This September, Sounding Out! challenged a #flawless group of scholars and critics to give Beyoncé Knowles-Carter a close listen, re-examining the complex relationship between her audio and visuals and amplifying what goes unheard, even as her every move–whether on MTV or in that damn elevator–faces intense scrutiny. Last Monday, you heard from Kevin Allred (Women and Gender Studies, Rutgers) who read Beyoncé’s track “No Angel” against the New York Times’ reference to Michael Brown as #noangel. You will also hear from Liana Silva (Editor, Women in Higher Education, Managing Editor, Sounding Out!), Regina Bradley (writer, scholar, and freelance researcher of African American Life and Culture), and Madison Moore (Research Associate in the Department of English at King’s College, University of London and author of How to Be Beyoncé). Today, Priscilla Peña Ovalle (English, University of Oregon) gives us full Beyoncé realness, from TMZ Elevator to Beyoncé and Back Again,–Editor-in-Chief Jennifer Stoever
Less than six months after Beyoncé released Beyoncé, she was momentarily silenced on the small screen when the gossip site TMZ released silent elevator security footage of a fight between her famous husband and sister. Doubly framed by the black and white of a surveillance video screen surreptitiously captured on a security guard’s camera-phone, the video’s silence left plenty of room for speculation. But the footage also revealed a woman conscious that her life is on record: Beyoncé’s body seemed to elude the camera’s full view and she emerged from the elevator with a camera-ready smile.
Like Kevin Allred in his powerful reading of “No Angel,” I could not help but rethink Beyoncé in the wake of Michael Brown’s murder. I already read Beyoncé as a sophisticated response to the visual and aural policing of black female bodies, but the closed-circuit images of Beyoncé on TMZ (and in Beyoncé) made me reconsider silence as a damning convention of video surveillance; like Aaron Trammell in “Video Gaming and the Sonic Feedback of Surveillance,” I questioned (the lack of) sound as a technique of control. When the camera-phone recording of Kajieme Powell’s murder, photographed and narrated by a community member in real-time, was released with silent surveillance footage of the alleged theft, my appreciation of Beyoncé—as a response to those silent damnations—took a new turn.
“Resounding Silence and Surveillance” argues that Beyoncé returns the media’s visual-aural gaze. Because of its pop package, the album’s artistic composition and socio-cultural merit are often underestimated. Like the silence of surveillance footage, omitting any one sensory element from Beyoncé distorts the holistic meaning. To untangle this critically complex interplay of audio and video, I analyze the visualized song “Haunted” and briefly address the single “***Flawless” to show how the artist’s triple consciousness anchors Beyoncé. She is on to us: Beyoncé is the culmination of an artist who has spent her career watching us watch her. Temporarily silenced by footage that she could not control, Beyoncé resounds that “elevator incident”—and our sonic/optic perceptions of her feminism—with a flawless remix.
“I see music. It’s more than just what I hear,” declares Beyoncé. Her voiceover runs over the black screen that opens the promotional video “Self-Titled.” Released the same day Beyoncé premiered on iTunes, “Self-Titled” directs audiences to “see the whole vision of the album.” By design, Beyoncé is an immersive experience—like watching Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” as a television event on MTV.
Because Beyoncé was born the same year the cable music channel MTV premiered, she has never known a world without the ability to “see music.” In many ways, her visual album reinvigorates the early spirit of MTV: after Beyoncé, we will “never look at music the same way again.” Though music videos exacerbate the pop single obsession that Beyoncé explicitly resists with Beyoncé, they also produce a unique kinetic connection with the listener-viewer, whose experience of sound is visually registered by the body as it processes shots and edits. This is especially true when strong imagery, rhythmic editing, and dance movements are expertly employed, as in Beyoncé.
Beyoncé deftly critiques the beauty and music/media industries that have been central to her pop success. If taken piecemeal, these critiques can be easily dismissed: the sustained gloss of her image works all too well. There is much to say on a video-by-video basis, but I focus here on the specific aural elements of “Haunted” that articulate Beyoncé’s refusal of the music industry’s status quo. This visualized rejection reveals the layers of racism and sexism that nonwhite female artists (even Beyoncé, even today) must negotiate.
