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2014 columns, Popular Culture

‘Drunk in Love’ with Beyoncé

by Julia Tulloh , January 22, 20144 Comments

In December last year, Beyoncé gave her fans the best Christmas present imaginable: a surprise new album with seventeen tracks, each with their own music video. There was no forewarning, no single pre-released – the entire album became available on iTunes at midnight on December 13 through a single tweet from Columbia Records. The internet exploded. During the first month of its release, Beyoncé outsold the number of copies her previous album, 4, has sold since its release in 2011 (over 1.4 million records).

The album is basically a feminist onslaught, celebrating the sexuality, bodies, success and potential of women. I use the term ‘feminist’ not just because I find the album empowering (which I do), but because Beyoncé uses it. In ‘***Flawless,’ she plays an excerpt from Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk, ‘We Should All Be Feminists’, including lines like:

‘We teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller… We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are. Feminist. A person who believes in the social, political and economic equality of the sexes.’

‘Pretty Hurts’ explores the pressure women feel to look beautiful (the video shows girls at a beauty pageant, competitive and jealous of each other, bulimic, and swallowing cotton wool to feel full), and ‘Grown Woman’ playfully declares how Beyoncé is free to make what choices she likes.

The feminist ethic of the album is affirmed by Beyoncé’s command and enjoyment of her own sexuality. She positively radiates sexual satisfaction in songs like ‘Drunk in Love’, ‘Blow’. ‘Rocket’, and ‘Partition’, and appears in control of her desires and their expression. In ‘Partition’ Beyoncé performs an exotic dance for her husband, Jay Z, based on the choreography of the Crazy Horse cabaret. The entire performance is framed as Beyoncé’s personal fantasy: at the beginning of the clip, she begins daydreaming, suggesting that the dance takes place in her own mind, rather than her husband’s.

One could argue that Beyoncé’s sexual focus is simply the result of the pressure placed on women in the pop music industry to objectify themselves in order to succeed. While this is perhaps true to an extent – we can’t separate Beyoncé from the system she works in – there is a major difference between Beyoncé’s work and other pop music: it’s clear that her erotic life takes place within a strong, monogamous marriage. Rather than singing about an abstract ‘he’, Beyoncé sings explicitly about Jay Z, who himself appears in many of the videos. You get the impression she’s not just showing her body for the sake of it, but because she derives so much pleasure from sharing it with her long-term partner.

The album is not just about sex, though. Beyoncé also sings about grief (‘Heaven’), the joys and anxieties of motherhood (‘Blue’ and ‘Mine’ respectively) and relationship issues more generally (‘No Angel’ and ‘Jealous’). It’s a well-rounded album that foregrounds female experience across a range of situations.

Notwithstanding a disturbing lyric in ‘Drunk in Love’, sung by Jay Z, which appears to advocate domestic abuse, Beyoncé is an album which will hopefully help pop music fans to engage with ideas about feminism and will encourage pop stars to embrace the term ‘feminist’. Whether or not you agree with the way she presents feminism, no one can deny that Beyoncé is advocating for gender equality in a way that will reach millions of people – her fans. Truly, listening to her songs makes me feel just like a ‘grown woman, who can do whatever she wants.’

Julia Tulloh is a Melbourne-based writer working on a PhD in Literature at the University of Melbourne. 

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  • Elizabeth Culhane

    I also really like that she’s trying to create a body of work; a narrative theme that grows and develops across an album, in contrast to 30 second soundbites. As she says in the video above: ‘I miss that immersive experience. People only listen to a few seconds of a song on their iPods. They don’t really invest in the whole album’.

    • Julia Tulloh

      Thanks, Elizabeth! I like this about the album too. In listening to the album as a whole, you get a much better idea of what she’s trying to say about her relationship and her experiences, than if you listened to just a single track.

  • Louise Heinrich

    This is an awesome wrap-up of Beyonce’s feminism! I’ve been reading a lot about it in the past few weeks, and have been a little confused. But her hugeness in light of Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche’s quote makes perfect sense. She is unapologetic.

    I don’t think that feminism can be defined or restricted, and I especially don’t think anyone can say ‘She isn’t a feminism because of…’

    Having said this, I want to point out something I find problematic that I haven’t seen written about Beyonce yet: her brand of sexuality, her gorgeous body that fits into beauty norms, her sexual autonomy, is all sold to make millions of dollars.

    Her identity is manufactured; she’s a pop star. In the end, as much as I think it’s great that Beyonce is sexually voracious in an openly committed and monogamous relationship, how can this sexuality be authentic if it’s a performance to the gazillions of fans who will buy her albums?

    • Julia Tulloh

      Hi Louise, thanks so much for your comments, I totally agree… Beyonce is a barrel of contradictions in that way! One the one hand, she sings a song (‘Pretty Hurts’) about how American society puts pressure on women to look a certain way, and how damaging that pressure can be… but on the other hand, she doesn’t acknowledge that she may contribute to that pressure. And while she performs for Jay Z in ‘Partition’, she also performs for the millions of people who watch the video. I suppose it’s a case of understanding Beyonce as part self-determined individual, part product of the system in which she works … and recognising the way she empowers many women despite the fact that her mode of feminism is complex (and sometimes contradictory). Even if she’s manufactured, I still feel totally inspired by her – by her hard work, her business-savvy approach to music distribution, her ability to bring feminist ideas to the mass-market. But yes I agree… no-one is ever a ‘perfect’ feminist (whatever that means) – so thanks for bringing this complexity into the discussion!

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