When “Troubling” Isn’t a Strong Enough Word


As a critic, I have to ask myself, “What to do with ‘Single Ladies?’”  If there is a song in the public consciousness right now, almost a full year after it was originally released, this has got to be it. In the past two days, I’ve watched the television program “Glee” have all sorts of fun with the song, watched a baby dance in front of the video, and seen a really groovy cover of the song by Pomplamoose in which they mock the lyrics in the bridge of the song as “so bad” that they skip that part of the song.  (See it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oIr8-f2OWhs)

“Single Ladies” was a smash hit in 2008, as part of Beyonce’s album I Am…Sasha Fierce.  The song, it’s fair to say, with its insistent handclaps and repeated chorus, is irresistibly catchy. The lyrics tell the story of a woman who is speaking, postbreakup, to the man who chose not to ask her to marry him.  She is telling him that he had his chance, and that he shouldn’t get upset if another man is showing interest in her.

Because of the main thrust of the lyrics, most critics have read the song as having to do with female empowerment.  The speaker is feeling strong, sexy, desired, and is no longer despondent over the man for whom she had “cried for three good years.”  She tells him that she “can care less what you think.”

But there are a few oddities to the lyrics that I’d like to point out.  One is the odd bridge in which the speakers says, “Don’t treat me to the things of the world/I’m not that kind of girl/Your love is what I prefer, what I deserve.”  Based on most of the previous lyrics to the song, this sentiment is patently untrue.  The bridge continues, “Here’s a man that makes then takes me/And delivers me to a destiny, to infinity and beyond/Pull me into your arms, say I’m the one you own/If you don’t, you’ll be alone/And like a ghost I’ll be gone.”

Let’s leave the horrible writing aside for a moment.  There is no female empowerment in these lines; in fact, it’s the opposite.  The speaker lays herself out as something to own – in a rather stunning turn, she commodifies herself. Her commodification here, though, takes me back into the lyrics of the rest of the song wherein she repeatedly sings, “If you liked it then you should have put a ring on it.”  What is the “it” that she sings of?  Her finger?  But why would someone “like” her finger?  The much more sensible reading of these lines is that she is singing of her body itself, which is the true object of focus in the song.  She’s out in the club shopping her body to the men there, including her ex.  I find her representation and commodification of her body more than troubling.  It’s pathetic.

The video for the song only takes this further.  Although “Single Ladies” recently won the MTV Award for “Video of the Year,” Taylor Swift’s win in the category of “Best Female Video” – which Kanye West interrupted to speak out on Beyonce’s behalf – is much more in the public consciousness, and I would wager that most people think that Beyonce didn’t actually win the “Video of the Year” award.  But she did.

What about the video itself?  It’s rather straightforward.  Beyonce dances with two other women, all dressed in black leotards, against very plain contrasting backgrounds of dark gray and white.  The simplicity of the concept essentially privileges the choreography as the main focus of the performance.  As many have noted, the choreography owes an obvious debt to Gwen Verdon’s performance on the Ed Sullivan show in the late 1960s and to the choreography of Bob Fosse.  It also calls to mind movement from tap, jazz, hiphop, and j-setting – a style connected to African-American gay clubs in Atlanta.  What does all this look like?  I’d argue that it’s a performance that, like the song itself, puts Beyonce’s body front and center.  The viewer’s eyes are on her and on her single status – the dance rather famously repeatedly flashes a left hand bereft of a wedding ring.  Beyonce continually slaps her hips and passes her hands across her body.  This is a sexualized body and an available body.

Why is this the representation of herself that Beyonce chooses to display?  She’s commercially successful to a huge degree, wealthy, and apparently happily married to the just-as-commercially successful Jay-Z.  Why would she put herself, or her body, up for sale?  (I used to ask this same question about Madonna, but eventually grew tired of asking it over and over again…)  Beyonce has financial independence.  She isn’t a woman lacking in power, but she continues to represent herself in her songs and her videos as if she is.

I’m not qualified to comment on the skill involved in her dancing – she could be great, for all I know about the technicalities of her performance – but why does she feel compelled to bare her body and shake her hips and her ass for all of the world to observe.  At the end she holds up to the camera her wedding ring – it’s gigantic, and seems to contradict that line in the bridge that when it comes to “the things of the world/I’m not that kind of girl.”  She smiles, laughs, and takes great pleasure in it and what she has – presumably in her career, in her marriage, in her life.

But again, then why does she sing these songs and offer these performances?  Does anyone else find this troubling?  Is “troubling” a strong enough word?

You’re better off watching the kid from “Glee” perform it:

He’s single and pretty much lacking all sociopolitical power as a gay teenage boy. And his use of j-setting seems more appropriate than Beyonce’s.


One Response

  1. of course, diamond rings would always be the best type of wedding rings that you can give your wife ~*`

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