Because of my personal and professional interest in music videos, I consumed Beyoncé as she intended: a sequence of MPEG-4 videos rather than AAC audio files. But it was not until I solely listened to the album that I could discern Beyoncé’s maturation as a black female multimedia pop/culture artist. One refrain from “Haunted” was especially effective:
I know if I’m onto you, I’m onto you/ Onto you, you must be on to me
The song’s ethereal quality is amplified by Boots (Jordy Asher), one of Beyoncé’s (then-unknown) collaborators with whom she shares “Haunted”’s writing and producing credit. The track builds slowly, supporting Beyoncé’s “stream of consciousness” delivery with layers of reverberation and waves of synth sounds like “Soundtrack” or the Roland TR-808 kick drum. Punches of bass accelerate the beat until Beyoncé riffs her explicit desire to create something more than a product:
The music winds to a halt, but the song is not over. Breathy, reverberating vocals transition the track and a piano is delicately introduced:
It’s what you do, it’s what you see
I know if I’m haunting you, you must be haunting me
It’s where we go, it’s where we’ll be
I know if I’m onto you, I’m onto you
Onto you, you must be on to me
At this point, the song “Haunted” is split into two videos: “Ghost” (directed by Pierre Debusschere) and “Haunted” (directed by Jonas Åkerlund). The videos’ visual differences exemplify the various points of view—from active subject to object of desire and back again—employed across Beyoncé. “Ghost”’s hypnotic visuals underscore the song’s sentiments: close-ups of Beyoncé’s immaculately lit visage soberly mouthing lyrics are intercut with medium shots of her still body swathed in floating fabric and wide shots of her athletic movements against sparse backgrounds. The ar/rhythmic cuts of “Ghost” enunciate an artistic dissatisfaction with the industry: visuals build against/with the synthetic beat, mixing Beyoncé’s kinetically intense movements with her deadpan delivery.
The fiery agency of “Ghost” sets up the chill of “Haunted,” a voyeuristic tour in which Beyoncé watches and is watched. The “knowing-ness” of her breathy refrain (“I know if I’m haunting you”) is heightened when the tempo accelerates in the song’s second half. There is much to say about “Haunted”—from the interracial family of atomic bomb mannequins to Beyoncé’s writhing boudoir choreography. Most significantly, she is the video’s voyeur and object of surveillance: her face appears on multiple television screens and her voyeur-character is regularly captured on closed-circuit footage. The “Haunted” video soundtrack features the foley and stinger sounds of a horror film, but these surveillance shots feature the low whirr of a film projector rather than silence. The silence of a moving image is so jarring that it compels us to watch differently, so much so that “silent” film scenes utilize a recorded sound of “nothing” (“room tone”) to focus the audience.
When Beyoncé finally resounded the silence of the “elevator incident,” she chose to do it through “***Flawless,” her explicit response to anti-feminist accusations. While the multifaceted anthem gained attention because of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s audio, the song is uniquely infused with a kind of docu-visuality thanks to Ed McMahon’s well-known voice and the Star Search jingle. These bookends cite a young Beyoncé losing to an all-male rock band, the kind heavily programmed during MTV’s early days. The clips reinforce the album’s critique of racial and gender hierarchies while questioning the double-edged “work ethic” required to surpass them. Of course, Beyoncé pre-emptively frames this discussion for us in “Self-Titled,” a necessary step that helps audiences appreciate the many moving parts of her tour de force, including her creative business mind.So when Beyoncé swapped the audio of Adichie and McMahon for Nicki Minaj, it was no less of a feminist move. Instead, Beyoncé silences TMZ gawkers:
She then offers herself as a medium of empowerment. Beyoncé may be part of a billion-dollar empire, but she willingly shares that pleasure with us:
I wake up looking this good
And I wouldn’t change it if I could
(If I could, if I, if I, could)
And you can say what you want, I’m the shit
(What you want I’m the shit, I’m the shit)
(I’m the shit, I’m the shit, I’m the shit)
I want everyone to feel like this tonight
God damn, God damn, God damn!
Beyoncé’s last word is an image. She and her creative team remixed the visuals of the “elevator incident”: the remix single website features black and white photos of Beyoncé and Minaj, simultaneously evoking surveillance footage and the photo booth images of a girls’ night out. Beyoncé is the work of an artist who has spent her career watching us watch her: this minor moment exemplifies Beyoncé’s multimedia resonance as an artist whose power is visible and audible across iTunes and TMZ screens alike.
Thanks to Elizabeth Peterson, Charise Cheney, Loren Kajikawa, André Sirois and Jennifer Stoever for providing research and intellectual support for this essay
Priscilla Peña Ovalle is the Associate Director of the Cinema Studies Program at the University of Oregon. After studying film and interactive media production at Emerson College, she received her PhD from the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television while collaborating with the Labyrinth Project at the Annenberg Center for Communication. She has written on MTV, Jennifer Lopez, and Beyoncé. Her book, Dance and the Hollywood Latina: Race, Sex, and Stardom (Rutgers University Press, 2011), addresses the symbolic connection between dance and the racialized sexuality of Latinas in popular culture. Her next research project explores the historical, industrial, and cultural function of hair in mainstream film and television. You can find her work in American Quarterly, Theatre Journal, and Women & Performance.
