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You Gotta Work Your Jelly

Cynthia Fuchs

The newest video, for 'Crazy in Love,' begins with a hailing by Jay: 'History in the making.' Again, the process of work comes into focus, and again, Beyoncé's body becomes its undeniable emblem.

"Crazy In Love"
Director: Jake Nava
Dangerously in Love
Sony Music 2003

Questions of co-optation and integrity are audible to those who listen attentively for sounds of political independence from state influence. The din can be confusing given that conflictual allegiances abound in American politics and culture.
-- Joy James, Shadowboxing: Representations of Black Feminist Politics, 1999

Despite an implied intention to be a virgin on her wedding night, Beyoncé is said to have enjoyed a liaison with Eminem and her latest escort, Jay-Z, is a former drug dealer, on probation for stabbing a record executive.
-- Tanith Carey, The Mirror, 8 July 2003

It can drive you crazy and mess with your head. You have to be super-strong because people say things about you. As I get older, I care less about that.
-- Beyoncé Knowles, NME News, 9 July 2002

For a minute in June-into-July, the release of Beyoncé Knowles' debut solo album, Dangerously in Love, dominated U.S. mass media consciousness. This before news about the 16 words, Kobe Bryant, and Jessica Lynch's West Virginia homecoming, and before Ashanti's album dropped (though Beyoncé's single still tops the charts). The girl was everywhere, from Today to Carson Daly, Letterman to the instantly notorious dance on Grant's Tomb for the Fourth of July. Like all successful pop stars these days, she has many faces, displaying flexibility and good humor amid continuous pressures. On the cover of Today's Black Woman, she's golden and self-assured; on Seventeen, perky and pink; on Essence, respectably seductive; on Jet, admirably big-sisterly, to Solange; and for Blender, straight-up bodacious. When she appeared on The View, she instructed Star Jones and Meredith Vieira on the finer points of the "butt roll," and on TRL, she took fan phone calls, assuring them all that she appreciated their love -- all of it.

Time magazine's Josh Tryangiel describes Beyoncé Knowles as "a Star Search contestant at age 10, [who] has rehearsed for fame her entire life," yet still nervous concerning her first solo album. The 21ish superstar's appeal, he continues, "lies in her ability to be both pious and real; as a devout Methodist who has been linked with Jay-Z (she denies they're anything more than friends, then notes that she wants to keep this one thing "private"), she is too cool not to talk about sex, but she's too serious not to wink about it" (30 June 2003).

This doubled construction -- Beyoncé is this and also that -- demonstrates a common approach to writing about the breakout star of Destiny's Child, the best-selling girl group of all time. Currently pitching product for L'Oreal, Ford, and Pepsi (having superceded Britney on this last account), as well as promoting Dangerously in Love, Beyoncé Knowles is famously focused, confident, and diligent -- and also congenial and disarming. Allison Samuels writes that Beyoncé "has been accused of having a Diana Ross complex. But in person, she doesn't seem much like a diva... hardly the bootylicious, independent woman of her videos" (Newsweek 29 July 2002).

Knowles' ostensibly ostentatious range -- of talents, interests, and performances -- have granted her multiplying commercial horizons. Indeed, the new album reportedly offers still another angle on this hit machine: "human." As Knowles tells Nekesa Mumbi Moody, "All of the songs I wrote for Destiny's Child were usually so strong -- and that's a good thing -- but sometimes people lose touch with you being a human. I wanted people to know that I'm strong, but I can fall in love, I can get hurt, I can feel like I need someone, and everything every other woman goes through" (AP 1 July 2003). Whatever else you might think about her, Beyoncé is not much like "every other woman."

Still, Beyoncé -- with and without Destiny's Child -- manages various tensions, speaking to her fans in ways that seem subjective and objective, private and public, embodied and ethereally abstract. And in each manifestation, she keeps control. As the New York Times' Caryn James observed regarding a similar self-performance by Beyoncé on a 2001 MTV Diary ("We're real people"), this is the "mantra of celebrities everywhere." Even in the most mundane instances, as when she refuses to discuss the rumored Jay-Z romance, extols being managed by her father Matthew and dressed by her mom Tina, or praises her bandmates' (lesser) successes, Beyoncé evinces a keen awareness (whether she has it or not) of herself as a surface onto which consumers might project their desires.

