Published on May 26th, 2011 | by Jim Dalrymple0
The Lonely Music Videos of Beyoncé Knowles
Beyoncé seems like a recipe for success: she’s vocally and physically one of the most beautiful people in the world and comes off as genuinely cool. So, it’s no wonder that she seems to have the “Midas touch” when it comes to producing chart-topping singles.
In one area, however, the diva is severely — and curiously — deficient: music videos. Despite the woman’s massive skill and resources, a surprising number of her videos just end up being sort of … empty.
Beyoncé’s latest video for “Run The World (Girls)” seeks to remedy the problem. It starts out promisingly enough, with a Kanye-like nod to hit-you-in-the-face symbolism. There are animals, cops, religion and dystopian, gender-specific clans. Beyoncé, herself, even flips the bird. It could have been “Trojan Women” meets “Mad Max”.
About a minute in though, it becomes more of the same. Beyoncé singing, Beyoncé dancing, Beyoncé shaking her booty. Few women do those things as well as she does, but as a nearly five-minute long music video, hip movements and fierce stares get old. The narrative is bare bones and hard to decipher. There is minimal character development. Even the pretty girls in the background look sort of apathetic much of the time.
The video would be a fair to middling entry into the visual bibliothèque of almost any other artist. But coming from Beyoncé, the weaknesses feel like part of a pattern. “Single Ladies,” for example, features her dancing in a bare room. “Sweet Dreams” is virtually the exact same thing, except that a desert has been composited into the beginning and Beyoncé looks like the robot from “Metropolis” toward the end. And “Video Phone” repeats the pattern yet again, placing Beyoncé, now with Lady Gaga, again in a bare room.
If “Run This World (Girls)” doesn’t exactly follow the same visual motif of these earlier videos, it at least explores similar themes. In addition to the emphasized dancing and static narrative, all of the videos depict a striking isolation. Beyoncé is either alone or, at best, in a group of people in a lonely place.
As a result, Beyoncé’s videos seem preoccupied with the topography of alienation. They’re small and cold, the landscapes bitter voids. Even when the background isn’t vacant, the setting still is “nowhere.” Beyoncé certainly has some videos that defy this characterization, but the idea has clearly been percolating for a long time. In “Upgrade U,” she spends a considerable amount of screen time in lavish buildings and cars, but nevertheless alone. In “Beautiful Liar,” her identity literally dissolves — is that Beyoncé, or Shakira? Does it matter? Whether writhing, gyrating or doing a pelvic thrust, the woman does it without much company.
If Beyoncé were a grunge band, lonely music videos would make sense. Nirvana et al. created the ‘90s with a mix of alienation and anger. But Beyoncé’s music isn’t meant to be heard by angsty teenagers sitting alone in smelly basements. It’s dance music. It’s pop. Aurally, it’s about communion and community. It’s designed to be heard at clubs, parties or in cars as the passengers sing along.
And that’s what makes Beyoncé’s video world so odd. Those of other pop princesses — Rihanna, Katy Perry and even measure of mediocrity, Ke$ha — either don’t manage to adhere so closely to a single ideological mood, or they visually depict what they try to sound like: people having fun or being active. Of pop’s alpha females, only Lady Gaga appears to have such a unified theory uniting her work — though her preoccupations are very different and the tension between sound and image less incongruous.
Taken alone, few of Beyoncé’s videos are actually “bad” in the conventional sense. And of course not every video needs to be a three-act short film. But for all of Beyoncé’s talent, beauty and charisma, her videos fall short of their associated songs’ potential. They feel stuck in a rut — and an empty one at that. Thankfully “Run The World (Girls)” discards the empty white room, but hopefully future offerings will finally take Beyoncé out of the abyss. ♦ ♦ ♦
Jim Dalrymple is a writer currently living in Utah. When not listening to music, he writes about such topics as contract killings, meth addicts and local disasters for the Daily Herald. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jimmycdii.