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Remember that Saturday Night Live sketch where a man — I think it was Andrew Garfield — says something rude about Beyoncé and gets pursued by The Bey-gency? I laughed along with it, though my chuckles contained a nervous edge. You see, I have this terrible and embarrassing secret, one thing that marks my failings as a woman and a feminist, one that shames me as a human being.
I don't love Beyoncé.
In my defense, I stopped paying attention to her music circa "Crazy in Love," which, by the way, I am really good at doing the choreography for at weddings when there is an open bar and everyone around me is completely plastered. Sure, if "Independent Women" comes on the radio, I can sing along and I used to really enjoy karaoke-ing with a guy who insisted on performing "Jumpin' Jumpin'" on the regular. Bey-ond that, I am Beyoncé illiterate.
When Queen Bey stomped out during the Superbowl Halftime show and everyone seemed to already know the lyrics to the song she was performing, I felt left behind. I read the think pieces and nodded in agreement with the political statements she was making. I did everything but actually listen to the damn song. (I know. For this failing, I have no one but myself to blame.)
Luckily for me, I have a secret weapon.
That secret weapon comes in the form of my college friend, Kevin Allred. He has been on CNN and NPR. He was a frequent member of Janet Mock's So POPular Smart Ass Pop Culture Feminist Clique. In college, he and I used to try to lick each other's noses in a gross out contest. Most importantly, Kevin Allred is the creator and curator of the college course Politicizing Beyoncé. It's heavier and even more fabulous than you think. On his website, he describes it as:
"'...the groundbreaking interdisciplinary college course that attempts to think through contemporary U.S. and its current racial, gender, class, and sexual politics using the music and career of Beyoncé Knowles-Carter alongside historical and contemporary black feminist texts."
If anything makes me want to learn to love Sasha Fierce, it is that paragraph right there. The time has come for me to face my inadequacies. It is time for me to contact my secret weapon and have him educate me in the ways of Bey.
I ask Kevin to give me a list of his favorite Beyoncé songs to listen to along with a taste of the context he would give to his students. When I admit I haven't heard much of her music since that first duet with Jay-Z, he tells me that his love for her starts with B'Day and doesn't even include the one hit I know best.
"I'll consider this a worthy challenge," he writes, leaving me with the feeling that I've been hit with a little bit of shade.
I wait for my inbox to fill with Kevin's recommendations the same way I anticipate an order from Nordstrom to arrive on my doorstep. Will I love the songs immediately or will I need to try them on a few times to see if they truly fit? Most importantly, I wonder if I will finally catch on to what the rest of the world has seemed to know for years: that Beyoncé reigns supreme.
My plan is to listen to the songs and record my initial reaction. I will then read the accompanying blurbs Kevin sends me. Because I'm a keener (as we say in Canada), I also intend to do a little extra credit.
Kevin sends me the following list (SPOILER ALERT: there are no Single Ladies nor Halos here):
"Formation""Grown Woman""***Flawless/Flawless (Remix)""Partition/Jealous""Run the World (Girls)"
I'm only semi-familiar with two of these titles, the others I don't even recognize. Even still, I know I can't start with "Formation." As a rookie, that's like jumping into the deep end of the pool without testing the water's temperature first. I make the decision to work backwards through the list.
You are all cordially invited to join me. It's time for Beyoncé Boot Camp.
1. "Run the World (Girls)"
My Hot Take: I made the mistake of turning it on while I was on the treadmill. This track should come with a warning. Within seconds, I nearly ran off the belt and all the way to Vancouver. Where has this song been all my life? Should I wake up my daughter so she can dance with me? IS THAT A SNARE DRUM?!
Kevin's Notes: "Beyoncé knows girls don't currently run the world, but she's looking for new ways to build a nation, as she says in the lyrics. Or rebuild a nation. In the post-apocalyptic video, she clearly sets herself in the future and gives an alternate possibility, one in which power might be understood differently."
My Extra Credit Idea: Look into world domination. This song makes me want it.
My Hot Take: This one pushes musical boundaries, challenging the listener to stay on the train. Hey, I've ridden the Radiohead express from "Creep" all the way to their bleep bloop blorp phases, so I welcome the auditory dare this song poses.
I love the way her desire to be "the kind of girl you like" doesn't sound as though she's pleading. I'm pretty sure she's demanding that this guy, and all of us, pay attention to her. (Side Note: I'm a sucker for French in a song).
Kevin's Notes: "Most people read 'Partition,' both positively and negatively, as simply a sexual narrative. But it's actually about privacy and public access to Beyoncé as a celebrity and more generally, as a black woman."