In this, she surely reflects her personal history, though she's so available to diverse interpretive claims. The difficult yet strangely propitious background of Destiny's Child is well known. Groomed from childhood to be pop stars, Knowles and Kelly Rowland (the only original members left) have overcome numerous crises to arrive at the current, multi-platinum-selling formation, with Knowles, Rowland and Michelle Williams (reportedly renamed by Matthew because her original name, Tenetira, was "too ethnic"), with Solange "rumored" to be joining next year (when a TRL host floated the notion at the behest of Matthew Knowles, the audience woo-hooed on cue, as if to reconfirm daddy's marketing acumen).

What's more (and in case you've been living under a rock for the past 18 months), Beyoncé -- like all post-Will-Smith kid superstars -- has ventured into movies (the desirous and restless Carmen in an MTV hip-hopera, "whole lotta woman" Foxxy Cleopatra in Goldmember, and a single mother and Cuba Gooding Jr.'s romantic interest in the upcoming Fighting Temptations). Given the legendary brutality of pop stardom, perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Beyoncé and DC's image is that it is so emphatically premised on female "independence," as this is framed by generational, gendered, and raced expectations.

Most striking is Beyoncé's repeated emphasis on work, as concept, ethic, and self-making practice. As everyone knows by now, it takes some effort to be Destiny's Child. Primary lyricist Knowles frequently refers to work as a means to a customary end (self-confidence, say, or success), as well as a dynamic basis for identity. "Independent Women," as the Charlie's Angels soundtrack song has it, buy their own watches, houses, and cars, but more importantly, they earn their money; in the video for this song, the girls of Destiny's Child head up a board meeting, take down a wire-working ninja, then ride their motorcycles into a sort of digital sunset. This particular performance, hyper-artificial and almost painfully vivacious, posits the girls as aggressively sovereign as well as a mutually supportive, Angels-like team.

This combination -- of seeming self-absorption and utter devotion to one another -- has made Destiny's Child remarkably potent performers, as businesswomen as well as artists. Most groups who split off to undertake individual projects -- 'NSync comes to mind, as well as the Supremes and the Wu Tang Clan -- don't recover. While it remains to be seen whether DC can survive Beyoncé's sure-to-be-platinum enormity, so far they've worked hard (that word again) to maintain their crucial and consummate groupness. For Beyoncé's pay-per-view, Ford-pimping show in Detroit, the finale comprised a DC "reunion," and they've been talking about another album, scheduled for the studio in September.

Perhaps most compelling, about the group as well as the individuals, is their seeming endless capacity to present themselves as a community, despite rumors of exclusivity and actual breakups and lawsuits (most recent ex-DC member Farrah Franklin tells Vibe's Lola Ogunnaike that the Knowleses are "kinda like a cult. They don't have friends who aren't in the Destiny's Child clique" (February 2001). Still, the three girls present a united front, and the truth or untruth of that front is less significant than its presentation. Destiny's Child is the complete performance package, with Tina's color-matched-up costumes and the girls' shared affection for junk food joining them in delirious exhibits of commercial-savvy camaraderie.

Beyoncé's latest incarnation exemplifies intersections between self-expression and performance, art and commerce. Her tremendous "crossover" success -- across markets of diverse race, gender, generation, and sexual orientation -- demonstrates the effects of an ongoing hybridization of music and image styles; indeed, it would be difficult to pin down Beyoncé's performance, as she draws from pop, R&B, hip-hop, soul, and dance conventions. That is, her celebrity exemplifies a practice of popular music in relation to a popular politics, of pleasure, certainly, but also strangely expansive and even occasionally "progressive," within the obvious (and frequently disparaged) limits of mainstream commercialism and sexual objectification.

Such a politics -- amorphous and shifting -- irks some consumers, of course (Mark Anthony Neal, in his wonderful new book Songs in the Key of Black Life: A Rhythm and Blues Nation, dismisses Destiny's Child as "budding theoretical feminists" in the course of his discussion of "grown-ass women performers [28]), but their reach is irrefutable; my focus here is their visible efforts to speak to an audience they comprehend. The very complicatedness and ambiguity of their politics and practice make Destiny's Child and Beyoncé especially useful for examining relations between popular acts and cultural contexts.

On the release of Survivor, the first album featuring the group as it has been sustained since 2001, Ann Powers argued that the "overwhelming appeal of Destiny's Child is based on seriousness, not charm" ("In Tune with the New Feminism," New York Times, 29 April 2001). In the midst of much-publicized personnel changes (LaToya Luckett and LaTavia Roberson were dropped from or quit the group, claiming that Matthew Knowles was too "controlling"), Powers noted that then 19-year-old Knowles "emerged as an unusually authoritative teenage star," co-producing and co-writing every song on the album. Noting the album's unevenness as well as its admirable "competitiveness" and "relevance," Powers adds, "Some might say that Destiny's Child's attempt to be everything at once is hypocritical," but, "in the gap between the flawlessness sought by ultimate women like Destiny's Child and the ambition and fear that drives them toward it, femininity changes. And that's where real women live."

