and R&B’s greatest contemporary successes.

The Carters read untouchable, effortless success. They work hard but they don’t have to try hard to work hard. As far as their alchemical stardom is concerned, their fame is based on 99% talent and 1% (all Bey’s) crazy gorgeous face-beauty. Compare this to Kim and Ye, whose hustles get down and dirty. Kim’s reality show success is leveraged from a sextape and her dad having defended OJ Simpson. Kanye is more infamous than famous, his awesome music dwarfed by his awesomely bad self-control.

So, depending on your fantasies and dreams–if you dream of pop stardom, if you dream of untouchability–Jay and Bey may be the star couple for you. But my life has been too messy and my fiction is too personal for me to hope for all that.

Now, grant me a detour. (Or skip the next section and meet me at the bottom.)

Buddhist cosmology holds that all sentient beings live and die and are reborn within a cycle of Samsara: imperfect existence. Of the cycle’s six realms, three are unfortunate–demons, hungry ghosts, and animals–and three are fortunate–humans, demigods, and gods. Rebirth in the fortunate groups is a result of good karma, and in the unfortunate groups is a result of bad (read more). Even though being a god or demigod is exceedingly pleasant, however, only humans can achieve nirvana – because it takes that most human mixture of pain and joy to fully practice the dharma, the good, noble way–gods and demigods are too distracted by their bounty to fully understand the nature of existence and behave accordingly.

samsara

Bear with me here.

Certain interpretations of Buddhism hold that “cosmology is equivalent to psychology.” That is, the so-called realm a being is in is psychological, not metaphysical. If you are miserable and desperate, you are a hungry ghost; if you are happy and at leisure, you are a god. Etc. Under this interpretation it is possible to say that human beings exist across all six realms of being. (For example, think of someone you know who is an animal.)

This thorough and hopefully reliable source explains the mythological relationship between the gods and the demigods:

Mythologically, it is said that the Asuras [demigods] and the gods share a celestial tree. While the gods enjoy the fruits of this celestial tree, the Asuras are custodians of the roots of the tree. The Asuras are envious of the gods and constantly attempt to take the fruits of the tree from the gods. As a result of this, they fight with the gods, and are defeated by the gods and suffer greatly as a consequence. Because of this constant jealousy, envy and conflict, existence amongst the Asuras is unhappy and unfortunate.

The demigods guard the roots of the celestial tree and are jealous of the gods, who enjoy the fruits. The demigods are still demigods, jet they are plagued by jealousy, unhappy with their lot. The gods, on the other hand, are straight chillin’. They will always win.

The "Knowles-Thronedashians"

The “Knowles-Thronedashians”

I invoke these myths because they help me understand how I view what Rembert Browne calls the “Knowles-Thronedashians” and why Kanye and Kim are so much more appealing to me than Jay-Z and Beyonce. Gods and demigods, they’re all too distracted by their leisure to know much of the nature of things. But Kim and Kanye know–and show–their pain. Even jealousy is a real emotion I can understand. It makes them more human, or at least appear so. And the irony for us humans is that the most beneficial state in which to be born is to be born a human, because humans, with their pain and suffering as well as their joy and love, live in the only realm from which one can achieve nirvana, release from the cycle of death and rebirth.

Just listen, for a minute.

We gonna take it to the moon, take it to the stars,

How many people you know could take it this far?

So many stars [scars].

Bout to take this whole thing to Mars.

I know Kanye knows longing by the painful desire he exhibits on this track for his autotuned vocals to keep up with the wide warm vibrating velvet of Beyonce’s voice. He wants to sing like a man might want to run like Bolt or dance like Baryshikov or sing like Beyonce but only the gods can do that, and longing is attachment and pain.

Kanye is a man, is a human being. I adore him for his failures as much as for his success. I want him to find love.

***

So, what do we talk about when we talk about Kimye?  We congratulate folks getting the body they’ve dreamed about in a sexual partner (more on this in part II). We dream that we get the one who got away. We hope a man who’s lost his family finds another. We celebrate the power of love despite the messiness of our lives and the mistakes we’ve made. We pray love works. We’re pinning our hopes on Kimye.