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.
As a consumer, you’ve experienced desire: that longing for someone, that appetite for something more, that expectation of pleasure and satisfaction that comes from getting what you want. Whether what you want ranges from an ideal body type, to a cool technological gadget, to fashionable clothes or new cars, someone beautiful is out there selling it to you—beautifully. If you’re like me then you’ve found yourself suddenly and inexplicably under the influence of desire, only later trying to understand where your money went. If you’re a lot like me then you’ll eventually realize that desire has this effect because of the way it looks and, perhaps more importantly, because of the way it sounds.
One of the more interesting snippets of what desire looks and sounds like right now is The Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show (VSFS), which aired on November 29th and rebroadcast on December 15th. Rappers and rock stars serenade the audience while Victoria’s Secret Angels don Swarovski crystal-encrusted lingerie and angel wings. The visual and aural cornucopias echo ideas of abundance and break down the boundary between public and private spaces by implying a type of intimacy—Victoria wants to share her secret fantasies (privately) with just us (in public). The intimacy implied is totally illusive, which makes it all the more desirable.
This illusiveness starts with the models, who enact intimacy and embody silence as the sound of desire. The VSFS’s onstage choreography fixes women squarely in the visual domain and undercuts their credibility in the sonic domain. Instead of raising their voices for self-empowerment while on the air the VSFS suggests that women should push up their breasts and show as much cleavage as possible, playing to audiences as seen and not heard.
Bernd Schmitt, David Rogers, and Karen Vrotsos explain what’s behind the VSFS’s strategy of strategic silence in their book, There’s No Business That’s Not Show Business: Marketing in an Experience Culture:
“Since 1995 Victoria’s Secret has gone from imitating marketing ideas of true luxury retailers to becoming the model for some of those retailers… Every step of this dramatic progression has been pure show business—pushing the boundaries of fashion and taste, engaging (and sometimes enraging audiences) and transforming the industry into re-imagining itself. Like a teenager wearing her first Wonderbra.”
Through a maelstrom of controversies and publicity over the lack of women’s voices represented in the fashion shows, the VSFS was re-imagined in the early 2000s and took on a (post-)feminist message of empowerment. Here’s the idea: VSFS models are “superheroines” because they brandish their assets on their own terms on the catwalk, in an emancipatory celebration. Silent, desired objects are glorified as consumers are bewitched.
The show facilitates desire by creating additional intimacy for consumers, incorporating an “All Access” website replete with revealing video clips and exclusive photos, biographical videos about the models. The actual broadcast now also airs backstage interviews in which models share their private thoughts about why the VSFS is more than a pornographic commercial or a fantastic rejection of old-school stereotypical bra-burning feminism. For example, during the show one model commented that she’s “living the American Dream.” Another said that she feels senses of accomplishment and growth because “It’s every girl’s dream to walk in VSFS… the minute I stood on the runway I felt like I became a woman.” Yet another model encouraged young female audience members to aspire to participating in a future VSFS, pronouncing that “someone that’s watching this will be an angel.”
Despite this backstage commentary much goes unsaid. Noticeably absent from the models’ remarks is any mention of how the opportunity to speak their minds is presented only to sell more merchandise that is not certified fair-trade. Then there’s the total silence around the privileging of light skin and thinness and their relations to higher levels of “erotic capital” in mainstream popular culture. Out of 10 models in the 2011 show, 3 appeared to be women of color (Asian-American and African-American or mixed race) and only 1 appeared to be a darker-skinned woman of color. No women of color contributed to VSFS’s on-air backstage footage. And, adding insult to representational injury, the women of color are hypersexualized even as they are muted. What’s more is that all models appeared to be under the size of the actual US female consumer (sizes 10-12), suggesting that most real women are still not considered the target audience for VSFS and thereby suffer a profound lack of agency in voicing images of desire for themselves.
