From Janet To BEYONCÉ: Why It Matters When Black Women Sing About Sexuality

This album is widely successful because it makes women feel good about themselves. I can see how that might be confusing for some.

Jan 13, 2014 at 5:00pm | Leave a comment

Alittle over three weeks since "BEYONCÉ" took the Internet hostage in the middle of the night, the buzz for the artist’s self-titled release has not waned, and she seems unlikely to release any hostages. I can still expect to see “SURFBOARD” (who knew you could spell that so many ways?) as the caption of choice on my homegirls’ latest selfies, and I rang in my New Year drunk in love with my fatty, daddy.
 
As listeners continue to speculate just what “watermelon” means (note: it’s not what you think), an important message has been lost in translation, particularly among men. Shocking. This, the album where Beyoncé Knowles emerges as more than song-of-the-year-YouTube-video-wunderkind for the girls and the gays, has escaped them. The album about female independence is the album they don’t seem to understand.
 
Knowles’ fifth album is personal and intimate in the same way another mononymous, punctuation-for-purpose release, "janet." was. So said Rolling Stone in its review of Janet Jackson’s 1993 album:
“janet.'s Janet is a more complete sexual being than most of pop's black women are allowed or allow themselves to be. No Hottentot Venus (an objectified, sexually available black female) exploiting her legs (Tina Turner), hair (Neneh Cherry) or blackness (black drag queen Madonna), Jackson evades reductive sexuality by demanding love and respect from both her partner and herself. She wants you to touch her, and love's got to do with it because "that's the way love goes." Janet won't stand for a trade-off — she wants love and sex.”
Before then, and long before her accidentally exposed nipple during a Super Bowl half-time show made her an Enemy of the State, Jackson was a chubby-faced girl in black, who smiled nice and spoke softly at the camera, who promised suitors she’d be “worth the wait.” The last of the Jackson Dynasty, her music was autobiographical ("Control"), sure, and socio-politically conscious (the critically-acclaimed "Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814"), but never sexy, and certainly never sexual.
 
This video for "Love Will Never Do (Without You)," released in 1990, was Janet’s first official makeover that repositioned her public image. The ’93 record, released when Jackson was 27, drove the point home. Like Knowles, Jackson also broke managerial ties with her father, seeking more autonomy, a move that has proven to be instrumental in the successes of both artists.  
 
Here are women who sing about sex. Sexuality. Contemporary womanhood. Wholeness. Arrival. 
 
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What’s in a name? Album covers for both albums, each a threshold for the singers’ careers.

 
“Goddammit, I’m comfortable in my skin,” Knowles oozes as though long overdue.
 
The line is a simple and powerful one for an album that bares her name and nothing else on its cover. Despite her reign as “Queen,” it renders her accessible through confession. You can only respond with a wave of a church hand and a “YES, GIRL!” when you hear it. The declaration is a personal reminder for women like me who sing along, rendering the world around us almost powerless to share in the moment, relegating men to engage by proxy. Even Jay-Z seems muted at his wife’s side.
 
This is a Grown Woman Album, not because only because of Chimamanda Adichie’s feminist manifesto, but because it collapses the Madonna/Whore Dichotomy entirely. It’s not wrapped in earthly deity of. It doesn’t hide behind an alter ego such as Sasha Fierce, and speaks exclusively about pleasure from a woman’s perspective.
 
“Cater 2 U”? Maybe later.
 
The record dismantles the idea that marriage, commitment, or monogamy ruins one’s sex life. It challenges the notion that a woman’s life should be lead in complete service to her child. This album is widely successful because it makes women feel good about themselves. I can see how that might be confusing for some.
 
This is a pop album that soundtracks the lives of we who have survived our quarter-life identity crisis. We, like Knowles, exist in all our forms all at once: mother; sister; daughter; businesswoman; wife, and individual. For many of us, these things are sometimes in conflict. 
 
Especially when you factor in the part about the sex. Detractors decried the album’s explicit content in typical "Won't someone think of the children?" form, seemingly forgetting that the singer is 32 and under no obligation to parent any child but her own. BEYONCÉ introduces Knowles as a sexual being, not a being sexualized by industry. She communicates her proclivities in her own certain terms. And yes, that may sometimes involve a duration on her knees. No, you may not watch.
 
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Some of the lead artwork for both releases; Janet’s was featured on the Sept. 16, 1993, issue of Rolling Stone. Beyoncé’s was included in both the digital and print booklets for her album.

 
The men who mistake Knowles’ sensuality as her husband’s accomplishment and the women who qualify their approval of Knowles’ wanting to sit this asssssssssss on you with her knowledge of her marriage certificate have lost sight of the album’s premise.
 
Power.
 
Up until recently, it has been easy to dismiss Knowles for the same reason that most other female pop stars, no matter how successful, are easy to dismiss. She was pretty and sang confectionary songs about things of no real consequence. Of course, no one denied her work ethic or her talent, but audiences were still able, as evidenced by her loss to Taylor “Petty Hurts” Swift during the 2009 MTV Music Video Awards, to dismiss her as one of many. And perhaps this is why Knowles has been pushing (forcing?) the issue of her own iconography, telling us in advance that she wants to be iconic and that she’ll meet us there when we finally happen upon the realization that she is. 
 
Despite the extra 17 videos, Knowles presents herself simply, by only presenting herself. Tracks contain revealing lyrics about her evolution as a woman, now 32. Though as a listener, I’ve not been without my critiques, I’ve enjoyed Beyoncé since the self-titled Destiny’s Child debut album, back when she looked like a girl from the neighborhood with a name only we bothered to pronounce, singing lead and four part harmony on BET. Those were the days when, if the camera cut too quickly, you weren’t quite sure if you were looking at her or LeToya.
 
For the group’s sophomore effort, Knowles pushed forward on to the center of its cover, and even further ahead on the vocal leads. MTV warmed up, and the charts did too. Though it’s a great album, it was also pretty standard in terms of content: dalliances at the club, the haters, the cheating-ass boyfriend; the girl who can’t love your man like you can…blah, blah, blah. It came equipped with the R&B Good Girl Golden Seal: a gospel record for the album’s close. And the time she arrived at her debut record, she was positively saccharine about her Daddy, cementing her respectable place in Good Girl Mount Rushmore.
 
This is the archetype for women in music, particularly black women in R&B, with its lasting legacy of adult women presenting themselves just so to avoid upset and make everyone else feel at ease. Its audience is comprised of young women who listen to this music and ingest the idea that sex is a man’s sport, confident women are vapid, independence is for the lonely girl, career-oriented women are frigid, strong women are bitches, and motherhood is the greatest of all possible roles for them in this life.
 
We, the daughters of R&B, are thankful to not give a damn about any of this anymore as we approach 30, and in this record hear ourselves and find feel-good in the solidarity of coming of age. Tossing aside expectations, we feel untouchable while yearning to be touched, commanding the respect we deserve, knowing we are powerful, too.