Followers of this blog probably know that I’m a fan of fellow Houstonian Beyoncé. To my mind, Slate music critic Jody Rosen is right to call the last decade in popular music the Beyoncés. In a recent column for Bitch, Sarah Jaffe trumpeted her praises and recalled Sara Stroo’s Bitch Tapes mix organized around songs about getting dressed, which included “Freakum Dress.” I’ve written a bit on her myself, most notably a response to Dayo Olopade’s piece in The Root about whether the pop star is the heir(ess) to Michael Jackson’s legacy.
All this Beyoncé chatter got me thinking about two music videos in particular. Though the (de)racialized dimensions of constructing gender performance define her work, these two clips are especially noteworthy.
The first is “Freakum Dress,” which takes its name from a slang term that refers to a tight, short number. A freakum dress is a companion to fuck-me pumps, though I think cheap material and guady design are purposely employed for effect and would note that this is yet another instance where B brings urban black vocabulary into the mainstream. I don’t like the message of the song, which advises women with roving-eyed male partners to objectify themselves to ensure fidelity. The two effeminate male attendants who dress B give me pause as well, as they obviously abide by the stereotype of the gay man as his female friends’ accessory and mediator for heterosexual courtship. But I think the racial and ethnic diversity and costuming on this one is interesting, particularly when B dons professorial bifocals at the end. Plus her lipgloss applicator lights up, which is pretty rad.
Directed by Ray Kay and Beyoncé
Then we have “Why Don’t You Love Me?” which I think is one of the more interesting videos I’ve seen in recent memory. Around the time of its release, I remember my friend Kristen at Dear Black Woman, made a characteristically astute observation I hope she elaborates on at some point. She commented on how B is ingratiating herself into the iconography of the post-war era white housewife, a role traditionally off limits to black women in media representations. To put it reductively, she’s Betty Draper instead of Carla. I get some Kenneth Anger in there as well, though perhaps without the gay misogyny film critic Pauline Kael accuses him and his peers of in an essay collected in I Lost It at the Movies.
“Why Don’t You Love Me?”
I Am . . . Sasha Fierce: Platinum Edition
Directed by Melina Matsoukas
So, The Root is covering The Cosby Show and its cultural influence to celebrate the NBC series’ 25th anniversary, in a manner similar to how they reflected on Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. Now, once again aware of the problematics of my identity with regard to fandom, I will admit that growing up a white girl in the rural suburbs of Houston, I totes wanted to be in the Huxtable family. I would have been fine being one of Rudy’s friends (I was probably closest to the shy, chubby white boy). Specifically though, I aspired to be like Clair. Admittedly a glib comparison, but maybe young women and girls of many different racial and ethnic identities have ascribed a similar aspirational status to our first lady.
Many folks have rightly critiqued the show for its idyllic, comforting, and unrealistic depiction of the charmed Huxtable clan against the racially charged climate informed the social dimensions of AIDS, drug addiction, incarceration, wage gaps, single-family incomes, education, and other major issues that many believe were ignored, if not outright caused, by the Reagan administration. And these are, for the most part, valid critiques. Indeed, Kanye West spoke and continues to speak for many people when he says “I ain’t one of the Cosbys, I didn’t go to Hillman” in “Can’t Tell Me Nothin’.” I’d even go so far as to point out that this was true for many prime time families by the end 0f the 1980s: there’s not a college degree between the Connors, the Bundys, and the Simpsons. Assuredly, the classed dimensions of racial inequality were in Bill Cosby’s mind, even going so far as to originally conceptualize Clair as being a plumber of Dominican descent and later, pairing up again with Phylicia Rashād on Cosby, making their characters decidedly more working class.
And I don’t think we can talk about The Cosby Show‘s influence without mentioning how no other show with an African American principle cast has since followed its legacy. Fledgling networks like FOX and, later, the WB and UPN, would incorporate a wide range of prime time programming featuring African Americans, though often met with middling to low ratings, short life cycles, and diminished corporate interests in representational politics as networks began to flourish.
And of course, we can’t discuss The Cosby Show without mentioning Dr. Cosby’s troubling history with partiarchy and sometimes limited view of what is considered respectable mediated representations from/of African Americans. That said, while I empathize with Lisa Bonet’s reported run-ins with Cosby, I’ll hedge that Angel Heart does look fucking terrible.
That said, The Cosby Show was a considerable cultural milestone and a damn entertaining sitcom that did an admirable job widening the scope and depth of representation for African Americans on prime time network television. And they were really funny.
I’d also like to add, echoing Erin Evans’s piece on the show’s theme song, that The Cosby Show broadened the scope and depth of African Americans’ contribution to music. Jazz, blues, rock and roll, hip hop, gospel, classical, Afrocuban, Broadway. It’s all there. “Kiss Me” was discursive and malleable, changing arrangements, historical moments, and generic arrangements from season to season.