The absence, and silence, of average women and women of color in desire industries has been noted by sociologist Siobhan Brooks in Unequal Desires: Race and Erotic Capital in the Stripping Industry. Brooks writes,
“Many feminists argue that women cannot assert agency within sexual economies; their belief is that women are victimized and/or controlled by heterosexual male desire that is not in the best interest of women. On the other side of the debate… contemporary feminists have focused on sexual agency and the empowerment of women within sexual economies as an expansion of women’s control of their bodies. However, within the debate… there remains a theoretical void in examining US-based racial and sexual hierarchies present within desire industries, and how these hierarchies mirror existing forms of racial stratification in US institutions.”
This racial stratification is stitched into the very soundtrack of the VSFS, which loudly reinforces women’s silence as the sound of desire. The VSFS soundtrack nourishes desire through presenting what Deanna Sellnow and Timothy Sellnow, in their article “The Illusion of Life Rhetorical Perspective: An Integrated Approach to the Study of Music as Communication”, call an “illusion of life—a dynamic interaction between virtual experience (lyrics) and virtual time (music).” Racial, gender and class differences produced virtual experience. Lyrics expressed these differences through some form of heterosexual, aspirational and consumptive desire—from getting one’s ideal sexual partner, to traveling to exotic locales, and enjoying celebrities’ exciting and extravagant lives. The pop and rap songs offered fast tempos, driving rhythms, loud dynamics and full instrumentation, representing intensity and power.
The VSFS’s performers show the gendered dimension of that “illusion of life.” Kanye West’s version of masculinity was on display as he flirted with each model strutting down the runway, making his voice the only one heard as models appeared. His famous line from “Stronger” (“I need you right now”), when coupled with the women’s silent sauntering, sounded as relevant as it was politically incorrect.
Maroon 5’s performance of “Moves Like Jagger” also addressed the theme of desire, especially when lead singer Adam Levine planted a kiss on the cheek of his girlfriend Anne Vyalitsyna (as she remained silent). Jay-Z and West’s show stopping performance of “Niggas in Paris,” in which the duo performed without any models on stage, highlighted the rappers’ “untouchable” status as rap gods and throne-dwellers. The live audience responded more emphatically to this male-only performance than it did to any other segment of the show.
Nicki Minaj was the only female to appear on stage in the role of non-model, performing “Super Bass” with a hint of Rob Base and DJ EZ Rock’s “It Takes Two.” Though her performance can be read as a subtle critique of the lack of authentic audience agency and absence of a womanist standpoint in VSFS, it sounded no less male-centered than any of the other performers’. For instance, the first line of “Super Bass” is directed at a male audience driven by consumption, “This one is for the boys with the booming system.” In this respect Minaj could be seen as The Female Voice of VSFS, as her rapping about self-image and relationships with men is consistent with sanctioned topic areas for women in general.
However, and in keeping with the show’s theme of women’s silence as the sound of desire, Minaj’s performance does offer a quiet critique of hegemonic images of desire and desirability. Unlike the male performers Minaj always stayed behind the models and in the background. Consequently, Minaj’s short stature, colored wig, thicker figure, sneakers, outlandish outfit, and darker skin were presented in sharp contrast with the tall, high-heeled, thin, lighter-skinned, scantily clad, and perfectly coiffed models who she stalked as they came down the runway. A scan through tweets posted as the show aired confirms that audiences got Minaj’s message even if they eventually turned it against themselves, revealing that desire can sometimes be displeasing and painfully restrictive. Take the following tweet from viewer @kelcicoffey: “Going on a diet after watching #VSFashionShow tonight XD.”
Though Minaj’s soundless critique speaks volumes, the VSFS soundscape ultimately seals the edges on a spectacle brimming with hegemonic impressions and sensations of desire. The end product is an illusion of life that is mostly white, nearly naked, always feminized and conspicuously silent.
Marcia Alesan Dawkins is an award-winning writer, speaker, educator and visiting scholar at Brown University. She is the author of Clearly Invisible: Racial Passing and the Color of Cultural Identity (Baylor UP, 2012) and Eminem: The Real Slim Shady (Praeger, 2013).
