Sweary’s Jaw: The Egos Have Landed
Much has been said already about HBO documentary Life Is But A Dream, which is about Beyoncé, narrated by Beyoncé, produced by Beyoncé, co-written by Beyoncé, and co- directed by Beyoncé, but the New York Times highlights something particularly noteworthy.
Alessandra Stanley starts her review of this hagiographical ‘infomercial’ with Beyoncé’s contrast of her public profile with that of legendary artist Nina Simone. Bey wishes to make the point that in Nina Simone’s day, the act of making and selling music was pure and simple. No one needed to know the minutiae of Nina’s day-to-day life. They connected instead with her voice. A far cry from modern times, where singers like Ms. Knowles have to micromanage their public profile so as to appear as bland as possible to appeal to as many people as possible. Poor, poor Beyoncé. Forced by her own megalomaniac compulsions to remain the most flawless, boring-ass woman on the planet.
Joking aside, fans of Nina Simone (once they recover from their swoon) will know straight away the problem with Beyoncé’s hypothesis. Nina may not have had to deal with post-Britney paparazzi, but presenting her as some ethereal artiste characterised by voice and sweet naivety misses the point rather wildly.
Nina Simone was more than just a musician. She was an outspoken figure of the American Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. She was not someone famous simply for her voice. In fact, she was, in many ways, the antithesis of modern-day uber-stars like Beyoncé: Nina Simone was political, opinionated, blunt. As for chart success, she had bigger fish to fry. Her art and identity were inextricably linked to her place in society. She didn’t go to obsessive lengths to shield herself from public criticism. Beyoncé is right to draw a distinction between herself and the original African American diva, but oh so wrong in her conclusion. And, let’s face it, it’s rare that Ms. Knowles veers that far off. Characterised by self-awareness and business acumen, her miscalculated assessment of the difference between her career and Nina Simone’s is completely out of character. So where did it come from?
Perhaps it’s just that her ego got in the way.
Beyoncé deserves her success. There is no doubt at all that the woman is whip smart and works her arse off. All the same, her eagerness to invoke an artist who was veritable worlds apart is telling; Beyoncé might be shrewd to the point of omnipotent in some respects, but she seems unwilling to accept herself for what she is: a light-entertainment pop star. She makes disposable music to shake one’s thang to; she doesn’t possess the capability to change the world with her music. Or maybe she does, but she’s sacrificed it for ubiquity. Beyoncé can bemoan the modern day star’s reliance on public image as a distraction from the art and from the voice, but at the same time she’s embraced it as a very necessary evil. Does Beyoncé ever open herself to controversy? Does she ever let her guard down for the sake of artistic candour? Does she ever leave the house in baggy trackies, with greasy hair and bags under her eyes. No, she does not. Her PR team’s recent (hilarious) appeal to Buzzfeed to take down unflattering images of Beyoncé mid-performance at the Super Bowl half-time show is a case in point. Flawless fierceness is her image and she’s sticking to it. Why, then, complain that the image distracts her from a higher calling? Are we meant to believe she has a higher calling at all?
This embracing one kind of stardom whilst trying to convince one’s public that another is more fitting isn’t exclusive to Beyoncé, not by a long shot, but that doesn’t make it any less tiresome. And Beyoncé’s misjudged reference to a woman whose feet she wouldn’t have been fit to fall at is far from the most irritating display of unwarranted ego in modern pop.
Justin Bieber, famous overgrown moppet with anger issues, has perplexed many people with his recent insistence that he be awarded a Grammy because he sold ALL THE RECORDS. Which is fine. Some might even say he has a point (not us, though, because he’s simply heinous). What’s far more baffling than Justin’s sense of entitlement is the fact that he thinks it’s a good idea to wear it on his sleeve. Now, we know this is the exact opposite of the problem with the skin-deep appeal of Beyoncé, a woman who’s usually so featureless, the Dutch could build a society on her. Justin is merely being honest with his fans, airing his stroppy linen in public. The question here is how is Justin Bieber, whose star is just as big as Beyoncé’s, so clueless about grace that he’s reduced to complaining to an army of twelve year olds? Does he believe an unwieldy ego is a charming accessory?
A star’s ego has become something prematurely inflated and employed as a means of distinguishing them from their peers. Kanye West has enjoyed cartoonish success with a sense of self-worth unique for its charming artlessness; Justin Bieber would do well to note that word ‘unique’, and realise that it’s not at all easy to make entitlement likeable. Beyoncé’s management of her own image would be laudable, if it weren’t for the fact that she’s driven to complain about it. This slip-up in self-awareness does nothing but erode the veneer, when Beyoncé should know more than any of us that veneer is all she has.
So yes, one might well yearn for a time when musicians relied on their talent rather than on their publicity stills and product endorsements, or on the flash-in-the-pan devotion of their Twitter followers. In that sense, Beyoncé’s right; it was much better in Nina Simone’s day. Just not in the way Bey thinks it was.