Beyoncé’s Visual Album: The Aesthetics of Controversy
Recently, Beyoncé released an unexpected album: Beyoncé. After its release, there has been a few things on the visual album which has or may spark controversy. Such issues range from gender equality to inappropriate religious tones to unauthorized use of auditory samples. The aesthetics of these controversies will be fleshed out by choosing not only visual images, but also auditory images that Beyoncé employs in the album. Since Beyoncé intended every song to have an accompanying visual episode both need to be considered in conjunction with each other.
Although the visuals of Beyoncé are visually striking and for the most part well executed there are some points of controversy within the videos. As all successful art evokes—there are different and perhaps unintended—reactions that the audience has. Some may be positive and others negative, but when does artistic license go too far?
Some images in Beyoncé have conflicting ideas, or unnecessary ones. The visual controversies that I aim to look at are based on six tracks: Mine ft. Drake, Heaven, Pretty Hurts, XO, Flawless ft. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Drunk in Love ft. Jay-Z.
As a departure point for discussion, the image of La pietá was used as the second image (right after the burning font “Mine”). Beyoncé harkens to the sculpture by dressing up as the Virgin Mary revered in Catholicism. She is holding what appears to be a boy lying on the ground, completely white, and sleeping or possibly dead. For those who know this sculpture made by Michelangelo Buonarroti, this is a very significant event in all of Christianity. Jesus has just died and the Virgin Mary weeps for her dead son after his crucifixion. This striking image is also accompanied by various dancers twirling in a frenzy of silk.
This background information is crucial in order to understand why this image is controversial especially to the Christian audience. Those who know of this event in Christianity wonder why the image was even brought forth in a song that is about possession of someone Beyoncé does not want to lose. Throughout the song “You’re mine, you’re mine” is sung, but what does any of this have to do with one of the most sorrowful events in Christian history? I have yet to figure this out, and I speculate that she is not saying that Jesus is her possession since she makes no note of any religious undertones in the song other than the visual image of the reenactment of the post-crucifixion of Jesus.
This is a huge controversy because of the inappropriate use of a holy event to decorate a video in her album. I share the sentiment that it should not have been used since it has no specific use in the video or the song. The attempt to use an image that is so heavily regarded as one of the most important events in Christian history as a decoration for a video and to give it no other use is offensive to those who are of Christian belief. Artistic license does not take precedence over a subject that many people find offensive and inappropriate. The envelope has been pushed and the line crossed.
In the same vein, Heaven adds another religious tone to the album. This time the song is more sorrowful and the setting is a church. While Beyoncé carries a rosary and prays for her friend who has passed she has flashbacks of all the good times she had with her. One such instance of the solidarity between Beyoncé and her friend is when Beyoncé gets a tattoo of the cross in the middle of her chest. The song is a memorial to her friend that “Heaven couldn’t wait for…”
While this may not seem controversial at first glance it has to be taken into the context of the whole album. Beyoncé’s album is a collection of different emotions she has had and feelings that she still struggles with—death being one of them. In the context of the other songs, a very hyper-sexualized nature is embedded heavily in the aesthetics of the album. There are many shots of sexual behavior and sexualized content within the album which heavily contrasts with such a sincere (or seemingly sincere) song as Heaven.
The point made here, though, is that the album is an array of emotions, but Heaven stands out because it is not hyper-sexualized. This is controversial because in the grand scheme of things, having such a video as Heaven, filmed at a church with a dancer writhing in agony conveying Beyoncé’s tone is much more tamed than all of the other films where half-nudity—and even almost full nudity—is ever-present. The juxtaposition of this video in comparison with most of the others leads to the question of why this video would be mixed in with the others since it deeply contrasts with the sexualized nature of the other videos.
Since the album is conveyed through Beyoncés different emotions and feelings, her artistic license is more appropriate in conjunction with the images she displays and the message of her song. There is still a fine line between artistic license and offense—especially when it comes to religion and the misuse of religious symbols.
On a more positive note, the first song in Beyoncé—Pretty Hurts—is a defining on in which Beyoncé sings that “Perfection is a disease of a nation…” and then she goes on to say that being pretty hurts… But how can we trust that a message so seemingly endearing isn’t just a ploy to lure in potential buyers of the song with its “powerful” message. This indeed is a powerful message, but not as powerful when coupled with the fact that Beyoncé is the one singing and performing in the video. There are scenes in which she seems to be bothered by all of the things she is subjected to all for the sake of being “pretty” and “perfect.” With such a heartfelt message, it is not so heartfelt when it is clichéd by now—society understands that “beauty is only skin deep” and “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and “not to judge a book by its cover.”
