The New Yorker’s theater critic, Hilton Als, published a review of Beyoncé’s Formation album and tour this week titled “Beywatch.” “The truth is I wasn’t much interested in her,” he writes late in the piece, “until her sister, Solange Knowles, was caught on camera beating Jay Z’s ass in a hotel elevator in 2014.”
Als is one of my all-time favorites, but his latest represents a very real problem of writing critically about music in the internet era: the notion that all opinions are worthwhile and valid despite any absence of background in the topic. Impulse and emotion have superseded the equal weight of learned experience. It’s a critical equivalent to poptimism, in other words.
The last two years have seen a litany of mainly white men arguing about poptimism—that fairly new bugbear which holds, among other things, that as pop music coalesces into a kind of cultural religion, music critics are softening into consensus fans and cheerleaders. Parallel to this conversation, we’ve witnessed the rise of the notion that every critic should be at least nominally fluent in pop music—and not only that, but that they should write about it. (Or, more specifically, that they should be allowed to write about it, no matter their background or level of actual interest in the subject at hand.) This is particularly manifest when it comes to Beyoncé, and more specifically in the wake of Beyoncé, the December 2013 surprise album that seemed to ossify the notion that all music critics are generalists. Beyoncé reviews made clear the writers’ lack of background knowledge or current perspective on Beyoncé as an artist or a performer (and in several reviews the most basic working understanding of Destiny’s Child seemed totally absent). They left holes where there should have been contextual history for the artist, and filled others with sweeping generalizations.
Als’s review suffers from a similarly misguided confidence. This is not to say his prose is bad—it never is, he’s a master stylist—just that, in many places, it’s plainly wrong. It starts out promising enough, and in the first few paragraphs I was hopeful that he was, in fact, writing a corrective to much of the bad writing about Beyoncé, as well as making clear-eyed points about race and gender and sexuality, as he always does.
He begins by describing the fans outside a stop on the Formation tour in Houston, Beyoncé’s hometown, and refers to the types of outfits they’re wearing, beelining straight for the bum. It’s not a judgment or a creepy reference; he spends several lines referring to the ascendance of the booty as a measure of physical beauty in white, mainstream, American pop culture, both referring to “Bootylicious” and reclaiming for black women and/or Latinas the more recent narrative that white women like Kim Kardashian and Instagram fitness star Jen Selter are the reason for the booty’s “resurgence”:
Thanks to Destiny’s Child—and to Experience Unlimited’s 1988 hit “Da Butt,” Jennifer Lopez as a Fly Girl on “In Living Color,” and Sir Mix-a-Lot’s 1992 rap “Baby Got Back”—big butts became big business, and the emblem of a pervasive colored style. (Which they still are, at least on Planet Beyoncé. In a recent parody video, the comedian Amy Schumer weighs in on her own ass: “Used to be concerned that my booty was too fat / But now I know the truth and that worry has been shot / Big booty’s what they want and big booty’s what I got.”)
(The New Yorker’s copy editors also seem here to have unfortunately corrected “pum pum shorts”—Jamaican slang for hotpants—to “pom pom shorts,” likely one of the hazards of writing about non-Eurocentric culture for a tony publication such as this. Adjacent to this, and perhaps another fact-checking snafu, comes when Als refers to the video for “Hold Up” as having roots in “[Jean-Paul] Goude’s 2007 commercial for the perfume Covet” starring Sarah Jessica Parker, when it has been widely discussed that, in fact, it is a near shot-for-shot recreation of Pipilotti Rist’s 1997 art installation Ever Is Over All.)
In Als’s musings about Destiny’s Child, he notes that initially, their style was “more pop than rap or hip-hop, so white girls didn’t feel shut out of the band’s simple get-jiggy-with-it teen-age view of what young women were capable of, including self-knowledge and power.” But as the group evolved, he writes, they “began slipping a little flavor into its vanilla, making the black female body more central to the group’s message of self-empowerment.”
This is a side of writing Als excels in, the way he finds the exact most important point and lasers in on it; he seemed to be laying the tracks to discuss the way Beyoncé has become incrementally more radicalized in the sorts of imagery she puts to the world—culminating, of course, with the document and affirmation of black woman power that is Lemonade—and how she’s done so in an increasingly tightening capitalist estuary despite (or in harmony with) her vested business interests.
Als has the foundation and background knowledge to make this point, and that read as a relief to me. So much writing around Beyoncé’s feminism—handwringing, really—has either purposely overlooked or been wholly ignorant to the fact that a certain kind of pop feminism has been integral to her entire career and oeuvre, back through Destiny’s Child and arguably right down to Girl’s Tyme, the Star Search group she formed when she was nine. Beyoncé’s been singing about black woman power—with a dip here and there into gender essentialism, sure—but her body was apparently too bootylicious for many critics working today to notice.
