Beyoncé is destroying young black girls. That was the argument of black feminist scholar bell hooks earlier this year in a panel discussion at the New School. Specifically, hooks pointed to the Time magazine cover in which Beyoncé appeared wearing little more than her underwear and a blank stare. “From my deconstructive point of view,” hooks said, Beyoncé “is colluding in the construction of herself as a slave. I see a part of Beyoncé that is in fact anti-feminist—that is a terrorist, especially in terms of the impact on young girls.”
Hooks’ violent imagery is arresting, but her argument isn’t new. On the contrary, her statement reflects long-held concerns of many black intellectuals, as Paige A. McGinley discusses in her forthcoming book Staging the Blues: From Tent Shows to Tourism.
As her title suggests, McGinley discusses the history of the blues, not Beyoncé or contemporary dance pop. But her argument ends up suggesting that the two supposedly distinct genres, blues and pop, aren’t really all that far apart. Contemporary blues is usually thought of as an authentic, male, instrumental form—the iconic blues image is that of a black man wearing work clothes sitting at a rural crossroads playing a guitar. McGinley, though, argues that, in its earliest incarnation, blues was a professional, slick, performative, and female-dominated medium, complete with gimmicky, sexually suggestive costumes and its own elaborate music-video-like skits. McGinley reconstructs one well-known Prohibition-era performance by the great Ma Rainey:
The curtain rose, revealing a giant prop replica of a Victrola; a chorus dancer began to play a similarly outsized prop record on the phonograph. From inside the Victrola, not yet visible to spectators, Rainey began to sing her wildly popular “Moonshine Blues,” its lyrics flaunting the strictures of Prohibition. At a climactic moment in the song, she emerged from the boxy set piece, glittering in a famously extravagant gown and jewels, to the great delight of her audience.
It’s easy to draw parallels between this kind of glittery, glamorous, liquor-touting, sexed-up opulence and a performance like Beyoncé’s glittery, glamorous, liquor-touting, sexed-up video “Drunk in Love.”
And, again, just as “Drunk in Love” drew criticism for its sexuality and violence, critics in Ma Rainey’s time, including black female critics, were concerned about the messages in early, raunchy blues performances. McGinley points in particular to Aida Overton Walker, a black actress who, McGinley says, “sought to establish theatrical life as an honorable profession for young black women.”
In an article in Colored American magazine, Walker emphasized that black women on the stage were respectable artists—but she also warned performers of “the things we must avoid whenever we write or sing a piece of music, put on a play or sketch, walk out on the street or land in a new town.” Black women, as Walker knew, were stereotyped as sexualized and debased; she argued for the avoidance of anything, in both their performance and their personal lives, that would ratify that image. “Whether singing on stage, or walking across the street,” McGinley writes, black women “risked being a spectacle” and thus, according to Walker, they “must be careful to maintain moral character at all times as they performed for their audience.” Walker would not have approved of Ma Rainey’s flamboyant gowns and headdresses or raunchy lyrics about her black bottom. She would have approved even less of Rainey’s personal life; the singer was famously arrested in 1925 when the police interrupted a lesbian orgy at her home.
BLACK FEMALE ENTERTAINERS, THEN, have long been criticized by other black women (sometimes entertainers themselves) for failing to adhere to a program of racial uplift. McGinley’s account of these disputes is especially interesting, though, because she places them in the context of parallel arguments about authenticity and performance. Blues, McGinley argues, has “an exceptionally prevalent ‘cult of authenticity,'” leading to, and abetted by, a “widespread antitheatricalism in blues criticism.” She points, as one example, to a 1964 review by Paul Oliver, in which he sneered at Sonny Boy Williamson’s decision to wear a Harlequin suit and Howlin’ Wolf’s “ham actor” stage presence.
Beyoncé the star is bigger than any one image, whether that image is sex or authenticity. As a performer, she can adopt a range of nuanced appearances.