As a last line in an article on "new feminism," Powers' appeal to "real women" is at once dramatic and apt. Beyoncé's occasional age-appropriate awkwardness, as much as her ever-lucrative combination of poise and excess, make her both reflection and exemplar: savvy entrepreneur, bootylicious babe, respectful daughter, loyal best friend, and, now, with the chart-topping solo album, a maturing artist and tireless self-promoter. Her performance focuses attention on her body, her psyche, and the processes that constrain and compel them, underlining the exertion that goes into it. As Simon Frith asserts in his asserts in his Performing Rites (1996), "Far from wanting the means of production to be concealed, the popular audience wants to see how much has gone into its entertainment. Performance as labor is a necessary part of the popular aesthetic" (207).

Beyoncé's labor takes several forms, including her lyrical labors (notably, the crowding of words and strange combinations of images have become something of a signature, as in this line from "Survivor," usually performed by Michelle: "If I surround myself with positive things, / I'll gain posterity") ands her always evident industry in her dance steps. Her diligence on the road and in interviews is well known; you might even argue that her recent affiliation with an accredited "streets" representative like Jay-Z is work (and he's put in his own work, appearing to rap his little bit at many of her live performances of the new single, "Crazy in Love," from the BET Awards to Saturday Night Live to June's pay-per-view extravaganza in Detroit.

In all instances, Beyoncé's body is an emblem of effort, as underlined in her interview with Katie Couric when she performed on Today (27 June 2003). Couric runs down the recent, "really, really busy" promotional schedule -- the VH1 Diva Duets, the BET Awards, the Essence Awards -- then professes surprise ("And you've been on so many magazine covers!"), before wondering just how she does it. "They have me working," confesses Beyoncé, smiling nicely. Katie keeps on, discussing the new diet and the new, slightly less bootylicious look: "And we've been hearing about how you're keeping in shape. You're eating a lot of sugar-free Jell-O and not a lot of Popeye's Chicken anymore." Being Beyoncé is indeed a job of work.

While this is obvious in the pop tracks, even in ballads, Beyoncé distinctly uses her body as an extension of her voice and vice versa to display emotion (as in the group's cover of the Bee Gees' "Emotion"). Of course, bodily gestures and responses can be faked, and this has been a frequent criticism of Destiny's Child and Beyoncé especially, that her performances are overtly false, because she seems inexpert (her turn as Foxxy Cleopatra was praised more for her verve than skills), awkward, and plainly exerts herself. As Tom Moon writes in the Philadelphia Inquirer, "Beyoncé isn't the most athletic dancer or a devastatingly emotional singer -- at times, her ad-libs sound far from spontaneous. But she's as resourceful and multifaceted as anyone in pop: She cowrote much of Dangerously, is listed as a producer on every track, and was involved in the choreography and conceptualization of the video" (3 July 2003). Like the ever-assiduous Madonna, Beyoncé might best be admired for her effort, if not the product, exactly.

Still, for Beyoncé Knowles and company, dance is less an endpoint than a robust declaration of process, a relationship between self and other, a working through of similarity and difference. As their dancing is a form of role-playing, it is also self-expression. Subjective and objective, private and public, Destiny's Child's performances represent authenticity alongside artifice, innovation and repetition, resistance and assimilation, all enacted in bodies clothed and posed to sell products as well as ideas, which is not to say that these are entirely opposite concepts.

Consider the images that make up Beyoncé's newly empowered wake, as these constitute a collection of bodies at work. As one instance, recall the video for "Say My Name." Here, LaToya and LaTavia say, they first learned of their dismissal, as the track included their vocals (as on all of the breakout album, The Writing's On the Wall), but their bodies are missing, as the video was shot without them. The girls who are there strike freeze-frame-ish poses while the décor and costumes change colors, and the floor moves à la Jamiroquai. Beyoncé's power-trilling is made visible in frequent close-ups of her as she sings, calling "my ladies" to arms against betrayal: "Say my name, say my name, you actin' kinda shady, / Ain't callin' me baby. / Why the sudden change?" At the end of the video, the pastelly room gives way to a garage full of shiny black rides, where the girls look downright daunting, booty-shaking with (as) a vengeance.

