Monday, December 16, 2013

Why I'm Just Not Feeling "Beyoncé" (Or Its Namesake These Days)

Thank God for skittish executives at major records labels. That must be the Lord's prayer that's going through Beyoncé Knowles's mind right about now.

If the scuttlebutt is true, and Beyoncé's label, Sony BMG, passed on promoting her eponymous fifth studio album because they deemed it too noncommercial, it might be the best career move music execs ever made on behalf of a multiplatinum superstar. Making Beyoncé a surprise iTunes-only release at midnight on December 13 (with a more conventional physical release to follow seven days later) may have seemed like a risky move at 11:59 pm, but by the end of the 14th, it had served the larger purpose of killing the "Is Beyoncé Over?" stories and sentiment that have intermittently dogged the singer ever since 4 under-performed in 2011 and failed to produce a smash single. At least for the next week or so, while the shock and excitement is still as fresh and new as critics are calling the opus in near-unanimously rapturous reviews.

In just one day of release, Beyoncé's Beyoncé sold 430,000 copies in the U.S., nearly four times as many as Britney Spears' Britney Jean did in its first week, and with zero percent of the promotion. In a sense, though, the lack of promotion was all the promotion it needed. Had Beyoncé spent months building up anticipation while a single or two flopped on Billboard’s Hot 100, Beyoncé might be selling more on par with recent efforts by the likes of Katy Perry and Lady Gaga, whose latest releases sold 286,000 and 258,000 in week one, respectively.

But what about the music? Is it any good?

Beyoncé releasing a terrible album is probably as likely as her giving birth to a child who doesn't benefit from her genetic blessings. (The first beneficiary, Blue Ivy, who turns 2 in January, cameos on the closing track, a ballad called "Blue.") And it helps when you not only have the best producers that money can buy (Don’t let her co-songwriting and co-producing credits fool you: Beyoncé is only as good as her collaborators, and predictably, it took a village of them to create Beyoncé), but when you can snag two of the top ones in the business (Pharrell Williams and Timbaland) not only for the same album (as Madonna did with 2008’s Hard Candy) but for the same track ("Blow," an electro-jazz workout that sounds too Prince-inspired to be anything close to a revolution -- pun intended).

From a musical standpoint, how could she fail? Beyoncé's voice is as sturdy as the production, but technical proficiency has never been what moved me most with music. As I listened to the tracks on Beyoncé for the first few times (and they certainly would qualify more as "tracks" than "songs"), I admired her commitment to the art of pop, but neither she nor her songcraft made me feel anything substantial, not deep deep inside. Even on the most engaging tracks (the mid-album stretch, from "Yoncé"/"Partition" to "Rocket"), I had trouble connecting with Beyoncé (and Beyoncé) emotionally. As was the case with 2011's 4, the tasteful constructions failed to pull me in and burrow themselves in my consciousness.

I think the disconnect has a lot to do with the perfect image/life that the media have cultivated for Beyoncé over the course of the last 15 years. If the lyrics on her latest album are to be believed, her sex life is just as enviable. Listening to her go on and on about it is like watching a beauty queen stare at herself in the mirror, which is basically what she's doing on the pretentiously astericked "***Flawless." You can admire her just as much as she admires herself, but it's hard to put yourself in her high heels.


When Mary J. Blige sings (and would she ever sing, “Bow down, bitches” on a song that’s supposed to be a pro-feminist anthem?), I bond with her because I know she's lived the joy and pain that she sings about, with an emphasis on the latter. I'm not saying that you have to experience excruciating emotional agony in order to be a great singer/artist (though a little hurt doesn't hurt), but it helps when you reveal something beyond the celebrity glossy.

Through no fault of her own, considering that she's super-private and doesn’t dwell on personal details in interviews, Beyoncé's seemingly perfect life has been shoved down our throats to the point that it's hard to separate it from her music. To my knowledge, she's never offered any evidence that she has a particularly complex inner life. She's only human (of course, she's experienced real-life pain: a miscarriage, the break-up of her parents' marriage), but one might not guess that by looking at her, or listening to her.

Beyoncé's down-home soulfulness has always sounded a bit manufactured to me, designed with as much attention to detail as one of her costumes (right down to those references to herself as "Mrs. Carter," which flagrantly contradicts her pseudo proto-feminism, speaking of designer things), which pits her in stark contrast to someone like her Twitter foe Keyshia Cole. Her songs, like the woman who sings them, are all surface, polished to a remarkable sheen. She's always sung in generalities, with an emphasis on romantic clichés, and when she gets specific on Beyoncé, she's in the throes of afterglow (presumably with her husband "Jay-Z," aka Mr. Carter) in the kitchen (in "Drunk in Love") or getting it on in the back seat of a chauffeured car (in "Partition"). How relatable.