The anti-theatrical prejudice is hardly limited to Oliver, though—nor to blues. The tradition continues even now: Feminist writer Sady Doyle’s recently sneered at “the idea that ‘pop’—a genre based on hiring cute girls as ventriloquist dummies—is ‘feminine’….” For Doyle, pop is bad because it is inauthentic and visual, a point she emphasizes by using the metaphor of the ventriloquist. This is unintentionally ironic in this context since, as McGinley explains, the first ever published account of a blues performance was a 1910 newspaper article about Johnnie Woods, a female impersonator and (ahem) ventriloquist. The originating, authentic blues performance, then, was an act in which “a black dummy clad in a conductor’s cap and a checked suit” was shown “getting drunk and singing the blues.”
McGinley describes numerous instances in which black performers were forced, against their wishes, to perform respectfully and authentically, often by white promoters, managers, or audiences. Huddie Ledbetter (Leadbelly) always wanted to dance and perform the (minstrel-associated) cakewalk in his stage shows. His folk-music-scholar manager, John Lomax—who collected black songs, but had little interest in black dance—discouraged him from doing so.
Leadbelly’s friend Brownie McGhee distinguished between performers who were musicians and performers who were entertainers—and in a reversal of current conventional wisdom, he argued that it was musicians who were the soulless ventriloquists and entertainers who were the real artists. “I’m an entertainer, not a musician,” he insisted. “Musician plays for anything, for anybody. I play for myself….” As an example of his own agency, McGhee noted that sometimes he would play his guitar behind his head “Because I feel like I wanna do that.”
Contrast that with John Morthland’s argument about Jimi Hendrix in the Rolling Stone History of Rock & Roll: “Hendrix considered himself a musician first and foremost, an entertainer second,” he argues. “When he saw he could wow a crowd simply with showmanship, he turned on the flash and coasted musically; when he sensed he had to play well to win a crowd, he stood calmly and played hard.” McGhee would probably suggest that Hendrix was performing in both cases, presenting himself as an entertainer in the first and as a musician in the second: He’d further argue that the performance of the “musician” was more, rather than less, restrictive.
HOW EXACTLY CAN BEYONCÉ in her underwear, performing the role of sex symbol, be less restrictive than an authentic display of self? The answer, as McGinley suggests, is that authenticity is, and has long been, a racist trope in itself. Racism is, after all, based on the idea that identity is created, not by individual initiative and performance, but by birth and skin color. Under these misguided racial dictates, black people, especially, are supposed to be natural—cheerfully, or savagely, or (as in the image of the magically authentic bluesman) transcendentally lacking in artifice. In contrast, McGinley says:
Rainey and [contemporary blues star Bessie] Smith fashioned themselves as stars, and, in doing so, refused the matrix of interiority and dramatic character. To perform not as a character but as an actress—as a star—is to refuse to disappear into a role. No matter what costume she wears, the star’s celebrity supersedes the suspension of disbelief that realism requires. …
Rainey’s and Smith’s embrace of the controversial strategy of breaking character operated as a strategic refusal of the roles they were expected to play.
Bell hooks sees Beyoncé’s Time cover as playing into representations of black women as sexualized victims, and therefore as damaging to young black girls. But, like Rainey and Smith, Beyoncé is a star. She is not her role; she isn’t just one Time cover; she’s an ever-proliferating series of outfits and roles and public performances, emphasizing sexuality or power or motherhood and/or a wide array of glamorous and ridiculous costumes.
The Time cover doesn’t (just) show Beyoncé as sexualized victim; it shows Beyoncé playing, or performing, a particular sexualized role—a role she doffs and complicates in other pictures from the shoot. Beyoncé the star is bigger than any one image, whether that image is sex or authenticity. As a performer, she can adopt a range of nuanced appearances—which is a meaningful act, McGinley suggests, in a culture that has historically insisted, and still insists, on reducing black people’s one interior truth to the color of their skin.