By: Nancy Elias
When PhD student Kevin Allred first began his Women and Gender Studies course which analyzed the music of black female artists and feminist literature in 2010, he did not imagine that his course entitled “Politicizing Beyoncé” would receive such dramatic attention from the university and beyond in 2013 and 2014. In the past year, the career of Beyoncé Knowles exploded after her Super Bowl XLVII halftime performance and the debut of her surprise album which took the music industry by storm. Her appearance at the MTV 2014 Video Music Awards in which the word “FEMINIST” flashed in white, larger than life letters behind her, only confirmed the Beyoncé crave which is sweeping the nation and confirmed Beyoncé’s now public and open discussion of feminism. By making “feminist” a household term, Beyoncé is changing the way the way society views feminism in the most powerful and in-your-face way: music.
Like Rolling Stone and Time, I had the opportunity to interview Allred and ask him about his class. “Beyoncé is reworking images of black women through her art,” said Allred. While arguably, articles, novels, and movies do the same thing, Allred intentionally focuses on music and in particular, the music of Beyoncé.
“I’ve always been into music,” Allred said, “there are novels in this class as well as articles, but music reaches so many more people to go to for analysis. We talk about the musicality of songs and the decisions an artist makes. We look at the lyrics, the videos, and even the way Beyoncé for example, manipulates her voice in certain songs. It adds layers of complexity and reinforces her political statement.”
Allred goes to the superstar’s music for more than just her lyrics. He is interested in all the choices she makes: vocally, visually, and metaphorically. “We look at the type of feminism Beyoncé puts out for us,” said Allred.
Confident, sexual, and enticing, Beyoncé complicates feminism. Her songs explore the more classic feminist topics of ambition and careers, but more than just a businesswoman, Beyoncé is a mother and wife, singing about family and sexual allure as well.
Beyoncé’s surprise album, which dropped on December 13, 2013 is a powerhouse for feminist analysis. Her visual album has 14 very different songs, each which explore a different part of her identity as a woman and the internal feelings and conflicts that come along with it.
Her album explores what it means to be a woman, and the spectrum of these feelings is anything but black and white, but rather, many shades of grey. To that respect, her album is dynamic, brilliant, honest, and conflicted.
In “Partition,” Beyoncé sings about wanting to please her husband sexually. She sings, “Take all of me/ I just wanna be the girl you like/ the kind of girl you like is right here with me.”
While some may argue that wanting to please a man, or transform oneself to fulfill his fantasies is “unfeminist,” Allred challenges that notion and asks “Who says you can’t be a feminist and be sexual at the same time?”
Beyoncé’s feminism says “I am a woman who has desires, and there is no shame in that.” In “Jealous,” Beyoncé is vulnerable and honest, and although she is a woman who is confident and comfortable with her sexuality, she is still insecure. She is still human. In “Mine,” Beyoncé sings about relationships, marriage, and what it means to “belong” to another: with belonging being both an aphrodisiac and a force of destruction. In this way, her album is one of the most honest pieces of art that I’ve ever come across.
Perhaps the most feminist song on her album, meaning the song that explicitly fight for the equality of men and women, is “***Flawless” where she samples the speech of Nigerian feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
In the middle of her song, listeners hear, “we teach girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller. We say to girls, you can have ambition, but not too much. You should aim to be successful, but not too successful. Otherwise, you would threaten the man. Because I am female, I am expected to aspire to marriage. I am expected to make my life choices always keeping in mind that marriage is the most important. Now marriage can be a source of joy and love and mutual support but why do we teach girls to aspire to marriage and we don’t teach boys the same? We raise girls to see each other as competitors not for jobs or accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing, but for the attention of men. 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.”
This substantial sample sends a very firm message about gender equality, and its placement in one of Beyoncé’s most popular song reaches millions of listeners as a result. It’s un-ignorable: a speech explicitly about feminism woven into Beyoncé’s track about ambition and being “flawless.”
I joined the class, which meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays on Tuesday, October 28th to see what the discussion was all about. Allred began the class by playing an audio/visual selection from her album entitled “Ghost” which merges into another song, “Haunted.” Beyoncé sought to create a visual album with her latest album in which her songs were not hits, but rather, part of a larger piece, the album in full. She had an artistic vision in mind, and her music was meant to be seen, hence her songs could not be bought separately, but rather, had to be bought on iTunes as a collective piece, each song flowing into the next with its own unique music video to intensify the experience.
Allyza Umali, senior at Rutgers University-Newark and journalism and video production major, is currently enrolled in “Politicizing Beyoncé.” “I first saw this class last semester and I hoped it would be finally taught on the Newark campus. I’m a shameless, huge fan of Beyoncé, and the class makes me so happy because not only do we talk about Beyoncé, but we talk about women’s roles in the media and women’s status over history,” said Umali.
After watching “Ghost/Haunted,” Allred asked the class, “What is Beyoncé trying to say?” Students commented on her lyrics “I’m climbing up the walls because all the shit I do is boring/ all the shit I hear is boring/ all these record labels boring/ I don’t trust these record labels I’m torn/ all the people on the planet working 9-5 just to stay live/ How come?” Some pointed out Beyoncé’s jab at the music industry, in which often, record labels collect all the royalties off of their artist and leave artists with just a portion of what they have actually made. Additionally, classmates commented on the “commercialization” of the music industry in which top artists adhere to a “formula” to produce a hit, failing to produce a sincere piece of art. Classmates also dissected “people on the planet working 9-5 just to stay alive” with a Marxist eye, stating that often, people are not lucky to do what they love, and so, they work doing what they must do in order to make money versus what they want to do creatively or personally.
But this was just one layer of analysis. Allred asked the class to consider the heartbeat-like bass line which introduces the song, the flashing of black and white which illuminates difference scenes of Beyoncé: one of her in a black shirt singing to the camera, and one of a sexualized Beyoncé being consumed by the darkness behind her. He asked the class to consider Beyoncé’s wardrobe choice, her decision to paint her body with black ink in one scene of the music video, and the overall quality of her voice in the two hits. Each song by Beyoncé is loaded with symbolism in both the visual and audio component. To pair with her carefully thought out video and lyrical choices, Allred also asks the class to read books and articles which offer another critical supplement to the topics that Beyoncé aims to explore.
“It’s mind blowing when Kevin actually connects her visual album with the texts we read for class and with the social and political issues of women in our society,” Umali said, “and when I tell people that I’m taking a Beyoncé class, they say ‘what can you possibly learn,’ but when you sit down and think about the issues behind her songs, you see Beyoncé as more than just a performer. She’s a mother, feminist, wife, and powerful woman,” said Umali.
With such richness of content, it is no wonder that a whole course is dedicated to this artist. She is a powerhouse of vocal talent, stage presence, and awe-inspiring performance, and no other artist, let alone female artist, has as much power as Beyoncé Knowles today. In conjunction with this, she is a woman who makes it a point to explore herself through her art and illuminate her feminist beliefs, and with Beyoncé’s super-stardom, any message, especially one as polarizing as feminism, is hard to ignore.