Sometimes these contributions were peripheral, much like many of the paintings that hung on the home’s walls — Vanessa’s Michael Jackson poster most immediately comes to mind.
Sometimes these contributions dialoged with other musical forms associated with traditionally coded “white” culture (my mother would always giggle when opera tenor Placido Domingo sang to Clair; I’m always reminded of my mother in episodes involving Rudy’s teacher, played by Broadway’s salty Elaine Stritch, now recognizeable to many as Mother Donaghy on 30 Rock).
And sometimes music’s shifting racial dynamics back-and-forthed within one body, a point I’d argue is evident in Olivia’s Village coffeehouse performance of Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes.” This is a noteworthy song selection, as punk legend Legs McNeil argues in Don Letts‘s documentary Punk: Attitude that it is one of rock’s most political songs and an influence to punk’s stripped-down, anti-hippie, confrontation style, as it’s a song about personal freedom (to single in on McNeil’s comment, start the clip at 7:33). That said, I’d like for none of to step on Olivia’s face. Thanks.
Let’s close with Olivia, and extend this discussion of musical moments to focus on the ladies, both within the Huxtable family and within music culture writ large. In addition to Olivia’s performance, let’s remember Vanessa’s struggle with the clarinet, enforcing that not all black people are inherently musical. Let’s remember Clair singing with Stevie Wonder. Let’s remember Lena Horne and Miriam Makeba. Let’s remember Rudy jubilant lip-synced performance of Margie Hendricks’s part in Ray Charles’s version of “Night Time Is the Right Time” for her grandparents anniversary. And let’s not forget: don’t step on their blue suede shoes.
Today in The Root, Dayo Olopade posited that the pop star set to inherit Michael Jackson’s mantle as the King of Pop is Beyoncé Knowles. And my girl Kristen (who of course pointed me to the article in the first place) asked for people’s thoughts on this assertion. Here now is my effort.
Obviously, no opinion can be reached without mention of how important Michael Jackson was to people. While I can be snide and agree with others that he hadn’t made a good album since 1987’s Bad, I also won’t pretend to know how deep an impact he made on generations of African Americans and what it was like to see a young black man launch into that kind of mythology. Even if you’re Chuck D and you made the point that having MTV air the music video for “Billie Jean” in 1983 nearly 20 years after Jackson broke into the mainstream as part of The Jackson 5 was an achievement for white America (a point Chuck makes in The History of Rock and Roll) I don’t know if you can qualify how particularly and specifically important Michael Jackson is to generations of African Americans. And Beyoncé was born in 1981. Indeed, she didn’t exist before Michael. So I definitely think his impact on her — along with several other African American pop stars — is monumental and different from their white counterparts. Thus, I’m absolutely fine with Cord Jefferson’s assertion that Justin Timberlake cannot inherit Jackson’s legacy. Let Beyoncé wear the damn military jacket.
Yet, while I feel that the Beyoncé as successor story is really compelling in theory, I wonder if it works. As many people have argued, including Olopade, we may have witnessed, with the death of Michael Jackson, the end of superstardom. And while others might disagree, I think this is a good thing, as I feel that a life lived in quotes, italics, and all caps only ends up ruining the body and mind living the persona(e). It may be captivating, or even aspirational to the general public, but it also seems hollow, empty, lonely, and unfulling to the person. It also seems too taxing to keep up. Listen to Jackson’s songs, as his lyrics became increasingly paranoid. Look at Neverland. Look at the increasingly desperate music videos that could never replicate the magic of “Thriller.” Witness the body in a constant state of mutation, decay, whitening, and plasticity. As Michael aged, the man in the mirror must have become more alien to himself. Absenting a larger discussion about looming rumors of child molestation and a confirmed history of child abuse and exhausting work conditions administered by his father, Joe, I cannot help but view what happened to Michael as a perilous lesson at how cruel and unfulfilling that level of fame is. The high price is assuredly the self.
To me, if we want to go with a model for how Michael’s fame warped any semblance of a personal life and informed his music, the more accurate analog is Britney Spears, a young woman formed into a hologram for our society’s distorted desires, started rebelling and making commentary on her fame, who we watched collapse, villified and mocked for making poor decisions, took offense to the havoc the stress of fame and vanity wreaked on her body, and whose untimely death will assuredly be met by a dumbfounded mass. She may live past 27, but I’m not sure that her attempts at normalcy and privacy won’t be as ill-informed and unfortunate as Jackson’s were.