The way in which this particular track is controversial is because of the images that are put into the video—Beyoncé works out to be in shape, she is probed by a plastic surgeon, she is getting prepped for her stage performance…and so on. The fact that this message is so cliché leads the public to wonder whether Beyoncé actually means what she sings or if she just does it because she is told to do it. A message as overused as this one cannot be one of sincerest intentions—it is an attempt to expose something that has already been exposed. Through this attempt of exposing, Beyoncé exposes herself as trying to seem endearing and failing because the sentiment need not be repeated since everyone is aware of this fact (all of American media bombards the public with images of “perfection” and what it takes to be “beautiful”). The controversy here is whether Beyoncé is in control of what she sings about and whether the sentiment is carried through successfully or if it is just another bad cliché.
XO has been a very controversial track because it starts with the unauthorized an inappropriate use of a 5 second NASA audio clip of the explosion of the Challenger. Since the album’s release many news articles have focused on why it was an inappropriate use of an audio clip and how it offended the families who were affected by the disaster. This is such a controversial topic because it, again, questions whether Beyoncé (or any artist in general) is in control of what they produce. If she was in control she would not have used the audio clip because it is such a controversial and devastating topic. People lost their lives and the use of the audio clip just opened healed wounds. Many articles on the internet such as billboard.com, rollingstone.com, and the tribune.com.pk all attest to how a 5 second sound clip could spark such a controversy that could have been avoided so easily. Here again is when the fine line between artistic license and offense is crossed.
On a more positive, yet still negative note, Flawless is an attempt to promote feminism and the end of gender inequality. This is controversial in the sense that not everyone agrees with feminism and thus there are two sides within the argument of gender equality. The use of the sample of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie voice to promote this message was effective because of the length and the dedication to the message—Adichie’s voice was wholly focused on for a good portion of the track.
Another aspect of controversy within this track is the duality and sort of contradiction that is embedded in the album as a whole in relation to this song. Beyoncé promotes the equality of women as noted by Adichie’s message being played in the song, but what about the rest of the visual album? Throughout the album Beyoncé is hyper-sexualized. Contrasting to Adichie’s message, Beyoncé seems to go against it in some instances such as when she is seen as an item of desire and when she is barely wearing any clothing in some scenes. The typical “booty” shots of Beyoncé and other women resemble the media’s attempt to sexualize women. These types of visual displays of women further perpetuate the objectification of women and thus perpetuate gender inequality.
Drunk In Love
As other articles have looked through the song, Drunk In Love, they have illuminated the fact that one line can ruin a work. The offense that arises is when Jay-Z raps, “Eat the cake Anna Mae, I said eat the cake Anna Mae. I’m nice…” This line refers to the abusive relationship of Tina and Ike Turner in which Ike thrusted cake into Tina’s face and abused her and a friend while in a diner. The fact that Beyoncé mouths the words along with Jay-Z suggests that she thinks that artistic re-interpretations of things won’t be so offensive. Although it might not mean what it is intended, speculation suggests that “cake” refers to the newly constructed meaning that replaces “booty” and other suggestions to that effect. But still, Beyoncé seems to spark controversy because of the attempts to use her creative license in an inappropriate way which ends up crossing the line into offensive territory.
Recently, on the radio explicit parts of the song have also been cut out. Such instances would be the expletives, but one interesting part in particular “if you scared, call that reverend…” (as Beyoncé in the video proceeds to make the sign of the cross) is cut out as well. This, in the video, is controversial first because she made the sign of the cross right in person, but the camera captures the opposite image (such as a mirror); the sign of the cross in the video is reversed. This is very offensive because doing it in the video makes it the reverse which means that people will see her doing the reverse sign of the cross which would upset many people of the Christian faith. Another fact, the audio sample of this part is saying that if the “boy” is too scared to be intimate with her to call the “reverend” suggests an inappropriate use of religious terms. This is controversial too because the fact that this is a religious section, which as stated multiple time before, is a line to be tread very lightly.
The Aesthetics of Controversy
These are the aesthetics of controversy in which artists use their artistic license and sometimes go too far, Beyoncé being only one of myriad examples. Such celebrities who invite controversy are Madonna, Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, and the like. These examples are not to say that women are the culprits of the crime of negative controversy, but those are the main examples of the recent media.
Because Beyoncé decided to make a visual album she is both accountable for the audio and visual images she conveys through a song. She is doubly responsible for understanding that people in today’s society are more sensitive and more vulnerable to being offended than ever before. 21st century society strives for political correctness and correctives.
These examples show that Beyoncé can mean well sometimes, but the execution of the message and the interpretation of the message have to be well thought out before the release of the art work. The art world is full of controversy, but picking and choosing what battles one fights or doesn’t fight is crucial especially when releasing something that millions of people will be listening to or watching. The album as a whole has had tremendous success even though it was not marketed at all and is full of all of these controversies.
There are many things that make this album great, but there are also many aspects that make it offensive and insensitive. I believe that this album sets an example of what to do and what not to do when trying to touch on such sensitive subjects. Creative license can only take a person so far, and offending an audience can be the consequence of trying to portray subjects that people are known to avoid because they are so sensitive. For future reference, artists may want to tread lightly when dealing with topics such as the ones Beyoncé chose to display.
What do you think? Leave a comment.