Rutgers University recently made headlines for their Women’s Studies course entitled, Politicizing Beyoncé. The class, taught by Kevin Allred, identifies how “the performer’s music and career are used as lenses to explore American race, gender, and sexual politics.” Allred mentioned, “While other artists are simply releasing music, she’s creating a grand narrative around her life, her career, and her persona.”
There are questions about the validity of the class, and whether or not Beyoncé’s career actually warrants a course addressing social issues. While she has certainly made strides within the entertainment industry by coining a word recognized by Webster’s Dictionary, performing at the inauguration of our first Black President Barack Obama, being honored with a statue in her native Houston, and having an animal named after her, there is still a need to think this through completely.
Looking back over 15 years ago to the beginnings of Destiny’s Child, Beyoncé identified herself early on as a champion for female independence through her lyrics.
“Bug-A-Boo”, “Bills Bills Bills”, “Say My Name”, and “Survivor” were all songs which offered pop-oriented messages about powerful women in control of their own lives. The group’s landmark release, “Independent Women”, was further inspiration for women to claim their own territory outside of the confines of a patriarchal society. They sang, “tell me how you feel about this?/Try to control me boy you get dismissed/Pay my own fun, oh and I pay my own bills/Always 50-50 in relationships”.
Beyoncé said that “Bootylicious” was written on a long flight where she ran across an inspiring moment listening to the Stevie Nicks cut, “Edge Of Seventeen”. The guitar riff immediately pushed Beyonce into writers-mode, allowing her to visualize a woman’s hips vibrating back and forth, spilling her femininity in the air all around her. “Bootylicious” was an undercover anthem for many young girls who recognized the song as a celebration of a woman’s curves.
Yet, after we began to recognize Beyoncé’s songs as messages written to catchy tracks, discussions began to swirl about her intentions in the entertainment industry. Many believed that her songs of female empowerment would be short-lived and only existed around a time which saw the Spice Girls profitably deliver similar girl-power anthems.
Thus, Beyonce transitioned as a solo artist, claiming her sexuality and boldly displaying it in a more viciously provocative manner. On the music videos and stage performances from her debut album Dangerously In Love, Beyonce wore merely a few scraps of material covering her body at times. Her outfits were reminiscent of Tina Turner, Cher, and Josephine Baker, all of whom were initially criticized but ultimately made grand impacts on the music industry.
As Beyoncé continued to push the envelope with racier performances for her audiences, the numbers of followers began to grow. Her audience was captivated in concert similarly to a Michael or Janet performance, and she began to shed light on her ability to reach masses exceeding her contemporaries.
Beyoncé’s later songs “Single Ladies”, “If I Were A Boy”, “Irreplaceable”, “Run The World”, and “Listen” have been lyrical psalms for young female independence. They’ve offered an appropriate collaborative message to sideline her all female band (The Mamas) and dancers. Yet, while the superstar’s energy in the performance of these songs is vibrant, her constant grinding and lascivious sexualized acts have historically been hard for many viewers to swallow.