18 January 2012

A Personal History of Beyonce

All the snow came down at once, ending the feeling of easy, undeserved freedom we'd enjoyed from fall through mid-January. And just a couple of days before this, we -- I mean now Heather and I, not the city at large -- got a dog, somewhat analogously. I walk her, though not as much as Heather, who wanted her most. The snow presents a new subject for her study, rewriting the city's book of smells in a fascinating foreign dialect. She dips her nose into it, pushes at it with a professorial paw. Snow catches in the loops of chain link fences, erecting a skin of delicate scales around some yards. It's beautiful, and puts me so on edge. Cementing me into a difficult season I'd been able to slip in and out of until now.

A few weeks ago I wrote about music that comforts by immersing the listener in a kind of iterative difficulty; today I'm looking at the value of escape instead. Today I'm looking at one of my personal saints of pop jubilance. What makes Beyonce work for me?

Some thoughts and experiences, in no particular order:

1. We were at Heather's mom's monthly family dinner and she was casting about for a performer to epitomize some form of . . . pop degeneracy in the kids these days, I suppose. I don't remember the exact context. What she came up with was "Bounce-ay" (emphasis on first syllable, at least). Bouncy -- a perfect spokeswoman for the aging suburbanite's vision of popular culture: bubbly, brainless, and patently absurd. Probably also a little dirty, if you thought about it. 

But how can you not know who Beyonce is well enough to know how to pronounce her name? She's everywhere.

2. I was in the car in the High Sierras where my friend Kari lives and something about Beyonce came up; possibly my surprised enjoyment of "Crazy in Love," or maybe something one of her younger cousins said.

"Man, fuckin' Beyonce," I said, shaking my head in admiration.

Kari laughed. "The old Daphne would never have said that."

I really was more committed to seriousness as a virtue at some point in my life, I guess. Probably that'll happen if you go to a Great Books school in the desert mountains (and if you're the kind of teenager who applies to only one college and that's the one). I think it was Andrew who told me once about a classmate or lecturer there who railed against hip-hop because its beat evoked "the rhythm of sexual intercourse." Even then of course I laughed, but -- what weird and austere worlds I've lived in from time to time.

3. Some Google search results:

"I love Beyonce": About 1,740,000 results
"I hate Beyonce": About 56,800 results

(Honestly I didn't intend to expand on this point, but paging through some of the results for the latter phrase is actually pretty fun:

"Sure I liked the song and music video, but then when I saw Beyonce, I just knew that I wouldn't like her. She had look all stucked up and stuff."

"Do You Hate Beyonce? Join friendly people sharing true stories in the I Hate Beyonce group. Find forums, advice and chat with groups who share this life.")

4. I think I can come off as a pretty solemn person, if not somber, and when I conceived this post I sort of thought, well, ha! If that's what you think, let me write a few hundred words about Beyonce, of all things.

Then I remembered that part of the reason I'm writing this is because I am a crier. Or used to be, or am in the sense that an alcoholic continues to claim the title after years of sobriety. Not especially when I'm sad (at least not sad about situations in my life, though put for instance a sick kid on my TV screen and I'm instantly immobilized by reservoirs of tears awaiting the slightest breath to spill forward), but certainly and infuriatingly when I'm angry I have to fight it back, and certainly when I am . . . I don't know, beauty-struck? But by a very particular kind of beauty, the kind that slices suddenly into the joy of being a living expressive being and instantly stings the eyes with the vapors it sends up.

Plenty of perfectly respectable art does this for me, sure -- Chagall's America Windows, sentences of Proust's or Nabokov's, scenes in Tati's Playtime. But a certain set of performers within pop culture also produces this effect: typically female, youthful, beautiful, smiling, and sending out outrageous quantities of charm. This can come across excellently on record -- most of the '60s girl group songs I love operate on this frequency, Leslie Gore's "Sunshine, Lollipops, and Rainbows" and The Toys' "A Lovers' Concerto" being prime examples -- but especially on video. Dolly Parton does this; so does Janelle Monae. I watch them sing and smile, my jaw drops, my eyes well. There's some kind of pure life force on display there that demands my gratitude and rapture.

"Countdown" -- the song and its video both -- seems to throw nearly everybody into paroxysms of delight, so it's no surprise that it turns on my personal waterworks. Throughout the video Beyonce gives an incredible impression of somebody trying to be glamorous, tough, and cool, but always failing at the last moment to suppress a gleeful, spine-melting grin that betrays exactly how giddy she is. Coming out of the intro and breaking into one of the fairly unconvincing interludes of clubspeak that dot the song, her lip curls into a snarl that's immediately pulled under by a more characteristic twinkle. One knows intellectually that this is surely as choreographed as everything else about Beyonce -- even her long eyelashes flutter to the beat in closeups -- but the smile zaps down any such distancing.

Most of her videos -- sure, most of her songs -- don't approach the artfulness and pleasure of "Countdown," but even in tacky crap like the video for "Run the World," she communicates a sense of play in the close-ups, like all the clouds of dust and wild animals and "edgy" stylization are just an elaborate game of dress-up. As, of course, they are -- making her also seem not only more playful but also more intelligent and grounded than any of her fellow pop queens.

One of the main things about Beyonce is her aura of total self-possession. "Countdown," like "Crazy in Love" (the track that initiated my gushy admiration), is a headlong rush into unquestioning adoration. But what comes across is how good it feels to be in love; she's exulting partly in her own state of soul. We don't see the dream boy in the video. When she sings "grind up on him," it's herself she's wrapping her arms around. Romping through candy-colored sets among marching band members, she effectively brings to life the way love has of sending an entire universe into bloom, whether the loved one is present or not.

Of course she has just had a baby and the internet is, has been, abuzz with the news. I and the world seem to think that Jay-Z is a pretty good match. I like his music, and he exudes the same steely professionalism that one knows must underlie as highly willed a career as Beyonce's. But when he comes in on "Crazy in Love," he simply sounds like some dope interrupting. I mean, who wouldn't?

5. Once I was home from college and went to the mall with my friend Claire so she could use some gift certificates, but also so she could show me the girl who worked at the smoothie shop counter who, Claire said, "looked just like Beyonce." Claire wasn't out yet, but who wouldn't be crushed out on someone who looked just like Beyonce in real life behind the juice counter? (She wasn't there that day, but I undoubtedly would have been instantly in love.) Beyonce is universal.

6. Despite my considerable streak of snobbishness, I'm pointlessly delighted when my tastes converge with the zeitgeist. I was thrilled when "Hey Ya" and "Bad Romance" and "Million Dollar Bill" were big, not only because it was occasionally possible to hear something that I enjoyed in the grocery store or the gay bar, but because I felt relieved, momentarily, from the imaginary pressure of defending my tastes to the masses. (Despite surely bringing down the pressure of defending my tastes to that mostly imaginary coterie from whom I'd just defected). Loving Beyonce is a kind of optimism about the world, a little bridge to the considerable part of it that can appreciate ebullience as much as I do. There, I can say. There's one thing that we are all about.

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