For millennia, music and performance have been used to evoke emotion, communicate messages, promote agendas, and interpret the nature of the human condition. Performance art has undergone countless evolutions to meet the standards and expectations of the existing social norms of the time. Artists' contributions are often defined and even limited by the boundaries of the cultural tenets of the era in which they create work, but there arise particularly trailblazing artists that transcend the measures of success and ability of their cohorts. Beyoncé Giselle Knowles, born in Houston, Texas on September 4, 1981, is one such renowned artist. Her success throughout her near two decades in the music industry speaks not only to her iconic role as a public figure and performer, but also to the values and desires of the massive consumer base that has kept her popular throughout shifts in pop culture, many of which she has helped to facilitate. While some would say that Beyoncé is overrated, this is an oversimplified assertion that fails to adequately define the scope of her abilities and her impact on popular culture. Beyoncé is a unique artist that has used her two decades of work to straddle the frontiers of music industry standards and to forge a niche in modern pop culture that only she could occupy, evidenced by the evolution of her abilities, her fervent fan base, her passion for social activism, her hard work, and, most importantly, her talent.
Beyoncé has pushed the envelope of today’s performance standards so much so that she is regarded in a category of her own. She is lauded for her tireless work ethic and impeccable talent, and represents, for many, a woman untouchable on the issue of performance ability, but tangible when discussing her dedication to her devoted supporters, social justice, and her love for her family. Before Beyoncé, the world had not yet encountered a performer with the capability to traverse the film, fashion, visual art, and music industries so seamlessly. Artists so often resign themselves to a single medium of work that they feel the most comfortable with or have dedicated most of their skill to, but Beyoncé has starred in films, released massive audio/visual works, and partnered with fashion giants to release commercially successful clothing lines. Her fearlessness may stem, in part, from her knowledge that her ever-growing highly devoted fan base, called the BeyHive, has supported her works since her first years in the industry and refuses to allow her albums to flop, but ultimately draws from her confidence in her own work ethic and abilities, as well as her extensive experience with performance and music.
Beyoncé was only nine years old when she began singing with Girls Tyme, the predecessor to the Grammy-award winning girl group, Destiny’s Child, that first placed Beyoncé smack dab in the eyes of American pop culture consumers with smash hit after smash hit that the singers cranked out[Jod14]. The country became entranced with a woman who seemed to possess the performance abilities and technical prowess of so many icons of the past while captivating audiences with her own talent. Beyoncé’s ability to “belt [a] contemporary ballad” while harnessing the stage spirit of Michael Jackson or ability to utilize the “slippery rhythms” of Hip-Hop while delivering a “fiery gospel testimonial” gave her the edge over her cohorts in the music industry[Jod14]. The quality of her tone compounded with her passion for delivering electrifying performances created what seemed to be the abilities of a “celestial being” although Beyoncé is merely human[ILL16]. But, what is mere about Beyoncé’s fifteen-minute-long MTV 2016 Video Music Awards performance that garnered an intense standing ovation from an audience full of celebrities, performers, actors, athletes, singers, and fans of music[Bey16]? Part of what has made Beyoncé’s superstardom so enduring is that she represents some of the best of what art has to offer. What Beyoncé is doing when she secures the most MTV Video Music Awards of any artist ever, becomes the second-highest Grammy awarded female artist, breaks the Guinness World Record for “fast-selling album on iTunes,” or embarks on a masterfully curated World Tour that grosses over $250 million worldwide, is demonstrating that people, humans, are capable of brilliant acts[Kev13][Ray16]. Beyoncé’s commercial and critical success embodies that she is a mirror of American society’s highest ideals of art.
Beyoncé’s story of success is an inspiration to many people, but particularly to the demographic that she most frequently tailors her music to: women. Throughout her years in the music industry, Beyoncé has made it unabashedly clear that she is for the empowerment of women around the globe to express whatever amount of sexuality, professionalism, ethnic origin, politicism, and uncensored disclosure they feel. Beyoncé’s feminist movement is one that seeks to include people of all genders in the act of empowering women that have been historically stifled, disrespected, and devalued by a patriarchal society. I make the distinction of Beyoncé’s feminism largely because she has created a neo-feminist brand that seeks less to deconstruct the struggle of women in society through an analytical lens, in favor of promoting an image of independence and ability. A large segment of her discography can be interpreted as encouraging women to embrace sexuality and the empowerment that it supplies. Some would criticize Beyoncé for embracing the term of feminist while adhering to some aspects of marriage and motherhood that could be viewed as archaic, but she believes that women’s liberation inherently equips women with the right to assume as many identities within society as they wish to hold[Day15].