This year, my first book—Dance and the Hollywood Latina: Race, Sex, and Stardom (Rutgers UP: 2011)—was born. The writing process required nearly a decade of thought and development, a gestation period that reminded me how to listen as well as see.
As a sound recordist in film school, I became acutely aware of the hierarchization of the visual over the aural: it was a challenge to claim space for sound when the director wanted to yell “Action” as soon as camera was ready. Me (covered in grime, Nagra deck over one shoulder and boom pole in hand): “What’s the frame line? Is my mic—or the shadow of my boom pole—in the shot? And, maybe I can get a level-check before we shoot—so the audio levels are as pretty as your exposure? Maybe?”
Yet, most of those instincts and that tenacity dissipated during graduate school. As I honed the language of film and television analysis, I, too, began to privilege the visual over the aural. Over time—and with the help of colleagues like Jennifer Stoever-Ackerman—Dance and the Hollywood Latina reminded me how to listen.
And so, I present a moment from the book that reinforced the scholarly importance of watching with my ears. In the following excerpt, I analyze Rita Moreno’s aural Otherness in West Side Story. The scene, like many others of Moreno’s career, illustrates the tension between the “look” and the “sound” of the Hollywood Latina. While my book is primarily organized around the ways that racialized sexuality is encoded in the dance of the Latina body in Hollywood film, the chapter “Rita Moreno, the Critically Acclaimed ‘All-Round Ethnic'” helps clarify how the Hollywood Latina has been read as both “easy on the eyes, but hard on the ears,” a phrase used to describe Moreno during her appearance on The Muppet Show in 1976.
The excerpt explores a pivotal scene in the film, where Anita (Moreno) confronts Maria (Natalie Wood), whom she discovers has just slept with Tony—the murderer of Bernardo (George Chakiris), Anita’s boyfriend and Maria’s brother:
[T]he nondance musical number “A Boy Like That” illuminates how the Hollywood Latina has also been aurally imagined and reproduced. [The song] expresses Anita’s anger and sense of betrayal, and eventually builds into a powerful duet (“I Have a Love”) between the women. As a backdrop, the setting and bodies of the scene are visually coded as Latino/a: the apartment matches the purples, blues, and reds associated with the Sharks in the film, while the two Latinas in the frame—one real and one diegetic—are colored Puerto Rican through the use of brown makeup. These stylized signifiers set the tone for Moreno’s aural representation in the scene. As the only Puerto Rican in the film cast, Rita Moreno gave a performance that became a touchstone of aural authenticity for non-Puerto Rican actors such as George Chakiris (Bernardo). In one interview, Chakiris notes that he and the Shark actors used Moreno as their sonic “guide” (Gross 2001). [Interestingly, the West Side Story shooting script available in the Bob Wise Collection at the University of Southern California Cinematic Arts Library includes written dialect for the Jets but not the Sharks, suggesting that the sonic expectations of the Latino/a characters were self-evident].
Both Natalie Wood and Rita Moreno lip-synch to prerecorded tracks, but unlike Wood, Moreno performs her other songs herself; “A Boy Like That” is Moreno’s only song that does not feature her real singing voice. While the dubbed vocal performance compensates for Moreno’s higher vocal range, it undercuts the ferocity of her physical performance. As Moreno’s facial expressions and posturing exhibit an angry and forceful delivery, singer Betty Wand’s vocal interpretation of the lyrics overly amplifies the supposed sound of a Latina body in lieu of the emotional urgency of the song. Moreno’s assertive body language is thus mismatched with the generic quality of Wand’s artificial accent, a kind of aural brown-face that flattens the scene’s intensity.
In a 2001 interview, Moreno expressed her disapproval of the vocals in “A Boy Like That,” claiming that Wand’s lack of acting skills resulted in a restricted interpretation that did not match the physical intensity of the scene. She explains: “[Wand] just couldn’t get it the way I wanted it…to sound. It should have almost been a growl…you know, barely sung. And she ended up sounding…almost like a cliché Mexican” (Gross 2001). Despite Moreno’s coaching, Wand could only articulate the song’s Latina-ness, a sonic interpretation that solely relied on a stereotypical accent to tell its story. This racialized vocal performance is incompatible with the emotional depth Moreno produces onscreen because it was only—always, and already—aurally Other. [This shift is most noticeable at the moment in “A Boy Like That” when Rita Moreno’s dialogue as Anita suddenly shifts to the lyrics of the song].
Rita Moreno’s career enabled me to hear the Hollywood Latina, an experience that enhanced my analysis of Dolores Del Rio, Carmen Miranda, Rita Hayworth (Rita Cansino), and Jennifer Lopez—the other women I study in Dance and the Hollywood Latina. I am thankful for Moreno’s (creative/political/critical) voice and hope that she continues to help me listen anew.
And thank you, dear listeners, for your time and attention. I hope to hear from you soon.