Beyoncé, on the other hand, seems to carve out an autonomous private life for herself as best she can. To that end, I actually think she has more in common with Michael’s sister, Janet, Miss Jackson if you’re nasty. While both have suffered speculation and public battles with body image and weight fluctuation, I also think they were aware of their popularity, reticent to embrace it as a result of their shyness and self-possession, and made an effort to keep some of themselves to themselves. Beyoncé may collaborate with her husband Jay-Z, but they rarely disclose any personal information beyond the occasional outing to a Knicks’ or a Nets’ game or reference to their relationship in song (I seem to remember the mid-2000s being a hard time for the power couple to balance love with work — they seem to have made it to the other side without us knowing too much about their private goings-on).
Likewise, Jackson has taken privacy to perhaps necessary extremes, hiding her entire marriage to René Elizondo from the public until she announced their divorce in 1999. She’s since been in a long-term relationship with rapper-mogul Jermaine Dupri which may or may not culminate in marriage. I kind of like that I don’t know. Maybe it’s the Protestant in me, but I’m not as interested in their personal lives as I am with their work. Of course, how one informs the other is tremendously useful and important to me. But I like that both women have given themselves the space not to have the factoids of their love lives be common knowledge.
These women’s effort to separate the public from private life is reflected in their music. While Olopade states that Beyoncé asserts the confidence that Michael lacked, I don’t think you have to look any further than Janet to find similarities. Thus, I think that while Michael’s influence as a pop star is not to be ignored, neither can his sister’s. As assuredly as Michael’s innovative music, kinetic movements, and larger-than-life persona inspired Beyoncé, I get the feeling that Janet’s no-nonsense, pro-woman, and at times politically charged anthems left quite an impression as well.
Another point I’d like to challenge is the idea that Michael Jackson was born a monolithic pop star and was the first of his kind. He evolved into a pop star over time. To that end, he also modeled himself on other pop stars, icons, and musicians. As Madonna did with Mae West and Marilyn Monroe, as Tina Turner did with Mick Jagger, and as many after them will continue to do, Michael modeled himself after pop stars of his time. Obviously, Motown, the birthplace of his career, left quite an impression on him. Diana Ross, specifically, became his mentor and model for how to be a pop star. While some catty folks may argue that Michael took the admiration too far, in effect trying to turn himself into her, “whitening” his features and taking on her soft voice, I don’t think we can discuss how assimilable Michael Jackson or Diana Ross (or Motown in the 1960s) was without getting into a larger discussion about the control predominantly white people in positions of power in the culture industries have in enforcing what supposedly white perceptions of what popular music should look and sound like.
Beyoncé has had to face similar instances of institutional racism and assimiliation. She often bleaches and straightens her hair, has witnessed multiple magazines Photoshop inches off her curves, and has shed pounds for movie roles. Beyoncé is also clearly inspired by Ross. Her first group, Destiny’s Child, were clear heiresses to The Supremes’ girl-group legacy. Similar to Ross, Beyoncé broke out on her own, becoming a definitive diva for her era. And adding another layer, Beyoncé played Ross’s avatar in Dreamgirls (for which she lost a considerable amount of weight).
We could then argue, via the Jackson-inspired dance break in the music video for Destiny’s Child’s “Bootylious,” that Beyoncé is placing herself in a continuum between Michael Jackson and Diana Ross.
Like Michael and Ross, Beyoncé has worked in movies. And while some people may want to scoff at her film career, I think the range and variety of Beyoncé’s filmography is interesting and helps open up what a pop star can do. She’s been in summer blockbusters like Austin Powers in Goldmember. She’s been in campy, racially charged suspense thrillers like Obsessed (which I haven’t seen, but dear God I hope she cuts that white girl). She’s also been in Dreamgirls and Cadillac Records, playing either fictionalized or real female musicians. (Note: She got to put on weight when she played Etta James in Cadillac Records, a movie I’m sorry to have missed in the theaters but expect a later post about it — gotta support African American female directors like Darnell Martin). But she isn’t only playing the singer.
Beyoncé’s foray into acting, coupled with her recent stint as The Gloved One 2.0 (aka Sasha Fierce) also speaks to her ability to self-fragment, using this tactic to showcase multiple, often contradictory versions of the female self. Which I think speaks to her feminist camp potential as well. Her music videos are sexy and provocative, but always with a wink, always tongue-in-cheek, whether she’s referencing Basic Instinct, riding a mechanical bull, rolling a hula hoop, or channeling Robert Palmer.
But while it might suggest a commonality with Madonna (one of the few pop stars to rival Michael Jackson’s stardom in the 1980s), I think Beyoncé’s campiness is singular. Principally, she channels her camp through humor. She’s really funny. Not a lot of pop stars get to be (or allow themselves to be) truly funny. A song like “Irreplaceble” stings with so much camp wit, and there are many others (the woman has her own vocabulary and phraseology). And, ever the shrewd businesswoman, she can use any song to its full synergistic potential. The guy in “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)” is holding her tighter than her Deréon jeans, after all.
