This robot is SO not a dick in drag part 2: Beyonce
So, when Madonna is presented with the choice “human or posthuman”?, she clearly chooses humanism (and reproductive futurity). Beyonce, on the other hand, always chooses the posthuman (and a futurity that is not necessarily “reproductive” in the way hetero-whiteness wants it to be). I’ve written extensively about Beyonce’s posthumanism, both here on this blog and in academic journals, so I’ll just provide some links rather than re-hash what I’ve already said.
My article in the Journal of Popular music studies, “Robo Diva R&B”: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1533-1598.2008.00171.x/pdf
“To the LEFT!”
What is particularly interesting about Beyonce is that most her songs can be read literally and figuratively. In the “literal” reading, she seems to be reaffirming white heteropatriarchy, but in the “figurative” reading she’s subverting it. So, while the literal reading is somewhat reactionary, the figurative reading is “to the left” of that. Take, for example, “Irreplaceable”: while the vocal delivery makes it seem like a standard weepy woman is mourning the loss of her lover, the lyrics reveal that the opposite is in fact true, that dude is totally replaceable. What I particularly love about this track is how its intro references none other than industrial band Nitzer Ebb’s “Violent Playground.” Note how both songs command us “to the LEFT, to the LEFT!”:
Though the aesthetics of these songs are quite divergent, they both use (rhythm) synthesizers to lay out their respective rhythmic foundations. Also, the drum pattern in “Irreplaceable” is not too far off the canonical “Amen Break.” Note too that the narrative climax of “Irreplaceable” has Bey as the frontwoman of a rock band. Finally, if “Violent Playground” is about hypermasculinity (“We are the boys/we are the big boys”), “Irreplaceable” lets those boys know that they aren’t all that. SOOO, what we have in “Irreplaceable” is Beyonce in dialogue with industrial (via N.E.) and techno/jungle (via the quasi-Amen Break), singing a song about her rejection of patriarchal norms about female sexuality (e.g., she should “stand by her man,” that a woman shouldn’t have too many sexual partners, etc.). Technology + rejection of white heteropatriarchy = part of Bey’s Afrofuturist posthumanism.
More interesting in this regard is her song “Radio”. While “Irreplaceable” shows that men let Bey down, “Radio” lets us know that the radio is the real object of her affection, b/c it “never lets [her] down”. Take a listen:
It’s also worth looking at her live performance of the song, where dancers are dressed as robots and she’s wearing some sort of robo-Wonder-Woman costume:
Anyway, the lyrics of the song basically say that Bey loves to take advantage of the fact that bass-heavy records, when played in a car with an adequate sub woofer, function more or less like vibrators.
When I get into my car, I turn it up
And I hear vibrations all up in my trunk
And the bassline be rattlin through my seat
And that crazy feelin starts happening
Beyonce not only chooses the robot, she screws the robot. So, in this song, Bey argues that white heteropatriarchy always lets women—especially women of color—down. Technology—cars, stereos, the radio, dance records, synths, drum machines, etc.—never lets her down. This is consistent with my reading in the “Robo-Diva” article, where I argue that Beyonce uses Afrofuturist feminism to reclaim/revalue black female sexuality. This tactic is also used by Kelis, whose “Acapella” video shows Afrofuturist posthumanism as a context in which black motherhood is valued (while, obviously, in humanism it is devalued—see, for example, Moynihan report, “welfare mothers,” “anchor babies” etc.). I’ve written a previous post about the Kelis video, which you can find by searching her name up in the top left corner of this page.
How is this Afrofuturist posthumanism queer, then? Lee Edelman identifies queerness as the ““perpetual repetition” (10) that is “secreted” by the idea of sexual reproduction. “Queerness…empty, excessive, and irreducible, it designates the letter, the formal element, the lifeless machinery responsible for animating the ‘spirit’ of futurity” (Edelman 27; emphasis added). Similarly, black musicologists have argued that Western musics “secret” the work/role of repetition: as Tricia Rose explains, James “Snead claims that European culture ‘secrets’ repetition, categorizing it as progression or regression, assigning accumulation and growth or stagnation to motion, whereas black cultures highlight the observance of repetition, perceiving it as circulation, equilibrium…: ‘In European culture, repetition must be seen to be not just circulation and flow, but accumulation and growth. In black culture, the thing is there for you to pick up when you come back to get it” (Rose, Black Noise, 69). Afro-diasporic musical traditions privilege the very repetition—often machinic repetition, performed by synthesizers and/or samplers—that white Western heteropatriarchy attempts to disavow and devalue. In choosing the robot—lifeless machinery in perpetual repetition—one chooses queerness (at least in Edelman’s sense). Robots don’t reproduce, they replicate.
Beyonce’s friends are most certainly electric. She chooses—and indeed screws—the robot because she recognizes Afrofuturist posthumanism as an alternative to white heteropatriarchal humanism’s devaluation of black female sexuality.
Beyonce represents posthumanism, and Madonna, humanism. Between these two extremes is Lady Gaga, who sometimes chooses the posthuman. More on Gaga in the next installment in this series.