Think also of "Survivor," the song written post-breakup, into litigations, and as a response to someone's description of participation in the group as like being on Survivor, for which Beyoncé wrote the notoriously stunning lines, "I'm not gonna compromise my Christianity / (I'm better than that) / You know I'm not gonna dis you on the internet / ('Cause my mama taught me better than that)." The imagery in the video emphasizes, again, the jungle of the industry, the struggle of being in Destiny's Child: they run along the beach, leap over obstacles, wear camouflage and Raquel Welchy outfits, and most vigorously, perform on-stage calisthenics.

The videos for "Bootylicious" (both the bright pink and blue original version and the slightly slower, much funkier Rockwilder remix) appear at first to present the girls as objects, making available their "jelly." But the lyrics and performances make clear that the girls are checking out potential partners. "You gotta work your jelly, / If you gon' / Dance with me tonight," goes the chorus, "By the looks I got you / Shook up and scared of me. / Hook up your seatbelt, / It's time for takeoff." How can you ever work hard enough to be ready?

And again, the video for "Work It Out," the track that marked Beyoncé's transition to solo artist, in the context of the Goldmember soundtrack and her character in the film, Foxxy Cleopatra. The video offers up a standard-seeming series of body parts -- eye, navel, huge hair -- but at the same time emphasizes Beyoncé's frankly awesome power, recalling Aretha and especially Tina Turner as she snuggles up to the mic stand, her ferocious thighs revealed beneath a sequined miniskirt. In her first solo effort, Beyoncé declares herself a singular personality, a body, and a performer. Not to mention a sensation with a hula-hoop.

The newest video, for "Crazy in Love" and directed by Jake Nava, begins with a hailing by Jay: "History in the making." Again, the process comes into focus, and again, Beyoncé's body becomes its undeniable emblem. Tom Moon remarks the way that "Beyoncé Knowles shakes every inch of her famously photogenic goddess frame" (Philadelphia Inquirer 3 July 2003). Indeed -- the first image has her walking, on a street, to the camera, in short shorts and red heels, her arm swaying, her face set, her body all business. From here, she appears in various guises -- on a photo shoot (recalling the same routine J. Lo ran in the video for "Jenny From the Block," with hot lights, scary makeup, and lots of leg); in baseball cap and blowing blue bubblegum, as she and her girls introduce that stop-the-presses "uh-oh" move; flipping her chinchilla at Jay-Z; kicking the fire hydrant so she can douse herself in water and ravishing blue light.

Mark Anthony Neal has described the B-Jay partnership as a smart marketing scheme, akin to the mutually beneficial Whitney-Bobby pairing (while noting the girl's stripper routine). But other observers see trouble ("real" or otherwise). Writing in the Mail on Sunday, Precious Williams worries that Beyoncé is "smitten" with Jay-Z: "His influence on the video is disturbingly clear. Beyoncé has been transformed into an almost comically raunchy stereotype of a rapper's girlfriend. The choreographed dance routines of Destiny's Child have been replaced by overtly sexual writhings. Knowles slithers along the ground in an animal-print thong swimsuit and then dances under a stream of water. In one scene, Jay-Z sets a car on fire and the two cavort by the blazing vehicle" ("Destiny's Wild," 29 June 2003). Writhings.

However you read these spectacles -- and frankly, up against her vocal acrobatics and that incredible horn-section sample from "Are You My Woman," the blazing car looks almost tame -- the effect is electrifying. As to the song, Allison Stewart states outright, "With its horns, harmonies, samples and Jay-Z guest rap, 'Crazy in Love' has more going on in its first two minutes than most albums do in their entirety" (Washington Post 25 June 2003). No doubt. And in Beyoncé's many performances of this song (in hot orange and pink for the video, in scant clothing for the BET Awards, in demure skirt for Today), she makes sure you know this -- her moves are precise, her vocals gymnastic. This while she articulates a lack of control in the lyrics: "I'm not myself, lately I'm foolish, I don't do this, / I've been playing myself, baby, I don't care / 'Cuz your love's got the best of me, / And baby, you're making a fool of me, / You got me sprung and I don't care who sees."

Really, though, she does care who sees. The visuals make clear that this moment is all about a specific, considered relationship between labor and payoff. She knows exactly what she's doing. And Beyoncé is hardly shy about engaging such contradiction. Take, as one example, her repeated choice to sing during her live performances, solo and with the group. The backing track for a stage performance typically includes her vocals, but she also sings over it, underlining overtly thrilling aspects. In part, this practice is a function of what more than one listener has termed her distinctive melismatic vocal stylings.

But it's also a function of the work -- the need to show it, the desire to see it, the refusal to ignore it. Unlike other stars, whose ease and smoothness make them magnificent, Beyoncé marks and reaffirms her effort -- potent, joyous, and self-possessed.

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