What Beyoncé taught me about freedom

We have a proverb in Circle of Hope that has been influential in my understanding of art. In fact, it’s so significant, I made it the name of this blog. Here’s the full thing: Since we are each and all temples of the Holy Spirit, art among us is never merely a matter of “self-expression.” We create to represent the creator. We are obeying the behavior that God has modeled. We are creative and through our art we reveal the glory of God.

With the basic framework, I think we learn to appreciate arts from every corner of the philosophical spectrum, striving to see God in a human’s creation. Some of the world’s greatest art isn’t done in the name of God but it goes a long way to show the world God’s glory. So, like another proverb states, I’m repenting of separating the sacred and the secular—I’m trying to let Jesus redeem the whole world, like one whole cloth (that’s also the name of my Tumblr).

So that’s part of the reason why I gravitate toward new music and TV shows. I see God in them. I think it’s also helpful to be an expert in the culture—holding a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in the other. In order to be all things to all people, like Paul says, I think we need to be conversant in the language of the day. If we stay in the sterile Christian bubble all day, we might be hard-pressed to meet someone who isn’t.

Over the last week, I’ve been listening to Beyoncé’s latest self-titled record. Here’s the scoop, she secretly released a “visual album” in the middle of December (the holidays made me about a month late in terms of my listening). Beyoncé sold 828,773 albums on iTunes in three days—that “shatters” the previously record.

And it’s not too much of a surprise, for a few reasons. Beyoncé is an incredibly talented and just so darn catchy. There are hooks upon hooks in this overdone record. Even the videos have their moments of brilliance too. And her voice is just astounding! One would be hard-pressed to refute that Beyoncé is an amazing entertainer. Her hard work and success is undoubtedly inspiring to black girls especially, and everyone else, all over the country.

The truth is Beyoncé is one of the most powerful and influential people in the whole world. She has our ears—almost a million in three days, in fact! And for that, I commend her work. It’s not just catchy, there’s substance in it. One of her most powerful songs is about the power of love in marriage and using that connection to overcome postpartum depression (“Mine”). “XO” is possibly my favorite track on the record, it’s fun, joyful, and filled with the love in marriage. Beyoncé declares that no one has to understand her marriage, it just works! Beyoncé’s record is loaded with woman power too, and I laud the confidence she displays and the against-all-odds mentality she instills in us. Who says you can’t do it?

“Flawless” has that theme of courage, being sandwiched between footage of Beyoncé’s group losing to an all-white boy band on Ed McMahon. She overcomes her failure The son is not without its flaws, I could have done without the “bow down, bitches” hook. In “Heaven” Beyoncé sings about the struggles she had with the pain of her miscarriage; in this mournful ballad, she even quotes the Lord’s Prayer. The record concludes with “Blue” an ode to her baby; a very cute video.

I’m intrigued by the fact that all of my favorite songs, the ones that I could actually recommend to someone (even my mom!), are in the tail end of the record. I almost wrote the whole thing off, but I’m glad I kept listening and watching. To me, it almost seems like Beyoncé delivers her more powerful and mature material after she’s hooked in her audience with over-the-top sexual expression that dominates the first half of the record, and is where most of the critics and fans have paid their attention.

Beyoncé said that she was too embarrassed to play the record for her mother (she even thought it was too much for Jay Z). And I’d be too. Her instinct tells her this record is just too much and she ignores it, seemingly. “Pretty Hurts” is an anthem about the sins of objectification (it’s the “soul that needs surgery”; “perfection is a disease of a nation”), but ironic, because she isn’t wearing many clothes in the video that criticizes such things. A little less than self-aware, Beyoncé jokes in “Ghost” that, “Probably won’t make no money on this. Oh well.” “Haunted” is one of many songs about seduction (and the importance of it in a marriage, apparently). The song is all about the enchanting and haunting nature of relationships—“if I’m haunting (onto) you, you must be haunting (onto) me.”  It doesn’t take long before Beyoncé’s pants come off and for her to be dressed in risqué lingerie.

“Drunk In Love” is a song about intimacy and sexual excitement in marriage, but still finds itself celebrating drunken sex (“I been sippin’, that’s the only thing / That’s keeping me on fire”). We find Beyoncé as the video vixen in her own video when her husband, Jay Z, shows up to try to steal the show with a domestic abuse reference (“Catch a charge I might, beat the box up like Mike / in ’97 I bite”). That’s sex in marriage? Puh-lease.

“Blow” and “Yoncé” is just bawdy and overly and obnoxiously. Beyoncé’s talented, but she can’t just get away with everything. Unabashedly a song worshipping sex. The videos are even worse. They’re embarrassing, and I think most moms would agree.

“Partition” is another anthem about monogamy (but how much can you promote monogamy with an erotic video?). But included with it are images of excessive wealth and messages that I simply object to—I want Beyoncé to be more than just “the girl he likes.” Beyoncé might offer the thesis to her record in this line: feminists like sex. (And if “Rocket” is any indication, sex is all about orgasms.) Apparently, it’s a widely held stereotype that they don’t. But one has to wonder what good Beyoncé is doing to women by producing such a gratuitous album. She’s anything but an “every woman.” She might only be paving the way for herself.

The record is supposed to be a feminist anthem. The idea is that women can’t be sexual and men have monopolized that industry. And truth be told, men produce like this all the time and perhaps don’t get the same level of grief that Beyoncé does for this one—so I get her point. And I think it’s absolutely her right to do this. And I don’t think anyone should stop her (she doesn’t either, “Superpower” makes that clear).

But Beyoncé holds a powerful position and she needs to be conscious of everything she’s teaching us. She needs to be responsible. When we hold such power, we need to realize that we are leading no matter what (Jesus says, “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you.). This record is allegedly about the power of women and for some could be seen as a feminist anthem; Beyoncé is expressing in ways that women fear to. But there’s more to the story. One can offer a postmodern justification to the record, but here’s what we need to answer:  will a teenager a postmodernists perspective? If not, Beyonce is wrong and irresponsible because more than anyone that is who she is influencing Moreover, it seems like Queen Bey is just reacting to the over-the-topness of Miley Cyrus, Katy Perry, Rihanna, and Lady Gaga.

Pitchfork retorts that notion this way:

It’s tempting to read Beyoncé’s hard edges as an attempt to ride the success of Rihanna or Miley Cyrus’ risqué agendas—but to do so would be to look past the album’s true provocations. Beyoncé pushes boundaries not because it sells sex at every turn, but because it treats a power-balanced marriage as a place where sexuality thrives.

Even if Pitchfork is right (and it is about sex selling at every turn), and the record is mainly about good sex in a marriage, we are still teaching the world something by broadcasting our sex life. I’m not there yet, and I’m not sure Jesus wants us there. I think the record is deeper than that, I think it’s about personal expression at all costs. I always get lost in the personal rights conversation because Jesus has already undone my shackles. I’m free. I can do anything and no one can stop me. I don’t even need to prove that to you to show that it’s true. So in my freedom in Christ, I want to make good decisions, not just rebellious ones. After all, my freedom is rooted in Jesus, and that my freedom was bought at a price. My actions then are measured differently; it’s not just a question of if I can, it’s a question of should I? I need to be conscious of what I’m influencing people to do and make good choices. I wish Beyoncé did more of that on this record—she clearly is a conscious, strong, and brilliant woman—I think her gratuity undermines that and I think she ultimately disrespects herself.

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