A few more thoughts on pop music, and then I swear, we’ll be back to the regularly scheduled programming of political rants and mocking Fox News. One thing that’s been bugging me about some of the more in-depth reviews of Beyoncé’s new record is the assumption that her music—or pop music generally—is best interpreted as a personal statement from the artist. This is true of critical ones accusing Beyoncé of hypocrisy for decrying beauty standards while upholding them (told you guys it was coming) or praising her for her flawless workaholic image. The locus of authority for what the song means is being put in Beyoncé’s mouth. It’s assumed that the audience listening to a Beyoncé song is taking it primarily as Beyoncé talking about herself and we are just listening in.
Like from Rich at Gawker:
BEYONCÉ is an album about being desired. Its singer repeatedly asserts her beauty, her flawlessness, the sweetness of her genitalia, her prowess, her booty, in exactly the way she delivered her new work: Here are these things; I know you want them. She often delivers this in the form of raps, like “Partition,” a minimal playground chant that finds Beyoncé aggressively submissive (“Driver roll up the partition please / I don’t need you to see Beyoncé on her knees”) and with cum on her dress (“He Monica Lewinsky’d on my gown”). The video dissolves from her eating breakfast. It’s a fantasy, it’s outrageous, it’s aggressive—but there’s also something striking about watching one of the planet’s most desired women engage with the desire to be desired. This is Beyoncé’s version of a Kanye rant. It hits you with multiple ideas that are just as likely to sound like bullshit as they are entirely true.
Or Amanda (the other one) at Slate:
And the fetishization of the candid only increases the demands on women’s looks. On the track “Flawless,” Beyoncé samples a TEDx speech by Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who says, “We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller.” Then Beyoncé comes in: “You wake up, flawless/ Post up, flawless/ Ride round in it, flawless … I woke up like this/ I woke up like this.” Beyoncé may by exposing how ridiculous this notion is, but we’re still meant to believe that she really does “wake up like this.” And if we’re being honest, Beyoncé wakes up a lot more flawless than most of us do. Even an “unflattering” Beyoncé photo is an ideal.
But here’s the thing: That’s not how pop music is actually received by the audience. The locus of authority in pop music belongs just as much to the audience—and probably more so—than to the singer. These are songs that the singer believes, with good reason, will be played on repeat and memorized and sung along with. They will be sung along with at clubs and in cars. They will be sung in karaoke bars. The singer is just as much us as it is Beyoncé. And Beyoncé clearly knows that. When she released “Single Ladies”, for instance, she wasn’t singing about a personal experience with having to dump a man to get him to know what he was missing out on—she was already with Jay-Z and they were getting married. The song is clearly for the women in the audience to sing along to, and, regardless of the problems in the framing of it, the idea is to boost yourself up and say that you deserve to have standards.
Even with more personal songs, it’s clear that the point of them is to have a universal appeal, for the listener to see herself in the lyrics. When Diana Ross sings, “I’m coming out, I want the world to know,” it is taken by the audience as a call to say fuck you to other people’s perceptions and just be yourself. It’s not just about Diana Ross. When Pink claims the party isn’t started until she gets there, she isn’t actually trying to make the people at your party feel bad because Pink is never going to show up. The listener is supposed to project herself into the song and borrow the confidence from it. The listener says to herself, “The party starts when I get there.” If Pink didn’t expect you to relate to the song, then it would just seem assholey. Now it seems fun.
That’s why it’s not really right to say that Beyoncé is lyrically trying to intimidate us with how beautiful and flawless she is. The point is that you sing along and gain confidence from the song. Imagine a woman in her car or in a club singing along, “I woke up like this,” and you realize the lyric is really about that moment, giving the listener permission to feel like she’s fine the way she is and doesn’t need to apologize for looking the way she does, even first thing in the morning. A song like “Pretty Hurts” is supposed to be about commiserating. And “Blow” isn’t about how Beyoncé in particular has a great vagina that a man should park downtown in for awhile. It’s clear that the female audience is supposed to feel that about themselves. Yes, a lot of singers say “I” and even use their first name—and Beyoncé is one of them—but if you pay attention to how people receive these songs, they are projecting themselves into the singer. In hip-hop and R&B in particular, the populist approach to the locus of authority is obvious insofar as many of the songs don’t even have just one singer or rapper. How can a song be about a single individual’s POV if multiple people are weighing in lyrically? It invites you to see the songs as a collective effort, and everyone has a right to project themselves into the role of the star. I don’t see Beyoncé’s lyrics as a demonstration of self-centeredness or arrogance at all. They are an invitation to the audience to feel good about themselves, and that’s pretty awesome.