This week, Billboard is celebrating the music video with a week’s worth of content that looks at the past, present and future of the video, at a time when it seems to be as relevant as ever. Here, we flashback ten years for an extended look at how arguably the most legendary video from the 21st century’s greatest music video star came together, and why its legacy endures a decade later.
On the St. Louis stop of the 2016 Formation World Tour, Beyoncé and her dancers — including her dance captain, Ashley Everett — were just about to wave their hands through the final bars of “Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)” when the pop star paused. The buoyant bass continued to blast as she vamped, coyly pacing the stage before she turned on her heel and signaled for a gentleman in a white jacket to join her. John Silver, Everett’s boyfriend, trotted into the spotlight and took the floor, where he presented his dumbstruck love with an engagement ring — one that got an all-too-appropriate cameo during a sequence as familiar to the crowd as the “Single Ladies” chorus itself. If you like it, then you shoulda put a ring on it: he did, so he did, and Everett flicked her wrist and flashed her newly-minted diamond in the routine she helped create.
That such a life-changing moment went down in the middle of a “Single Ladies” performance is perfect, as the song has proven to be a monumentally transformative force in the lives of Beyoncé and those of her closest collaborators. Everett was at Beyoncé’s side when she filmed the music video for “Single Ladies” and in the three months leading up to the shoot, when they and choreographers Frank Gatson Jr. and JaQuel Knight worked tirelessly to hone every kick, waist-wind, and lift that would go on to define one of the most iconic dances in pop music history.
“Single Ladies” was shot directly after the visual for “If I Were A Boy,” which was initially intended to be the showpiece for Beyoncé’s I Am… Sasha Fierce era. It was written as a mini-film, complete with dialogue, intrigue, and a significant plot twist to match the intensity of the love-scarred power ballad — fitting, considering how she was about to star as Etta James in 2008’s Cadillac Records and already had leading roles in Dreamgirls and The Pink Panther under her belt. Both videos were directed by Jake Nava, who’d been working with Beyoncé on a regular basis since 2003’s “Crazy in Love” clip, her solo breakthrough. But “Single Ladies” also had Gatson — who worked closely with Beyoncé as choreographer and creative director from her first days as a solo artist through the 2013 Mrs. Carter World Tour — bringing the young and hungry Knight into Beyoncé’s orbit, where he closely remains.
“If I Were A Boy” is a standout in her videography and puts her acting chops to work, but the seismic impact of “Single Ladies” went on to dwarf it as a cultural phenomenon. Premiered alongside “Boy” on MTV’s Total Request Live in October 2008, “Ladies” cemented Beyoncé’s status as a triple-threat who can marry the grace of a ballerina and the formidable bombast of a J-setting dance corps with a body roll. It served as the jumping-off point for some of her most formative creative partnerships. It showcased a pop star wielding the music video as a revolutionary medium on a level her peers couldn’t touch while reviving the form during a low point of relevance in the process. Perhaps most importantly, it set the precedent for an artist who’d go back to the drawing board, only to flip it over and stun her fans, long before setting the titanium standard for the visual album as a format.
Below, Nava, Gatson and Knight all speak on “Single Ladies,” their contributions to the visionary visual and its lasting imprint on pop as we know it. Billboard also spoke to Ebony Williams, the dancer who completed the trio with Beyoncé and Everett; Lorraine Schwartz, the designer behind Beyoncé’s bionic glove; and Bobby Moynihan, who wrote and performed in one of the most affectionate (and hilarious) tributes to the song on Saturday Night Live. Though their experiences differ, they’re unanimous on two points: that Beyoncé is a genius, and that “Single Ladies” is a testament to not just that genius, but also her ability to cultivate it.
“THE DANCE WAS THE STAR”
When Beyoncé, Nava, and Nava’s writing partner, Ben Cooper, started brainstorming ideas for “If I Were A Boy” and “Single Ladies,” the vibe, initially, was simple. You can see it play out in the first few seconds of “If I Were A Boy,” which have Beyoncé and actor Eddie Goines standing in front of a white wall while listing off words that fall under the umbrella of romantic relationships — intimacy, honesty, commitment, you, me. A complex scene unfolds from that stark set-up, but Beyoncé, Nava, Gatson, and Knight still embraced simplicity while moving forward with “Single Ladies.”
The white, panoramic field initially intended for “If I Were A Boy” found a home on the second video shoot set, which would focus on putting a modern twist on Bob Fosse’s choreography. Gatson had introduced Fosse’s work into Beyoncé’s repertoire before “Single Ladies”: The “Get Me Bodied” video is a direct tribute to the mod “Rich Man’s Frug” scene from Sweet Charity, and shades of the musical’s stand-out “Big Spender” number made it into her live show as well. A mash-up of Fosse’s wife, Gwen Verdon, performing the “Mexican Breakfast” dance sequence and Unk’s “Walk It Out” went viral and had caught Beyoncé’s attention. With “Single Ladies,” the trick was to update Fosse in a manner fit for Queen Bey — and that’s where Gatson’s classical appreciation for vintage musical glamour met Knight’s Southern affinity for J-setting, where one dancer’s steps are then replicated by the crew behind them en masse (see: Beychella).