I wouldn’t necessarily have to connect with her if she at least offered the sort of undeniable hooks that powered her greatest solo hits ("Single Ladies," "Naughty Girl," "Check on It") but have been missing from most of her songs since 2008's I Am... Sasha Fierce. Tellingly, two of the more memorable tracks on Beyoncé, "Yoncé"/"Partition" and "***Flawless," sound like Beyoncé’s now-de-rigueur-for-pop-divas approximation or Rihanna. They’re frivolous trifles (despite the presence of Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on the latter), but they’re the closest Beyoncé gets to a singalong.

Despite the Beyoncé vs. Rihanna speculation that's followed them both since Beyoncé's then-future husband Jay-Z (and collaborator on her first solo hit, "Crazy in Love") helped boost Rihanna into the pop stratosphere with an appearance on "Umbrella," I think a better point of comparison would be her hubby's BFF Justin Timberlake, who is among the cadre of songwriters and producers credited on Beyoncé. He is the closest thing in pop to a male Beyoncé (former vocal group member gone solo, cinematic aspirations, famous spouse), but he’s never been sold to us in the same way. Perhaps his failed relationships have helped his artistic case. Since unshackling himself from, first, Britney Spears, then ‘N Sync, he’s come across as being merely mortal, a lot more than a cute face and tight abs.

A large part of that might come down to the difference between being male and female in the music business. Men in pop are not expected to sell sexy the way women in pop are, and when they are, they use women to do it (see Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" video, or Justin's clip for "Tunnel Vision"). Therefore, they can get by on other merits. Female pop stars are all about sex appeal; talent is more optional. Would Beyoncé have dared to release an un-promoted album with a solid-black cover if she didn't have 17 videos to remind us what she looks like?

But it's hard to sell sex appeal and artistry at once, unless you give the sex a somewhat ironic slant (see Lady Gaga, whose sales are slipping just as she's coming across as being almost normal). The most highly regarded female musicians -- the Aretha Franklins, the Joni Mitchells, the Kate Bushes, the Annie Lennoxes -- were never considered first and foremost great beauties. When Kate Bush accentuated her sexuality, she did so with a wink, tongue firmly digging into cheek. Meanwhile, Annie Lennox once performed at the Grammys in full Elvis Presley drag!

Madonna eventually figured this out. She only began to be truly taken seriously as an artist when she toned down her Sex-uality and Erotica-isms and went down a darker, deeper electro path with 1998's Ray of Light, years before pop went electronica (and vice versa). In music, like in movies, at some point you have to get a little dirty if you want to earn artistic credibility, as the likes of Halle Berry, Nicole Kidman, Charlize Theron and even Diana Ross well know. If only Marilyn Monroe had had their blueprint to follow in the '50s, she probably wouldn't have died without a single Oscar nomination.

There's a reason why Beyoncé never really made it as a movie star. I recently re-watched Dreamgirls, and there's a scene where Jamie Foxx's Svengali-like music mogul dresses down Beyoncé's Diana Ross-like Deena Jones (you’re forgiven if you’d forgotten that she was even in the movie, seeing that Oscar winner and American Idol also-ran Jennifer Hudson owned it), basically calling her boring and vanilla, and it dawned on me that he easily could have been dissing Beyoncé.

I’m not saying she’s boring or vanilla, but I've never really seen any spark behind those big, beautiful brown eyes. Unlike her former fellow Destiny’s Child Kelly Rowland, she lacks a certain realness, perhaps because like Deena, she’s never come across as an underdog. Kelly could have been Effie in the Destiny’s Child story, but she never really went all the way there. She always seemed to be thinking, I’m beautiful, too, dammit! Look at me! When she finally tried to pull off the mask on "Dirty Laundry" and reveal the pain of singing in Beyoncé's shadow, it sounded desperate: too much, too late.

But at least she was willing to let down her guard and get messy. Maybe someday Beyoncé will go there, too, scrub off the make-up and give us a glimpse behind the glitter and mascara. Telling us that women have it hard (a recurring theme with her since her days with Destiny’s Child) is not digging deep. Nor is reminding us that she's sexy and she knows it. Beyoncé might be singing over cooler production (though anyone who has listened to recent albums by Drake and Frank Ocean, both of whom duet with Beyoncé on Beyoncé, knows it's not as daring or groundbreaking as critics are calling it), but she's still playing it safe, wading in the shallow water.

In lieu of depth, I'd settle for an unforgettable groove and an undeniable hook. Beyoncé could use more of both.
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