Why Beyoncé shouldn't inspire feminists, despite her VMAs performance

'Queen Bey' may want to speak but she has nothing compelling to say

Does Beyoncé know what a “feminist” is? Because the Texan Methodist gospel girl who grew up to be a star, and whose last tour was named “The Mrs. Carter Show World Tour,” in honour of her husband, is surely the last person today’s independently-minded, socially liberal, stridently atheist feminists are likely to choose as an inspiration.

For one thing, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter is a registered Republican voter, as are all of her immediate family members. “I grew up in a very nice house in Houston, went to private school all my life and I’ve never even been to the ’hood,” she once told an interviewer, before quickly adding: “Not that there’s anything wrong with the ’hood.”

She sang at Barack Obama’s inauguration, but it wasn’t because she sympathises with his political ideals. “I played at the inauguration because there were a lot of kids in the audience that I wanted to reach, that’s all,” she said afterwards. “Maybe one day I will speak of my political beliefs, but only when I know what I’m talking about.”

Wanting to speak but having nothing to say is a fair summary of the entire Beyoncé project. Even Beyoncé’s name is fake, a forward-thinking corruption of her mother’s maiden surname reimagined as an exotic-sounding epithet by overbearing, fame-hungry parents. “She just wanted to be a normal child,” according to her uncle, Larry Beyince. “She loved to watch cartoons and be with her friends. She was forced into singing. It took away her whole childhood. Everything was geared toward being famous. She used to get angry at [her father] a lot for taking away her childhood. That affected her.”

Knowles-Carter has a reasonable claim to the title of loneliest woman in the world. In the world according to Beyoncé, others are stars, but she is the Sun, emitting a light so blinding it excludes all other sources of radiation. Other artists are refracted through her, and intelligible only in terms of their distance from her. She is Meryl Streep: an overbearing creature who seemingly flattens the rest of the world.

That doesn’t mean she’s not confident—or, at least, that she doesn’t project confidence through spectacle. “I have an authentic, God-given talent, drive, and longevity that will always separate me from everyone else,” she once said, in response to a question about her rivalry with Rihanna.

A preposterous stage arrangement at the O2 Arena, which placed Beyoncé closer to her audience, left the tour operator begging Harry Potter’s film crew for use of the only camera in the world capable of filming it. The conflict between the girl who just wanted to watch cartoons and the immutable, transcendent icon had never been more absurd.

Pyrotechnics, sexual titillation for men and ego boosts for the sisterhood are perhaps the least effective route to female empowerment imaginable. In Beyoncé, it is the male idea of female beauty that finds its highest and most perfect expression. She is what men demand of her, less than the sum of her body parts. Living art, but art that says nothing. Her collaboration with Lady Gaga on Telephone was a perfect marriage; the empty masquerading as the enigmatic.

Beyoncé’s mistake has been thinking that her personal frustrations should be hidden from the public, rather than marshalled as a creative force. We crave authenticity from our celebrities, to the point that reality stars are afforded endless column inches, no matter how odious they appear, if they will only bare their souls to us. Perhaps that’s because Beyoncé has never really felt the urge to sing at all. Great singer-songwriters have one biographical detail in common, above all else: they say that if it weren’t for their music, they’d have died. They need to sing.

There is no agony in a Beyoncé record; only ecstasy. What separates her music from the greats of the past—compare her frivolous riffs with the exquisite torture of late Billie Holiday album Lady in Satin—is the impression that she’s never known pain, and that her heart’s not really in it. That’s not true of all contemporaries, of course. No serious person pays attention to, or can even tell the difference between, those bland girls Taylor Swift and Katy Perry. But consider Céline Dion, who is in so much pain she shares it with us every time she sings. Or Mariah Carey, whose defining professional characteristic is success against the odds.

You can’t have a relationship with a brick wall, which is why, the moment Queen Bey stops releasing feel-good crowd-pleasers, she will evaporate from popular consciousness. Like Lady Gaga, another unspeakably boring performer, Beyoncé the artist has no dark double, no secret, amoral place from which her artistic motivation springs. She and Sasha Fierce, her supposed 2008 alter ego, are the same person: flat, attention-seeking, anodyne. Beyoncé doesn’t appear to believe in anything and she isn’t wrestling with anything either.

So, when she reaches for profundity, she stumbles. “Halo,” which often closes out her shows, is cited as her greatest achievement. But, like her voice, it is technically brilliant but emotionally thin. It’s a spectacle of pomp about stripping down walls, but musically speaking it’s the most superficial and manipulative record she’s ever released. Everything Beyoncé does is predictable, but “Halo” is the most predictable, trashy anthem imaginable. Its climax serves up empty ineffability, like a bad Philip Larkin poem.

And when she demeans herself with terrible attempts to “do politics,” such as that dreadful essay on gender equality, which an Oberlin freshman would have been embarrassed by, it’s simply another way for her to scream: “Please love me.” Everyone wants to be loved, but Beyoncé scales new heights of desperation. If she were capable of humour, we might have written off her feminist statement as a clever provocation. But she is probably the least funny, least cerebral star in the cosmos, so we can’t.

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