December 12, 2013, was just another Thursday night during finals week at UCI.
Then, minutes before midnight, the studying was brought to a halt. Facebook blew up with statuses, journalists typed and published quick online articles, and celebrities took their thoughts to Twitter. It was midnight, but America had never seemed so alive.
Suddenly, without warning and without explanation, Beyoncé had quietly released her long-awaited fifth album on iTunes, complete with 14 songs and 17 music videos.
“I felt like I don’t want anybody to give the message when my record is coming out. I just want this to come out when it’s ready, and from me to my fans,” Beyoncé, in an announcement on her Facebook page, later explained.
The self-titled visual album offered no advertisements or promotions, yet it had the highest first week sales of Beyoncé’s solo career, and just six days after its release it had sold one million copies worldwide. No other artist had ever utilized their fanbase in such a way before. Beyoncégeddon had arrived.
While Queen Bey has always been known for her strong vocals in her R&B hits, she also highlights her strong stance on female empowerment in her newest album. “Beyoncé” explores the topic of womanhood even further, shedding raw light on topics such as body-shaming and sex.
“Pretty Hurts,” the first song on the minimalistic, black-and-pink album, addresses America’s unhealthy standards for beauty. The music video brings in one of Beyoncé’s alter-egos, Ms. 3rd Ward, a contestant in a beauty pageant who is plagued by societal ideals like “blonder hair, flatter chest.” “Perfection is a disease of a nation,” she warns before her character runs into a bathroom to force herself to throw up. The song, especially when accompanied by the video, is emotional and above all, a critique of society’s expectations for women and young girls.
“Flawless” is her unapologetic backfire against the crushing constrictions of femininity explored in “Pretty Hurts.” The video opens with Girls Tyme, an all girls group from Houston including Beyonce and Kelly of Destiny’s Child, competing in Star Seach. The video jumps to Beyonce who explains, with the first lines of the song, that attacks on her life are a casualty of jealousy. “You dreamt of being in my world … Respect that, bow down bitches.” Beyonce rubs her stomach saying “I took some time to live my life, but don’t think I’m just his little wife,” referencing the birth of her daughter and marriage to Jay-Z. Some critics have attacked Beyonce’s use of the phrase “Bow down bitches” as being anti-feminist, but the whole of “Flawless,” along with its video, refutes those simplified critiques.
“Flawless” features an excerpt from TedTalk by female writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche. The first statement featured in the video from Adiche’s talk depics how we “teach girls to shrink themselves” to have ambition, but not too much that it may disrupt society’s docile view of femininity. Beyonce refuses to shrink herself, and “Flawless” is the cursory overview of her attitude. She is unapologetic and agressive, moshing in a crowd of punk-dressed people, glaring at the camera and gritting her teeth. Beyonce casts her confident reign over those who she demands respect from — everyone. The excerpt from Adiche doesn’t make the video nor the song ‘feminist,’ because “Flawless” is femme strong with or without the exerpt. Like Beyonce repeating, “I woke up like this (flawless),” the excerpt reiterates Beyonce’s message of personal power in the contemporary female.
The video ends with Girl Tyme losing the Star Search competition, reiterating the idea of empowerment through self-confidence. “Flawless” capitalizes on necessary acceptance of self-image. Beyonce’s genuine acceptance of herself, especially in different roles, is repeated thematically through the album. In “Jealous” she talks candidly about the difficulties in her marriage saying, “And I love making you jealous but don’t judge me … I’m just jealous./ I’m just human.” Again in “Mine” Beyonce is awestrikingly honest about relationships and self-worth. She writes, “Been having conversations about break-ups and separations/ I’m not feeling like myself since the baby.” Her wavers with self-doubt relate her diva/human dichotomy to the Beyonce in “Flawless.”
Her album may have dropped out of the blue for her fans, but it’s clear that Beyonce painstakingly worked on her album for months; each lyric and every video concept is deliberate and articulate. Some fans might be attracted to the multiple collaborations –– Drake, Frank Ocean and of course, Jay-Z are featured, not to mention a cameo from Baby Blue Ivy herself –– but the strength in “Beyonce” ultimately comes from the raw and emotional lyrics she belts. Whether embracing her sexuality in songs like “Blow” or “Rocket” or addressing the vulnerability of her marriage with Jay-Z in “Mine,” Beyonce establishes an intimate connection with her fans and stays as true to herself as ever.