Beyonce Knowles arrives at The Metropolitan Museum of Art&#39&#x3B;s Costume Institute benefit gala celebrating "China: Through the Looking Glass" on May 4, 2015 in New York City.
Beyonce Knowles arrives at The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Costume Institute benefit gala celebrating "China: Through the Looking Glass" on May 4, 2015 in New York City.
Charles Sykes/Invision/AP

Critic Ann Powers on How Beyoncé Owned Her Sexuality — and Became Pop's Reigning Queen

by Ann Powers
September 07, 2017, 12:31pm EDT

In her new book GOOD BOOTY: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music (out now from Dey Street Books), the acclaimed NPR critic Ann Powers takes a wide-ranging look at how eroticism and pop music in the U.S. have intersected over the past century. She zeroes in on Beyoncé's landmark Beyoncé — and how the visual album and its boldly sexual tracks established Queen Bey as an adult artist fully in control of her own image — in this excerpt.  

Beyoncé’s use of social media as art hit a peak with the release of her self-titled fifth album in the wee hours of December 13, 2013. The world learned of Beyoncé via a simple post reading “Surprise!” on the photo-sharing platform Instagram, and could immediately download its fourteen tracks and accompanying videos via iTunes. Beyoncé was not the first major star to suddenly unleash an album via the Internet, but there had never been one so well orchestrated as an event. Within 24 hours, Beyoncé had produced 1.2 million Twitter responses, more than 25,000 Tumblr posts, 7,000 Instagram photo reactions, and, according to one search engine, 600 GIFs, or animated images, connected to Beyoncé’s name. Most important, it also sold 828,773 copies through the iTunes store in its first week. “In other words, the album has created a social media class of its own, generating a sort of ripple effect that is keeping the album front and center in the Web’s ephemeral consciousness,” wrote the media critic Jenna Wortham in the New York Times.

Beyoncé was uniquely qualified to create this kind of response. It contained the most experimental music Beyoncé had ever made, heavily connected to regional rap styles like the slowed-down screw music of the singer’s native Houston; it also showed the mark of her explorations of cutting-edge electronic music and art rock. Musically, it wasn’t meant for radio, but for more open-minded listeners who got their music searching online. While about half of its songs dealt with themes familiar to any Beyoncé fan — female empowerment and camaraderie, emotional vulnerability, the costs and pleasures of fame — the others were bluntly pornographic fantasies and confessions, far raunchier than anything Beyoncé had previously done or what most of what her peers were willing to try. These songs, Beyoncé told interviewers, were inspired by thoughts she indulged during the months after her pregnancy, when actual sex was more difficult for her and Jay Z. Conjuring scenes of a sizzling hot married life, these songs penetrated the nerve of privacy, yet impeccably supported the distanced intimacy at the center of Beyoncé ’s art.

“Partition,” the album’s most successful single, is an account of sex in a limousine whose details — torn party clothes and a chauffeur averting his eyes — fused glamour and tawdriness. “Drunk in Love” became notorious for naming the position Beyoncé prefers for bathtub sex — surfboard — but also details of the couple waking up in the kitchen after a night of debauchery. “Rocket” combines explicit lines such as “let me sit this ass on you” with musings about Beyoncé's and Jay Z’s blended personal and professional lives, culminating in the declaration, “Goddammit I’m comfortable in my skin / and you’re comfortable in my skin.” Throughout Beyoncé, the domestic scene becomes a pornographic one, a sequestered stage for sex.

If, as one critic noted, Beyoncé was “the rudest mainstream album since Madonna’s Erotica,” it was also in some ways diametrically opposed to that work. While Madonna’s songs and the accompanying book Sex branded her as an extroverted explorer, engaging in random encounters, exhibitionism, and group sex, Beyoncé’s established her as the raunchy queen of an inner sanctum whose sensual electricity would serve as inspiration and guidepost to fans, but would ultimately remain Beyoncé’s and Jay Z’s alone. She was solving the problem of the celebrity sex tape, feeding the insatiable demand for public knowledge of famous people’s lives with divulgences that satisfied, but remained in her grasp. Beyond that, for the average listener or viewer, Beyoncé fought back against the assumption that to live online was to surrender any real control over one’s private life. It showed how a person could reveal herself without being violated.