But Als gets it, and he writes:
On the whole, Beyoncé’s lyrics operate on a kind of continuum. The underlying message: Men will try to control you by dictating the limits of your pleasure, your ambition, your success. Get yours before they rip you off, emotionally or otherwise.
In a way, this is Als at his best. But Beyoncé’s lyrics haven’t always had to do with men. He offers a fundamental misreading of “Survivor,” citing the line, “You thought that I’d be stressed without you but I’m chillin’/You thought I wouldn’t sell without you, sold nine million” as “telling some dude to fuck off”—a song that has nothing to do with a lover, and everything to do with former members of Destiny’s Child, to the point of litigation—before expanding the same argument to contain Lemonade: that Beyoncé’s work is entirely constructed upon her interactions with, and relation to, dudes.
That is the lens through which Als sees her music: that Beyoncé does not really exist outside the spectrum of a man providing a locus, or working as a foil. Lemonade, Als writes, “derives its peculiar power from a number of tensions that feel new for Beyoncé, not least of which is how to position herself in a visual culture where the hideous (such as clips of Eric Garner’s choking death on smartphones) trumps being bootylicious.”
It’s here where Als’s argument falls into a stereotypical critic trap: he defaults into binary thinking, and worse, the kind of binary thinking that defined the old fights between independent and corporate, patsy and artisan. He sets Beyoncé’s legacy up against another woman artist:
Still, I couldn’t help thinking, when I first saw the video, of the sonic and lyrical daring of another Texas-born artist, Erykah Badu.
This dichotomy may have made more sense before the reach of the internet turned the music industry (or what’s left of it) into a succession of gray areas, where almost everyone is being paid, if they’re being paid, with some kind of shady corporate money. Als’s assumptions here—that Beyoncé is not really an artist--are slightly chauvinistic, and thereby derisive, hinged on a shaky either-or assessment of Badu. He compares “Formation” to Badu’s excellent 2010 “Window Seat” video, and postulates Badu as an artist and Beyoncé as someone who “would never risk being unpopular; she wouldn’t know what the world was without her star hovering above it, even if it’s sometimes obscured by man-shaped clouds.”
(If we want to talk “risks,” recall that Beyoncé’s “Formation” video earned her national protests and a police boycott just three months ago, and that she and her dancers performed at Super Bowl 50—viewed by 115.5 million people—dressed as Black Panthers.)
And this surface observation:
In this way, Beyoncé gave the black and Hispanic women I saw outside and then inside the NRG permission to flaunt the things that make them unpopular in a world that thrives on Beyoncé-style klieg-light success: their coloredness and their weight. As pleasurable as that was to witness, the means by which Queen Bey, as many of her fans call her, has achieved her success worried me. None of it has been separable from men.
A main piece of evidence Als uses for Beyoncé’s supposed inextricability with men, aside from the misreadings of her lyrics, is that Lemonade benefits Tidal, “her husband’s music-streaming service.” But Beyoncé, in fact, is a part owner of Tidal, a fact that has evaded much of the discourse around Lemonade’s success.
The tendency to assess Beyoncé and her work based on surface observations and presumptions due to the strata in which she works and how she presents herself, is not good criticism at all, and yet it happens all too frequently: so frequently that countering the foundations of this weak criticism often seems like defending Beyoncé just because. This has created an even greater schism between the male critical establishment and whoever would criticize them, and a sense that it’s not worth separating a Beyhive member from anyone who would point out that many people who write about Beyoncé in publications with large audiences often don’t have any business doing so, or separating either kind of person from a poptimist.
Nevertheless, it’s the women in the Beyhive—“the black and Hispanic women I saw outside”—who get the most out of so-called poptimism, and who may have created the very climate in which it flourishes. It’s women and girls, predominantly black and/or Latina, whose existences benefit from Beyoncé’s public acceptance.
It’s not necessarily just that she’s their queen. They’re not demanding critics worship her, per se. But they do require a basic level of accountability, a working basis of knowledge. It’s Als’s duty, as a critic, to try and understand why they’ve been passionate about Beyoncé for so many years before her sister clocked her husband in an elevator, and to give proper, accurate context to what that means within the spectrum of her career. The biggest failing of poptimism (or rockism) is the assumption that any piece of art deserves more or less consideration because of how vast—or how little—its reach.
Photo via AP.