I didn’t want to say this for awhile but it’s time to say it. I am going to write something negative about Beyoncé Knowles and I think it’s true and I am just as sad as anyone to say it but this eternal positivity return needs to end now. Doxx me if you want, I dgaf, my SSN and bank account are public information anyway – **the “7/11” video is not that good and Beyoncé’s PR is falling apart.** We are nearing the end of one of pop music’s greatest dynasties and this is ok because it was a good run and the future looks bright.
This is a dangerous game to play. Let’s take it step by step.
1. THE BIRTH OF BEYONCE OUT OF THE SPIRIT OF INFORMATION – Destiny’s Child came up at the tail end of the MTV era – Beyoncé’s solo career developed in the iTunes/Yahoo Music era and exploded in the Youtube era. It’s hard to remember, but there was a time – between 2001-ish and 2006 – when there was nowhere to consistently watch music videos other than corporate streaming websites. Hard to remember as it may be, there was once a time very recently when you had to click through a catalog and hope that your favorite artist’s videos were up there and then they never were and it was funny to make jokes about “buffering.” It was a weird time. The entertainment industry was transitioning to the internet, but personal technology hadn’t quite caught up. Stars existed at a peculiar level of removal from real life – they weren’t constantly on the TV anymore, but they weren’t instantly accessible via the painfully slow internet. The people who made it through did so with major scandals (Paris Hilton, Britney Spears) and major radio hits (Usher, Britney Spears).
Beyoncé was big during this period (five top 10 singles, three of them no. 1, one of them “Crazy In Love”), but she wasn’t huge. She stayed out of tabloids and remained a consistent, but hardly dominant, top-40 radio presence. She wasn’t the queen of anything and no one claimed otherwise. Instead of domination, she focused on what would become her signature trait – absolute perfection. She churned out spectacular music videos. She began a much publicized monogamous relationship with ascendent King of Hip Hop Jay-Z. She controlled her public image to a tee – not a single unflattering photograph, not a single wrong word spoken. In fact, hardly a word spoken at all. You saw Beyoncé when she wanted you to see her, how she wanted you to see her. Image was easier to control back, and Beyoncé controlled hers like a presidential candidate.*
2A. THE YOUTUBE REVOLUTION – Youtube replaced the previous corporate video streaming structure with a new corporate video streaming structure disguised as “freedom.” Suddenly every music video ever was there, all the time, instantly. Beyoncé hit the ground running with a perfect track record and the massively successful single and video “Irreplaceable.” Other artists had to face the embarrassment of long-buried less-than-stellar moments suddenly bubbling back to the surface, but Beyoncé had no such moments. All she had was a clean slate on which to build an even more constant state of perfection.
2B. THE 24-HOUR CELEBRITY NEWS CYCLE – Beyond Youtube, the growth of the internet transformed, and continues to transform, celebrity PR. In the 1990s if you could keep yr shit together on live TV, put out solid music videos, and pay yr lawyers to keep scandal out of the tabloids, you were good to go. Hacking, TMZ, Perez Hilton, and the 24-hour celebrity news cycle changed this – suddenly anyone could break any story at any time. Bad moments could go viral before they even made it to television. Everything you did had to be perfect all of the time.
3. BEYGENCY REGENCY – From around 2006 to 2013, no one on earth was better at being perfect all of the time than Beyoncé Knowles. There are better dancers than Beyoncé. There are better singers than Beyoncé. Most people are better songwriters than Beyoncé. Very few people are more beautiful than Beyoncé, but beauty doesn’t get you as far as people like to make you think. But Beyoncé’s true talent, at which she excels greater than almost anyone else, is PR. She is immaculately good at being famous. She knows (or her people know) who to pay to give her the best music videos, the best production, and the absolute best media presence. If Beyoncé made any mistakes in the first 20 years of her career, no one knows about them. I can only think of one potential scandal, and who came to save her? Aretha Franklin. Queen-to-queen solidarity.
Beyoncé’s PR, combined with her looks, her talent, her choreography, and her immaculate past, allowed her to excel within the new media format, essentially out-perfecting everyone else on the planet. She was so good at being perfect all the time that when actually being perfect **all** the time mattered, she was completely prepared for the challenge. The result was universal love, critical coronation, and some of the best music videos of all time (THE BEST VIDEOS OF ALL TIME).
4. “BEYONCE” – Beyoncé rode the 24-hour video cycle to it’s absolute peak in 2013, surprise-releasing her imperial self-titled video album to so much much acclaim that you’d think the term “poptimism” had been invented to describe her career. Many, many thinkpieces have been written about “Beyoncé”‘s unique position in contemporary popular music marketing. A lot of them focus on the power-play aspect of the release and it’s ability to reinvigorate public interest in the album format. This misses the point – “Beyoncé”‘s surprise release wasn’t a power move so much as an act of defiance. “Beyoncé” didn’t reinvigorate “the album” – it attempted to return the album to a vaunted state that has no relevance in contemporary culture. It was impossible to watch most of the videos from “Beyoncé” on Youtube until last week.** Illegal downloads result in warning letters from ISPs. The only other person who fights this hard against the sharing of his image is Prince. “Beyoncé” sold many, many units, but it refused to play the game of contemporary pop music. It succeeded, it’s phenomenal, but it’s less an anamoly than the end of the era. It may be the last album of its kind.