“Only a mama can do that, and only a wife can do that. That’s your strength,” the producer Pharrell declared to the singer in a promotional video for Beyoncé, reminding viewers that in these songs, Beyoncé was not merely performing sexuality but presenting it as a gift for her husband. The “mama” and “wife” behind this material reasserted her social and economic position constantly, in the luxurious settings of the videos and the emotional details of the songs, which contextualized the pornographic lines as uttered between powerful equals for whom love and partnership, not sexual performance, mattered most. “We’re so much more than pointless fixtures, Instagram pictures, consumers,” Beyoncé sang on “Rocket.” “Home is where the heart is.” And in these songs, home remained inviolable. What Beyoncé shared could be enjoyed, even embraced, but not entered by anyone except the confessor herself and her mate.

Beyoncé also pointed toward a new way for an artist to confront the shadow world of pornography that had haunted mainstream entertainment since the nineteenth-century days of burlesque. While the album’s music abounds in juicy details, the videos tend to be more conventional, showing Beyoncé in high-fashion versions of stripper or dominatrix gear dancing or teasingly touching herself in ways anyone who’d ever watched a porn video would recognize. Others show Beyoncé and mostly female friends (and fellow dancers) in nostalgic leisure scenes: roller skating, riding the Cyclone roller coaster on Coney Island, or rehearsing moves before a mirror at home. The songs’ explicit content might contrast with these images, but combined they offer a sense of how erotic thought runs through a woman’s mind even when she is not in the midst of an encounter. Certain songs, like the melodramatic ballad “Pretty Hurts,” also acknowledge that erotic ideals can be confining and even oppressive to women. It all adds up to an exquisitely well- balanced view of sexuality, one that elevates the pornographic through high production values, difficult choreography and the constant reassertion of Beyoncé’s personality. Acting erotically, she actively fights against being reduced to the status of object. The insistence on sexual subjectivity, which generates sexual power, is Beyoncé’s ultimate message.

In a much-circulated videotaped panel discussion after the album’s release, the venerable feminist writer bell hooks said that “part” of Beyoncé was “a terrorist” because, despite her ostensible frankness, she still upheld a standard of beauty and sexual allure that most women could not achieve.24 Yet if Beyoncé can be considered as a direct response to the rise of both social media and pornography online, it does seem different than most pop stars’ attempts to exploit their own attractiveness for profit. Porn has always been big business on the Internet. In 2009, however, reports began circulating that social media sites had superseded porn to become the number one reason people visited the Web. The next logical question — is the future of porn social? — was quickly answered in the affirmative with the rise of sites like Pinsex and Pornstagram, where amateurs traded explicit images while avoiding the fees commercial porn demands. Beyoncé’s favorite social platform, Tumblr, was a home for porn from the beginning. At the same time, online dating was veering toward one-night-stands or afternoon hookups through mobile apps like Grindr (for gay men) and Tinder (mostly for heterosexuals). In this context, Beyoncé, with its spicy but contained fantasies of monogamous love and female self-possession, stands out as a kind of protest, conservative in some ways, but determinedly centered on female self-respect. For those attempting to locate their own desires within the fast-paced, bafflingly varied, and often near-anonymous realm of online sex, Beyoncé ’s assertion of strength and positive containment suggested that sex could be fully enjoyed, and even shared, online in healthy and even loving ways.

“My first album came out when I was fifteen. I was a child,” Beyoncé said in one of the promotional videos she released in tandem with Beyoncé. “But now I’m in my thirties and those children that grew up listening to me have grown up.” Her self-described “journey” into sexually explicit content was the final step in her becoming fully adult as an artist, and as an embodiment of the soft self, fully inhabiting a mobile online world that complemented and enhanced her physical-world assertions of identity and power. In a time increasingly dominated by virtual experiences, her nimble advances and self-preserving retreats made her the queen of pop.

From the book GOOD BOOTY: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music by Ann Powers. c 2017 by Ann Powers. Reprinted by permission of Dey Street Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.