Jason LaVeris—FilmMagic/Getty Images
Figure 1. At the 2014 MTV Video Music Awards, Beyoncé incorporated clear feminist themes into her performance, and accepted the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard award later that night.
No stranger to civil discourse, Beyoncé has employed her own image to influence the social justice arena through her use of political images and themes that project messages of her own beliefs. She has been credited with embracing feminism without explicitly adhering to its traditional, or even post-modern in some cases, interpretations[Day15][Jan13]. I believe that Beyoncé has worked to craft a subset of feminism within which she can define her own beliefs that all women should strive towards a degree of independence and that people of all genders can work towards advancing equal rights. Beyoncé’s feminism has maintained an accessibility that allows people subscribe to the idea that the patriarchy has historically censored women, without necessarily entailing the rigid politicism so often misconstrued with the core doctrine of feminism: that society should always be moving towards “social, political, and economic equality of the sexes”[Chi13]. Beyoncé’s feminist brand demonstrates the power that women have, to define their own identities while existing as powerful financial, social, and artistic actors.
Although she has maintained a degree of secrecy surrounding her private life and home affairs, Beyoncé has not shied away from using her position of renown to enact career defining, and thus industry-defining, pursuits. In fact, it may be the sense of uncertainty surrounding her next career move that leaves fans and pop culture contributors so frenzied to partake in Beyoncé’s newest project, and so enthralled when her work becomes a cultural beacon. In 2013, she surprise released her fifth studio album, a self-titled visual collection, on iTunes that consisted of a music video for each individual song. The unconventionally released album boasted a record breaking first week on the iTunes charts and was the “number-one album in 104 out of 119 countries where iTunes is available”[Dav14]. The album’s lasting implications can be felt today, as it served a role in shifting the standard music industry album release day from Tuesday to Friday[And15]. Her ability to dominate the charts and achieve significant commercial success in the time following the album drop, and even within the first day of the album’s sale, without a single promotional effort demonstrates the magnitude of her superstar status. An artistic move this risky could be enough to end an artist’s career should the lack of promotion serve to impede the success of an album release. Similarly, the public had no clue that Beyoncé would be performing at the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards until a single day before the show and she was praised for weeks following the event for staging such a compelling audio/visual feat by utilizing sound and space in a manner that none of the other performers of the night could manage[Mik16][Bey16]. Beyoncé’s role in popular culture gives her the freedom to release art in any manner that she deems necessary, without fear that commercial risks could harm her image.
The weight of Beyoncé’s career may be most apparent, not when analyzing the praise that she so often receives from critics and fans, but when discussing the sourer accounts of her artistic works. Beyoncé grew up in the suburbs of Houston, Texas with a family she loved, and experienced what many would be consider an optimal childhood. Her father notoriously “pushed and pushed” her to hone her musical craft, and could be credited for establishing the work ethic that has served her so well as a CEO and performer[Jos14]. However, Beyoncé’s upbringing lacks the emotional potency that some would argue inspires true art. Music pundits so often expect that extraordinary art be drawn from life’s hardships as well as experiences that test the boundaries of human emotion, and, in many cases, this is true. Beyoncé draws criticism from those who would assert that her genuineness is a fundamental flaw of her art and that her work innately meaningless because of her seemingly picturesque story. However, her ability to appeal to millions of consumers with the emotional depth and technical quality of her music demonstrates that she has eclipsed conventional measures of artistic quality.
Beyoncé’s formation, no pun intended, of a distinct role in American pop culture gives her the ability to shape our emotions. I believe that, besides a stance as an artistic icon, Beyoncé’s career grants her the power to change the hearts and minds of the millions of people that her art reaches, and she uses this power to the utmost of her ability. From using her CFDA Fashion Icon award acceptance speech to call out racism in the fashion industry to using the 2016 Superbowl Halftime Show to promote messages of Black pride, Beyoncé wields her as art as a tool by which she aims to shift society’s attitudes towards various social and political subjects[Nic16][Suz16]. 2016 saw a Beyoncé fixated on advancing “coordinated political action” as she focused her work on racial themes[Kev16]. Beyoncé’s successes represent a shifting “racial era” in the United States in and of themselves, but she has used her own transcendence of white supremacy in the music industry to advocate for the equality of countless more individuals that face systematic racism in America[Far11].
Beyoncé’s authenticity has allowed her to flawlessly merge race, sexuality, gender, and art into a persona that has gained her a cult following, amass record breaking commercial success, and push the boundaries of the music industry. She has worked with some of the best artistic minds of our time, and has inspired many more artists to pursue their passions and use art to advocate for social and political goals. Beyoncé continues to push the boundaries of art to accommodate her vision for activism and expression, and her impact on American pop culture will last for generations to come.
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