Zen and the Art of Beyoncé

Apr 15, 2010 | Opinions

I will happily admit that I despise the vast majority of current pop songs. They are, as you say, not my thing, nor are they ever likely to become my thing. My taste in music is varied, weird, and frequently unpredictable.

But I do read a lot, and inevitably I read about music. I happened to spend an enjoyable hour reading through this article by Martin Seay earlier – warning: it is very, very long – and I particularly picked up on his dissection of the Beyoncé song, Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).

The idea of anything written by Beyoncé having hidden depth is, well, frightening to me – but I’d put that down to my natural adversion to most pop music. Mr. Seay puts forward some quite interesting explorations of a song called TiK ToK by Ke$ha (how I wish I was making that up) and how it compares to the Beyoncé single, among other things, and the conclusion seems to be that the Ke$ha song is eminently hateable because it’s about as deep as a puddle on a sunny day.

He has this to say about Single Ladies, though:

Then there’s the way the meaning of the refrain—all the single ladies, put your hands up—blurs and broadens as the song proceeds. The line is of course lifted from standard-issue Friday-night club-DJ patter: an ostensibly playful exhortation for eligible women to identify themselves as such. This moment in a DJ set always comes off as icky, anything but playful, a moment of peak social coercion; it suggests that single women are to be regarded as public property, or that they have (or are) a problem that needs to be solved, or even that they’re simply present (Ladies’ Night!) as prospective quarry for the hapless prowling menfolk who by this point in the evening can’t be trusted to take aim at appropriate targets without a little help. “Single Ladies” sets out to divert and defuse the line’s coercive function, not so much by recontextualizing it through wit or double-entendre—a trick which can only work within the fictional world of the song—but instead by repurposing it along with the gesture it prescribes: we’re asked to see the single ladies’ hand-raising not as an act of acquiescence to or participation in a social ritual that objectifies them, but instead as a celebratory assertion of individual and collective agency…

…The degree to which “Single Ladies” has succeeded in accomplishing its implicit aims is, I humbly submit to you, pretty freaking extraordinary. Let’s set aside for a moment the VMAs and the Grammys, the globe-spanning dance craze, the millions in revenue from album and single and download sales, and consider a single achievement: it is now next to impossible for any DJ anywhere to unselfconsciously command all single ladies within earshot to put their hands up—at least not without the DJ then immediately playing Knowles’s hit, which will proceed to reassure those single ladies that everything is all good, that they have nothing to worry about, and that they should pay no mind to the drunk jerks and enjoy spending time with their girlfriends. This is one of those rare cultural phenomena that can legitimately claim solid practical value: the differences between it and, say, Lincoln’s second inaugural address are not those of quality but of scale. “Single Ladies” is a work of art and a feat of rhetoric that has made the world concretely better.

The song annoys the hell out of me, but still – I wouldn’t normally consider work like that to actually have any deeper meaning, and the article at least made me take a second look. Mainstream media doesn’t naturally lend itself to depth, in my opinion, although obviously it’s not completely adverse to it. The question I would ask, in fact, is whether Mr. Seay is reading something into the song that isn’t there or wasn’t put there by Beyoncé; is there actually a hidden meaning, or is it accidental? I find it hard to say, because I don’t really have an unbiased view.

If there is a meaning there, was it intentional? Does it make the effects, as Mr. Seay describes above, any less valid?

If an outsider reads a certain meaning into a creative work that the author didn’t intend, is that meaning any less valid?

Anyone who’s studied Shakespeare in school would be aware of the dissection of hidden meaning in his work. I know I did, and most of the time I thought that we were searching for something that wasn’t really there. It was enough for me that the sonnets were beautiful, and so I didn’t need to know why he used this particular phrase or word. The same is probably true for Beyoncé’s fans, of course – do they care that Single Ladies might have deeper meaning? I’d say not really. But for someone like me, who’d normally ignore her entirely, the concept of there being a strong underlying message in her songs is fascinating. It’s simply not what you’d expect.

At any rate, having been introduced to the idea of greater depths in Single Ladies, I may be willing to give her other songs more than a outright dismissal.