Beyonce's fifth studio album BEYONCÉ was probably not made for you. Beyonce is a black woman living in America-- albeit an incredibly rich, beautiful and powerful one--and on this record, more than any others, she has honed in on her personal experience. BEYONCÉ is a blueprint for the struggle and joy she has experienced, but it is also a repurposing of that blueprint. While it's not for me to say whether the album succeeded as a black feminist work, it's refreshing to see an album with this much cultural cachet be directed firmly at the demographic our nation has historically disenfranchised the most. As a feminist, I found BEYONCÉ to be an uplifting, political text in a year that was particularly bad for women and filled with white artists gleefully appropriating from marginalized cultures. In my estimation, when critically examined, BEYONCÉ functions as a highly successful feminist manifesto.
Communication theorist Marshall McLuhan harps on the idea of the medium itself as the message and Carol Hanisch (infamous beauty pageant protestor) helped postulate that the personal is the political. By turning her own personal life inside out on this album Beyonce funnelled her strongest political statements into one of the year's most anticipated pop albums. That a pop album features this kind of sculpted feminism and unveiled personal intimacy also speaks to the age of social media we live in, the proliferation of information and level of sharing that we now expect from artists. Though there are a million details about BEYONCÉ to examine--from the release strategy to the visual aspect and more--the strongest ideas are still found solely in the music. She addresses topics like beauty, body image, miscarriages, jealousy, sexuality, marriage, motherhood and self-worth. The music of BEYONCÉ is a political text that holds forth on the most important issues in a woman's life by delving into Bey's personal experience with them.
Album opener 'Pretty Hurts' begins Bey's agenda immediately, seeking to readjust America's flawed focus on beauty as a product it can sell to women. Beyonce prods her own success in pageants and their ilk to reveal that praising girls solely for their looks can inflict deep wounds. This spotlights a cultural blind spot: just because society values or praises beauty doesn't mean being praised for it isn't harmful. Bey's critique of societal shallowness goes hand in hand with the self-confidence and body positivity found elsewhere on the album. Even while acknowledging the ways that pageantry, warped body image and female infighting can be harmful to women, Bey is equally unafraid to glory in her own beauty. On the first half of 'Partition' (video form 'Yoncé'), 'Rocket' and '***Flawless' in particular, she revels without any hint of faux-modesty in her physical self. She's been attacked for not being feminist enough--or at least not displaying it correctly--so she gives us Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's lecture as the crux of what's arguably her best song to date '***Flawless.' It doesn't feel like the vaunting of a pop star but the happy, self-assured posturing of a woman. This song advances the kind of self-exaltation and self-acceptance that makes all women feel beautiful, even the ones that don't fit into society's mold or preconceived notions. By owning her own beauty Bey is paving the way for her fans to develop a similar self-love, one that isn't even necessarily focused on what the mirror reflects. Indeed, her assertion (and now a cultural meme and mantra) "I woke up like this" assumes that the speaker is asserting their perfection before even leaving the sheets. In essence, this phrase is the bookend to 'Pretty Hurts' dismissing the entire empire of beauty culture and putting agency back in the hands of barefaced and unkept women existing naturally. Self-assurance apropos nothing but existence--that's the message she's instilling. Once self-knowledge of beauty is laid as a foundation, sexual expression becomes an act that strengthens this confidence instead of serving as a battlefield for power plays in relationships.
Beyonce has never been one to shy away from detailing the struggles of sexual and romantic relationships. She's worried about her partner being an equal ('Upgrade U'), about unfaithfulness despite her superiority ('Irreplaceable') or even the inability of men to comprehend women's feelings in relationships ('If I Were a Boy'). Her songs often felt like they were made to spite men, or at the behest of deep wounds endured at the hands of men. In contrast, BEYONCÉ seems to exist despite men, using them as props in a love affair that's centered on a bigger one: the one she's built with herself. Even though a huge portion of this album revolves around her public relationship with her husband-rapper Jay-Z, her voice is nearly always active, taking control and assuming power. Every song that focuses on sexual pleasure on BEYONCÉ places her at the center of the narrative, she has complete agency in these transactions whether it be her name rolling off tongues, "all on his mouth like liquor" or her riding the 'SERFBORT' on 'Drunk in Love.' She's been criticized for being a sex object so she objectifies herself, projecting a prolific sexual goddess in complete control of her own portrayals. Every action in 'Rocket' is dictated by Bey as she commands her subject to be a prop for her ass to sit on and commands him to watch her striptease--this shift of power changes the whole dynamic of an interaction that traditional reduces the woman to an object providing sexual pleasure for a man. Not only is Beyonce not an object, but her impassioned cry that she feels comfortable in her skin on 'Rocket' encapsulates the desire of every woman made to feel too fat and too ugly--a direct refutation of a society that bombards women with messages that they aren't good enough even in childhood. On 'Blow' Bey's the one returning home to a waiting man and her assertion that she'll "let you be the boss of me" exhibits deep assurance of her usual freedom. In 'No Angel' her partner is "no angel either," the second thought in a comparison that begins with her own ability to transgress standards of purity or celestial perfection. 'Partition' is Bey taunting a male subject for how much she turns him on, and she even turns the most masculine sexual event of ejaculation into a woman-centric action with "Monica Lewinsky-ed" standing in for more standard descriptions. This language is political in nature, stripping down the expectations we have of women in pop music and rebuilding them with female pleasure and agency at the center. It also portrays a romantic relationship in which women use the physical act of love as a form of agency instead of acting passively as objects during sex.
