Singer, actor, makeup shill, fashion designer and new mother Beyoncé is now also a term paper. A course on offer in the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University is entitled Politicizing Beyoncé. According to a Rutgers website, the class will use Beyoncé’s music and career as “lenses to explore American race, gender, and sexual politics.” Her videos and lyrics will be examined alongside such African-American feminist touchstones as bell hooks, Alice Walker and abolitionist Sojourner Truth.
Every time something like this happens, whether it’s a course in Bob Dylan at Boston University or Lady Gaga at the University of South Carolina, cynical cultural commentators do a giant eye roll followed by a guffaw, bemoaning the decline of standards and morals and taste (oh my!). As one online commenter put it on the Time magazine site under a Beyoncé Goes to College headline: “*headdesk* I just...I CAN’T with this idiocy.”
Yes, bellaluna30: What’s next? Perhaps a course called “Brad Pitt’s Hair: The Semiotics of the Hirsute Celebrity,” in which we examine Brad Pitt’s 2012 return to his early-millennial mullet as postmodern satire. Readings include Derrida, Judges 16 (Samson and Delilah) and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Bernice Bobs Her Hair.
As someone who would take any course on Brad Pitt, and occasionally writes about bodysuits for a living, I don’t generally share this frisson of terror over pop in the academy. For better or worse, pop culture is the dominant culture and deserves, even requires, scrutiny and, on occasion, earnest analysis.
But I wondered why my own eyeballs flew sky high when Kevin Allred, the lecturer teaching the Beyoncé class, said, “While other artists are simply releasing music, she’s creating a grand narrative around her life, her career and her persona.”
The cringe is that Beyoncé hasn’t created a narrative, she’s created an image, and that’s a two-hour lecture, not an entire course. Hers seems to be a story without a protagonist: She almost never writes her own music and was a star before she was an adult. The creators of the Beyoncé grand narrative must be the army of music executives and business consultants carefully building the benevolent cash cow (and now the professor, too, profits from his own narrative about her). She’s not an artist but a performer – a vessel for the culture, but not the culture. Even her exceptional beauty is industrial; she’s the face of L’Oréal.
I don’t think I’ve ever read an interview with Beyoncé in which she’s said anything even mildly controversial or off-script, but she has a dazzling silent smile. Occasionally, the songs she’s chosen – and she’s been sued multiple times for theft of said songs – contain a disposable feminist message (Run the World [Girls]and If I Were A Boy), but she’s also cheerily performed the gender-politically dubious Cater 2 U, in Destiny’s Child, and the danceable, risible Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It). The only conviction she appears to hold is stardom.
And yet – why assume that this cool, contrived success isn’t hers? My own suspicion, shared by many groaners, that she’s a Trojan horse smacks of sexism. That image may be carefully cultivated, but it doesn’t mean she’s a victim or a pawn. I hope that this well-executed plan for world domination is hers, because if she’s not a great artist, she’s a hell of a businessperson.
But that’s a credit that usually goes to Beyoncé’s husband, Jay-Z, whose narrative is stronger, better publicized and forcefully his own (rise from Brooklyn ruffian to multi-platform star). Jay-Z, too, is the subject of a course, this one called Sociology of Hip-Hop: Urban Theodicy of Jay-Z, taught at Georgetown University by Michael Eric Dyson. Somehow the blogosphere didn’t ridicule that one as much.
Which brings us to Lana Del Ray, who was being kicked around the media commons when Beyoncé’s academic bona fides were announced. Less than a year ago, the twentysomething was Lizzy Grant, doing lo-fi mope rock on YouTube. Then she was repackaged with new lips, a retro look and a deeper voice. Her recent debut on Saturday Night Live was universally mocked and the media party line was that the rich father behind her career released her to the wolves before she was ready. Thus, she became a has-been joke before she’d even released a record.
And yet it’s entirely possible that the passive-voiced sentiment that she “was repackaged” is wrong. Perhaps seeing Lizzy Grant as an indie-rock dead end, she actively reinvented herself, down to the Botox. Is it still so hard to believe famous women are the agents of their success or, in Del Ray’s case, failure?
So I can imagine two answers, both viable, to a question that may be asked in the Beyoncé final exam: “In what way does Beyoncé’s career reflect the evolution of Celie, heroine of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, from marginalized teenager to actualized woman?” 1) In no way at all. For the love of God, stop reaching! or: 2) Both touch on women’s ongoing struggle to write their own story.