So, while it’s important to think about Michael Jackson and Beyoncé, I see their cultural relationship less as an issue of successorship than as an instance of continuum and evolution. Because while I’m stoked that Beyoncé is on par with Michael Jackson and am excited about watching her career evolve, I think of it as her career. In time, I hope that we think of this shy Houstonian playing the brazen pop goddess for all the world not as the next anything. Rather, I think of her in dialogue with the past, looking to pop history as a means of defining Beyoncé.
As many people noted late last month, Spike Lee’s seminal Do The Right Thing celebrated its 20th anniversary. The Root did an exceptional job weaving together the various discourses surrounding the movie, its release, its historical relevance, its cultural significance, its politics, its views and influence on race-relations in contemporary America, the identificatory practices of aligning the Obamas with this movie (during election season, much was made of the now First Couple seeing it on their first date) as well as the assimilationist practices at work in distancing President and First Lady Obama from it once he was elected President, and its limitations in terms of representational politics (particularly gender). I do wish there was more discussion of its controversial Oscar nomination shut-out for Best Picture, but perhaps this is something my Hollywood industrial analysis smartie friends can re-coup.
One thing that was particularly heartening for me in The Root’s coverage of the movie’s 20th anniversary was Mark Anthony Neal’s piece on how important music is to Lee’s movies and the cultivation of racial discourse, particularly in his early work. He even went into an analysis of the cultural significance of Rosie Perez’s dance in the opening credits of the movie and how she is “alternately adorned in boxing garb and Lycra bodysuits, performing a visual archive of black dance. Moving against the backdrop of Brooklyn brownstones, Perez’s performance—jagged, angular, forceful, masculine and sexy—mapped contradictions of a new generation.”
I’ll tip my hand. As a scholar, I’ve been thinking about Lee’s use of music and dance for some time. I put together a similar analysis to Neal’s in graduate school and am still working through with what to do with it. For me, in his first three movies especially (She’s Gotta Have It, School Daze, Do The Right Thing) dance serves as a site of multiple discourses. It is at once as a marker of authorship, a means of challenging traditional storytelling, an iteration of African American identity, a challenge to the notion of a singular racial identity for African Americans (and other racial and ethnic minorities, most notably Puerto Rican Americans), a critique against the supposed “naturalness” of dance for the African American body, and an indictment of race relations in contemporary society and film history.
These discursive practices are further enforced through Lee’s conscious lack of adherence to one particular dance genre, opting instead for heterogeneity, in effect breaking up the ways in which a black director can use dance and the ways in which primarily black dancers can use their bodies, as well as circulating the idea that black culture aligns with various kinds of music (many of which were self-created, thus becoming a process of reclamation). Thus, through dance, Lee creates a definitively black presence in contemporary film, but at the same time avers that there’s no such thing as a definitively black presence.
Tricky stuff. Problematic for sure (perhaps especially being theorized by a white lady like me), and I don’t think I’ve pieced it altogether, but I feel that the use of dance in Lee’s movies is not to be overlooked. If we are to celebrate Lee’s Do The Right Thing, we should do so with an acknowledgement of its larger context. I feel like dance is key to mapping that context.
And, with that, some clips. Now, seeing the movies they exist in is crucial. For brevity, I’ll simply list the movie, the dance genre, and the dance’s narrative function.
She’s Gotta Have It
Dance genre: Concert jazz
Narrative function: Fantasy and narrative rupture. This is the only scene shot in color in this movie and cuts jarringly from a scene where protagonist Nola Darling is given a present by Jamie Overstreet, one of her three boyfriends.
School Daze (Note: The clip has since been taken off YouTube)
Dance genre: Musical dance
Narrative function: Integrated musical. Uses traditional modes of musical spectacle — a film genre plagued with white exnomination and racism during — to critique race relations between light- and dark-skinned African Americans.
Note: Last year, the music video came out for Alicia Keys’s “Teenage Love Affair” which recreates much of the narrative of School Daze. However, in the process, the music video amalgates many of the female characters into one being, and recasts the movie’s then-timely preoccupation with Apartheid with a small bit encouraing AIDS outreach and prevention in Africa — one of Keys’s primary humanitarian efforts. Conveniently, and significantly, it removes the movie’s troubling gender relations, particularly a key scene in which the female lead is raped by a college fraternity pledge, played by Lee in the movie.
Do The Right Thing
Dance genre: Hip hop dance
Narrative function: Non-narrative introduction of the film. The dance serves at once as an advocation of female presence in hip hop and public life, reclaims the role women and girls had in the formation of hip hop dance, aligns Perez’s physical participation with Public Enemy’s sonic participation via their song “Fight the Power” — which I think challenge the notion of Lee’s monolithic authorial presence, and acknowledges the allied relationship African Americans and Puerto Rican Americans have developed.