Marcia writes about racial passing, mixed race identities, media, popular culture, religion and politics for a variety of high-profile publications. She earned her PhD in communication from USC Annenberg, her master’s degrees in humanities from USC and NYU and her bachelor’s degrees in communication arts and honors from Villanova. Contact: www.marciadawkins.com
A woman’s voice to this game right now is so extremely necessary in order to save it.–MC Lyte, My Mic Sounds Nice: A Truth About Women in Hip-Hop
On Monday August 30th, BET premiered My Mic Sounds Nice: A Truth About Women in Hip Hop, a documentary that traces the rise of female MCs within hip hop and that strives to challenge the view that hip hop is a “man’s game.” Although the rappers interviewed–for example Medusa, Salt N Pepa, Trina, Eve–all agreed that men are a strong presence in hip hop, they are proof that they are not living in the shadow of male rappers (perhaps in the shadow of Lauryn Hill? Yes? No? Maybe?). The documentary helped bring me back to questions I had about women and hip hop, questions that arose while doing my research on hip hop and representations of urban space.
I come to hip hop not just as a music fan, but as a cultural studies critic. I like hip hop, but I really started paying attention when I saw the connections between the music I was bopping my head to and the stuff I was reading and thinking about. It started with Kanye West, one of my favorite rappers, and his song “My Way Home” (from Late Registration). At the time I was taking a course on African American realist fiction and the City, and thinking through what the idea of home meant for all of the migrants who had come from the South to the North. Chicago weighed heavily on my mind as I drove up from New York City back to Upstate NY one weekend, and listened to Late Registration along the way. The opening sample, from Gil-Scott Heron’s “Home Is Where The Hatred Is,” came on, and I had one of those serendipitous moments researchers dream of: “Chicago is home for Kanye. Chicago is the place where many of these characters live. But is it home for them? Can this city ever be a home?”
My questions led me to revisit my iTunes and my boyfriend’s CDs (we’re both big music fans, and one of the bonuses of moving in together was that our music collections became one big collection) in search of other songs about cities. I started building a playlist for my paper and buying songs like no one’s business. I was drawing connections between the African American fiction I was reading and the songs I was listening to. They both underscored the importance of urban spaces in the development of a post-migration identity–a very urban one at that. And hip hop is an inherently urban genre. However, amidst Kanye and Mos Def, Jay-Z and Gil-Scott Heron, Murs and Ice Cube, I noticed a big, dark, deep hole: where were the female MCs? It had been easy to find plenty of songs about cities by male rappers, but songs by female rappers? Not so much.
After I got over my initial embarrassment that I had gone so long without noticing this lack in my iTunes playlist, I started to search for female MCs rapping about the city. I collected names and songs. I looked up obscure remixes online, and downloaded songs by female rappers I’d never heard of before. (My favorite from that search? “Philly Philly” by Eve. Once I start humming, I can’t get it out of my head.) But there was less of a variety, and they talked about urban space differently. Whereas many male rappers put the grit, the violence, and the dangerous streets of the city front and center in their music, this was not so for the female rappers I looked at. A good example of this is Lauryn Hill’s “Every Ghetto, Every City” where she reminisces about her childhood in Jersey, but says that “every ghetto, every city” brings her back to the streets where she grew up. I used to think that I didn’t have enough of a sample to say what was the tone of female MCs toward urban space; now I wonder if the sample issue had anything to do with the lack of female MCs nowadays.
However, the documentary ends on a positive note: after calling into question whether Nicki Minaj’s popularity is helping or hurting rap (see adurhamtamu’s post on The Crunk Feminist Collective for a more thoughtful look at Nicki Minaj’s performances), we have Glenisha Morgan from The Fembassy, who argues that if you want to listen to female MCs all you have to do is look for them. She provides viewers a long list of female rappers out there, albeit underground: Medusa, Jean Grae, Tiye Phoenix…Maybe my problem wasn’t that I couldn’t find female rappers rapping about cities, but that I was looking in all the wrong places. I am looking forward to checking out these female rappers and seeing what they have to say about their relationship to urban space through their music. Thanks, BET, for caring.