Andrew Anderson is the studying the evolution of artists through their music videos
Sasha Fierce, Queen Bee or simply Bey; whatever you call her there’s no getting away from the fact that Beyoncé is at the pinnacle of pop monarchy. Whether she’s releasing videos, albums or babies, people give a shit. This stuff matters.
Rather like Michael Jackson, Beyoncé is an artist who has done a lot of her growing up in the public eye. She’s been in bands since she was just nine, starting with Girl’s Tyme, which evolved into Destiny’s Child – the fourth best-selling female group ever – before going solo in 2003 and becoming everyone’s favourite high-note wailing warbler.
Now some 14 years later she’s not so much a pop star as a living aspirational artwork. So how did we find ourselves living in the reign of Queen Bey? Let’s go back to the beginning and find out.
Crazy in Love (2003)
This is where Beyoncé the Pop Behemoth began, with a hit that’s bigger than an Antony Joshua punch to the face. The music video was also considered a success – though frankly you could have paired this banger up with a slowmo of a dog taking a shit and you’d still have a winner – gathering a gaggle of gongs at the MTV Video Music Awards.
Looking back it’s hard to understand why, because frankly, it’s not very good. Beyoncé writhes around a lot, using moves that are more part-time stripper than coherent choreographic composition. She bursts some bubble gum bubbles, gets water poured all over her, licks her fingers and does a good deal of what today you’d call twerking but back then was known as shaking your arse. She also wears an expensive looking fur coat while a car explodes.
Taken all together, ‘Crazy in Love’ feels like it was conceived by a focus group made up exclusively of Nuts (RIP) readers; a work of art this ain’t. But what Beyoncé did next was a bit different.
Here’s where things start to get interesting. Gone is Beyoncé the sexy plastic Barbie and in comes Beyoncé the player of reference roulette. ’50s actresses, ’60s colour schemes, ’70s style motifs and ’80s ballet are all alluded to in a split-screen, splatter-paint approach that is both visually compelling and slightly sickening, like mixing every flavour of ice cream together and then eating it.
The best bits are the stop-motion moments, with Beyoncé impersonating Audrey Hepburn while a kaleidoscope of colours snaps by. The choreography is also very cool, although the fact it was lifted directly from a famous contemporary dance piece called ‘Rosas danst Rosas’ caused a minor controversy at the time.
What’s clear from this video is that Beyoncé now sees herself as more than a pop singer: she’s an all-around artist whose visual and musical output is of equal importance. The only problem with this is that you then have to be judged at a higher standard, and for me, ‘Countdown’ isn’t quite complete. Yes, it looks great in places, but with so many “inspirations” battling for position it is rather too busy – lots of concepts, not so much coherence.
There aren’t many music videos that cause the kind of commotion ‘Formation’ did. Launched just before Beyoncé’s Superbowl appearance in 2016, this is a video that will either resonate or repel, depending on your perspective. For those who think the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was an expression of systematic racism, and support the Black Lives Matter movement, ‘Formation’ is an amazing awareness-raising piece of activism. For those that don’t, it’s probably a bit of a difficult watch.
Whereas in ‘Countdown’ we just got cool visuals, now we have an aesthetic ideal married to a political message. The slave history of the south, the marching bands of Mardi Gras and the ominous power of the police are all evoked. We even see graffiti that says ‘Stop shooting us’. Again, it’s a lot to absorb in less than five minutes, but its density is part of its power – you’re overwhelmed by the sheer weight of Beyoncé’s musical, visual and lyrical argument.
That said, ‘Formation’ has not been without its critics. The embrace of ostentatious wealth – the furs, the jewels, the ‘Givenchy dress’ – does jar. After all, modern day capitalism is the very thing that has crushed Black communities in America and elsewhere – should it really be celebrated as empowerment, even if it is a Black woman with the power? Maybe, maybe not. But Beyoncé is the one making conversations like this happen, and for that we should thank her.
First she made great music (‘Crazy in Love’). Then she became a visual virtuoso (‘Countdown’). Finally with ‘Formation’ we get these two combined with an added message. So is Beyoncé the ultimate music video artist?
I can’t answer that question conclusively, but what I can say is that going through her music video history has given me a new appreciation for her work. Sonically she’s not really my thing – and let’s face it, I’m not the target audience – but I finally get the whole business of Queen Bey. And yes, her unrestrained embrace of wealth is a bit problematic, but when John Lennon sang “imagine no possessions” while surrounded by loads expensive shit we didn’t give him a hard time, because there’s always going to be a compromise of some sorts when pop aims for the profound.
I for one can’t think of anyone else who has so successfully made the journey from throwaway pop star to meaningful music maker. She’s not perfect, but she’s pretty close. Nice one, Beyoncé.
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