5A. “THE AGE OF SOCIAL” – In a feature with the “New Yorker” last month, AOL’s “digital prophet” David Shing (“Shingy”) declared the death of the “age of information” and the birth of “the age of social.” This may have been a throw-away comment, but it’s true enough. The first decade and a half of the post-9/11 era were defined by constant access to information all the time from official providers of information – Yahoo Music, Pitchfork, Beyoncé. If you controlled your output (your information), you excelled. This age is over – in the “social age” your classmate’s Facebook is just as informative as Gawker; your mother’s opinion matters just as much as Ian Cohen’s. Controlling yr image isn’t enough anymore – you have to be yr image, completely, all the time. Every act is output. Every word is cannon. You no longer represent a brand – you are a brand.
The “age of social” has no real start point – we’re still in transition. But a symbolic start of the era might as well be the month Twitter’s stock went public and quickly ascended to out-value New York Time’s – December 2013. The same month that Beyoncé surprise-released “Beyoncé.”
5B. BEY & JAY v. KIM & ‘YE – Beyoncé’s PR team is not equipped for the age of social – they do not know how to use social media to build her brand. Her Twitter has a total of 8 tweets. Her Instagram is boring and sometimes badly photoshopped (as opposed to hilariously photoshopped – see, the Kardashians). She does not interact with fans. I do not know her opinion on anything (even FEMINISM). She is removed from the world and above my existence. For the past 20 years, this was admirable – do you, celebrities, keep your lives private. Now, it’s creepy and sort of insulting. Ariana Grande will send me a DM if I prove that I love her hard enough. Taylor Swift will invite me into her own home and give me cookies. Kim Kardashian will let me watch her have sex with Ray J (find yr own link). Beyoncé will barely even show me her baby.
6A. “SHIT GO DOWN WHEN IT’S A BILLION DOLLARS ON AN ELEVATOR” – There are three Beyoncé videos that matter in 2014. The first is the elevator incident, the first and only real scandal in the history of the Knowles family. It is major and depending on what type of person you are either hilarious or genuinely painful to watch. It may have been tolerable if it was one in a long stream of shared documents of Beyoncé and Jay Z’s personal life, but as the only private video the public has ever seen it is remarkably hard to take.
6B. “7/11” – The second is the officially released social-media-inspired music video for “7/11.” “7/11” is Beyoncé’s attempt to use social media-style sharing to promote her “real” image. She’s in a hotel – she uses Lubriderm – Blue Ivy is on the bed – Jay Z might be doing summersaults. It looks like a less pornographic WorldStar Vine Compilation (again, links on yr own). In the context of Beyoncé’s career it is without precedent and completely unbelievable.
6C. THE QUEEN AT REST – “The third is a recently released video of the Carter-Knowleses at a Nets game. Beyoncé talks to Jay from time to time, but for most of the video’s 2:45 run Beyoncé stares blankly into space and rocks back and forth. She looks broken and empty. This is ok – most people look broken and empty 70% of the time. But in the context of videos of Beyoncé – most of which feature her dancing and looking “fierce” – it’s disturbing. She looks like a hollow shell of a human that only gets its insides scooped back into it for the four-minute duration of a music video.
7. THIS IS THE END – Great PR happens when nobody talks about what great PR you have. People who are truly good at being famous are just famous. The second someone starts talking about your amazing PR, your PR starts to fall apart. People who work in PR see through everything – but when ordinary people start to figure out what you’re doing, you know that you’re almost done doing it.
For 15 years, Beyoncé was amazing at being famous. There was no one on the planet who was better at it. Now, in 2014, everyone knows what she’s up to. She is increasingly famous for being good at being famous. This – her greatest talent – depends on its lack of acknowledgement. It has been acknowledged. She’s been exposed. Her beauty and singing and dancing will continue to cut it (they are all phenomenal), but her PR is outdated. Her imperial period is over.
No one should ever forget how good Beyoncé was between “Crazy In Love” and “Beyoncé.” Her image from 2003 to 2014 is akin to Mariah Carey’s singing and songwriting between 1990 and 1997. Now she’s nearing her “Rainbows.” Hopefully her “Glitter” will never happen. She is one of the greatest talents we have ever known. But talents get outdated. We’ve entered a new era of PR that rejects perfection and revels in the glory of constantly streaming fuck ups. Beyoncé isn’t equipped for that. Her highs are too high and her lows aren’t interesting enough.
Long live Queen Bey. All hail the Queen Ascendent.
* This seems like a good place to remind the world of the existence of the Beyoncé Vault, a mysterious room hidden somewhere in the Carter-Knowles estate where every single thing that ever happened to Beyoncé is obsessively archived for the purpose of total media control. If this doesn’t disturb you just a little bit then you are remarkably tolerant of compulsive personality disorders/maybe evil.
** The official Vevo release of the previously for-purchase-only “Beyoncé” videos is, more than anything else, an indicator of Team Beyoncé’s inability to defy the ever-growing free-information wave.