It's the two split in 'Partition' that hold the crux of the album and emphasize her constantly shifting image reveals a political agenda. Divided into 'Yoncé' and 'Partition' itself, the track begins with a live section in which Bey celebrates her marriage to Jay Z, demanding the audience call her "Mrs. Carter." She ironically named her latest tour "The Mrs. Carter Tour," strange since people know her mononymously and she has absolutely no need for her husband's last name. But referring to herself as "Mrs. Carter" is a political statement, one made by a woman who is honouring herself as part of one of American culture's most famous black married couples. She doesn't deny herself the power that marriage invests in women, but flips it by using her tour name to reveal the very discrepancy that her status as wife comes second to her own empire. The rest of 'Yonce' could be as much a single lady's anthem as 'Single Ladies' itself, as Bey exalts turning heads in the club while rapping a verse that many argue outshines the majority of Jay's latest Magna Carta Holy Grail. Bey melds arias with club beats and gritty, grisly Southern production--she marries the carnal lust of the club with monogamy.
Transitioning into the second half of the track, the ability to be "the girl he likes" is easily contained in the morphing skin of Beyonce, queen chameleon. In the backseat of a car with her husband, she maintains her status as mother, sexual powerhouse and culture-dictating artist in her right all while giving head. She catapults herself out of her very femininity into personhood by positioning female sexuality as a powerful, amorphous construct--one that transcends the female body even while uplifting it. It is this power, the self-bestowed ability to call herself "King" and to reclaim female sexuality with barely a backwards glance at its horrific past that makes BEYONCÉ feel like a tour de force. This isn't a woman exalting herself to become the highest sex object or an egotistical pop princess. This is a woman anointing herself as sexual goddess, she is at once desiring and desired, fulfilled and fulfilling. As Beyonce exists in these multiple realms, flipping through them with uncanny ease, she claims this ability for women as a whole. This record is self-titled in the truest sense of the concept; it is delivered at the height of her career and life and it was stripped of media accoutrement to offer an intimate, even imperfect look at the singer. Offering up her flaws and insecurities in 'Jealous' and 'Haunted' she sheds slut-shaming, the shackled role of uptight matriarch or calculated star. She claims female pleasure as pure and grown, something dominant that can coexist with monogamy and marriage and her own status as an artist. There is no guilt nor fear: Bey never apologizes for her desire for pleasure, not for her power or her desire to please her man.
Because the groundwork of all this has already been laid, the album's crowning track of 'XO' feels like even more of a triumph. There's a reason why 'XO' comes to us couched in warnings of malfunction and tragedy. As far controversy, denying Beyonce the ability to embrace the intertextuality of incorporating a historical recording like the Challenger explosion is an attempt to relegate her art to a lower form of political discourse, one that's not "worthy" of interacting with an event of cultural significance like this. But this is not just a "pop album," it's a woman holding forth on the role of women in our society, how they should approach the nuances of their life and most importantly, how they can choose to value relationships. While most of the album leans personally on her own experience, for this song Beyonce strips away signifiers to provide an almost universal love song. 'XO' demands the listener consider the full spectrum of tragedy and magnificence that life can hold. This ballad is devoid of pronouns or even "romantic" intention--it is a love song in the fullest sense. It's a love song for those who exist outside of a white capitalist patriarchy that's still dominated by those who wish to uphold hetero-normative standards. In the darkest night of hate and intolerance we see impossible love stories conquering what our governments and societies declare is legally "allowed" to be love. 'XO' is a love song for humans, for sisters and friends, lesbian, trans and gay couples. It is for love that transcends the romantic conception of man and woman and stretches out into the impossibilities of the cosmos. It leaves room for failure but hopes for success. It feels like there is no one who the euphoric strains of 'XO' cannot encompass. That isn't just the work of a diva, that is the work of a political figure. The personal is the political.