My Hot Take: I'm going to blast this in my car as I speed down the highway. There are emotional circumstances, like a newly tuned set of strings, that this song is strumming on me. I love its vulnerability juxtaposed with that angry cry in the background. This one is hitting at least three conflicting emotions in me and I like it.
Kevin's Notes: "In 'Partition,' she's trying to get the attention...If you follow the action through to 'Jealous,' you see her get up from the table and reject becoming a sexual stereotype solely for attention and look for other strategies. It offers more complex commentary on black women's bodies and the ways they're seen in public and private, similar to the artwork of Kara Walker in her large-scale installation."
My Extra Credit Idea: Kevin has pointed out to me that these two songs are linked, that the videos have Beyoncé at the same table. I'm going to watch the videos in order and then I'm going to check out more of Kara Walker's stunning works.
4. "***Flawless/Flawless (Remix)"
My Hot Take: Don't hate me, guys, but I finally and officially get the reference to all your 'Woke Up Like This' memes and pictures. I don't care what anyone says, I'm belatedly jumping on the bandwagon. Hang on while I throw on an evening gown and take a selfie because I've suddenly decided I want my brand to include: may or may not sleep in evening gowns.
...I'm back. And, hot damn, is Nicki Minaj ever good. I hope Kevin doesn't dock my grade for getting distracted.
Kevin's Notes: "'Flawless' is when Beyoncé makes her initial feminist pronouncement, but she doesn't do it in her own voice. Instead, she advocates feminism rather than claims it as her own identity. She uses the words of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, noted Nigerian novelist, to speak the words. The two stand together in coalition to offer this feminist vision. And her feminism here reworks the notion of being 'flawless' to include imperfections. Something along the lines of Roxane Gay's 'bad feminism.'"
My Extra Credit Idea: Now that I've taken my Flawless selfie, I'm going to download some Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie onto my Kindle and reread my favorite essays from Bad Feminist.
5. "Grown Woman"
My Hot Take: I'm watching the video with it and I am dying. This one might be my fave. It's an anthem. There she is, wearing a tiara, saying what's what, and snuggling an award.
This song is catchy enough as is, but as an added bonus, it contains harmonies that would bring En Vogue to their feet. I love that a track like this isn't angry, it's joyful in its empowerment.
Kevin's Notes: "Grown Woman shows Beyoncé claiming her power and control within the context of something she's been groomed to do since a very young age. And she reworks the usual insult of being called "grown" in African American vernacular into a symbol of power, not something to be ashamed of. Alice Walker also uses this traditional insult to ground her definition of womanism — her version of black feminism."
My Extra Credit Idea: I'm going to make a list of things that I can do as a grown woman. For starters: speak my mind, love my curves, wear mini-skirts until I croak, and eat cake mix out of a mug.
My Hot Take: This song and its accompanying video give me chills. I remember reading recently that Gloria Steinem said she learned feminism from black women. Beyoncé is giving me a lot to learn in this five-minute miniature movie.
Kevin's Notes: "The politics of 'Formation' are a lot more explicit than previous Beyoncé songs. She de-centers whiteness here and forces the viewer to engage with the song from the perspective of the black women and girls she's celebrating and empowering with the video. And she's calling attention to the failures of the state to address Hurricane Katrina 10+ years later and calling attention to the Black Lives Matter movement through the visuals. She's also pointing the viewer toward 3 key themes — Affirmation, Information, Coordination."
My Extra Credit Idea: I will not ignore her "get in formation" word play. There's a lot to dig through here, including the LGBTQ culture in New Orleans and the Black Panther party.
Part of being a feminist, an ally, and a decent human being is recognizing my own idiocy. And I have been an idiot about Beyoncé, paying attention to the "Single Ladies" parodies and only the most radio-friendly of her songs.
All it took was six tracks and a long-suffering teacher to educate me about the depth, both musically and socio-politically, that Beyoncé brings to her career. Is it too soon to proclaim my love for her? Because I am ready to join the BeyHive.
UPDATE: It's been a few days now since I my Beyoncé Boot Camp. My Bootylicious Camp, if you will. I find myself thinking of Ms. Knowles-Carter as I fall asleep. When I wake up in the morning I wonder if 6:40am is too early to listen to "Formation." She is the current running under my every thought and action. This little foray into six of her songs has developed into a full-blown obsession. Is this normal? Are we mere humans worthy to occupy the same planet she does? Can she sense my sudden, yet long-overdue conversion? Perhaps the answers lie in the rest of her body of work.
Clear my schedule, I've got well over one hundred songs to discover.
All hail, Queen Bey.