Jake Nava, director: Initially, Beyoncé had been talking about a minimal, Herb Ritts-y simplicity for “If I Were A Boy.” Me and my writing partner, Ben Cooper, had been thinking about that and getting together references. Then she said, “Let’s actually do ‘If I Were A Boy’ [with] me behaving like a boy.” And so that took that away from a stripped-back, ambiguous world and into a more narrative world. The white [cyclorama — a 360-degree field] stuff that we’d been working on became the background to the reinvented Fosse dance routine so that there would be a good contrast between the two projects. We knew that we were doing them together, back-to-back, and that we needed them to have distinct looks.
Frank Gatson Jr., choreographer: When you see Fosse do hips and Fosse do hands, Fosse has that sexual stance that looks so sophisticated. Michael Jackson? People don’t realize that “Thriller” is Fosse, when he starts the shoulder — pump, pump, pump, pump. That’s from Fosse. The Paula Abdul [music video for] “Cold Hearted,” that scene when she’s on that scaffolding? That’s a scene from a Fosse movie [All That Jazz]. That same scene is where Michael and them got movement for “Thriller.” Beyoncé was introduced to Fosse by me, because I saw that Frug number from Sweet Charity and I was like, “This is amazing.”
JaQuel Knight, choreographer: Jake gets a superstar. Point blank. He gets what it takes to break an artist and to magnify them to superstardom. Every piece of detail, working with a high-level production, working with the best in every department — Jake is not afraid to let you go and do your thing, and I think that’s what makes great directors great. If you’re onboard and on their team, they’re gonna let you do your thing and then come in and say, “What if we did this? What if we did that?” to make the most clever changes and suggestions that make you think in a different way. Besides that, he’s been working with Beyoncé forever, and every time, it’s always a great, high level of sophistication and artistry that you can’t find anywhere else. Jake understands music; he understands choreography; he understands style and aesthetics.
Gatson: It took three months to put that [routine] together because, you know, even though “Single Ladies” was inspired by the Bob Fosse clip, we still wanted our own originality. If you look at it, we put J-setting in there… The scene from Sweet Charity when the three ladies were on the roof, [it inspired us to have an] imaginary little ramp that the girls ran up and came down. But most of “Single Ladies” was inspired by [“Mexican Breakfast”], Fosse’s wife and the other two young ladies that performed with her in the pantsuits.
Knight: J-setting was the new thing. It hadn’t been seen yet on the mainstream level. People always wanted Beyoncé to vogue, but Madonna had that covered and everyone else under the umbrella had already done that. J-setting was something organic to me as an artist and something I could bring to the table. It was something I grew up around — I knew the fundamentals and the technique and the vibe and could keep it authentic. It made sense with Beyoncé, because she’s a country girl with the hips and natural bounce and natural swag to her that you can only get from growing up eating macaroni and cheese, cornbread, and fried chicken, you know? [Laughs] It’s instilled in her, that bounce.
To add the lines to it, that’s something she’s been working on since the start of her career as an artist. That’s something that Frank has instilled in her: “We need the right lines,” with some ballet technique. She had all the right ingredients for it, to keep it raw and authentic but pulled up and classy. She can drop down and get funky with you, but then she can pull it up and make it very ladylike. That was something that was really special and unique to her as an artist. She had put in time up to “Single Ladies,” so now she was ready for something to put her stank on.
Nava: The really important thing about this is that they had been working on this routine while she was working on other stuff. But she had been practicing this routine, and so I first saw it on video. It was already developed and tight and I thought, “Wow, that’s amazing, incredible — sort of a Southern street update of exaggerated femininity and character personality that Fosse shows in his dance.” They’d really worked on it, and it was looking so tight. I understood why it’s so good when you see three people doing it like [they’re] mirrors.
Knight: The J-setting just made sense. I remember being in the room on the computer like, “What else can we do?” I was like, “We could do a bit of J-setting… We have to do it right. We gotta be true to what it is.” I was super nervous about it. Don’t ever be the guy who thinks you’re introducing something to the world and is all wrong… We’re all about putting on for people, and our people especially. Whenever we can bring something to the forefront at such a high-art level, we’re all about it. We’re nerds and geeks for stuff like that. We think there’s true beauty in that.
Ebony Williams, dancer: I was so used to doing things that were using lines, balletic lines, because I was in a ballet company at the time. So when I had to do something funky, it was fun, something that wasn’t the norm for me. I was always taking hip-hop classes and whatever I could take, so that J-setting pocket was so lit that I was ready to do it over and over again. That was my favorite part.
Knight: It would oftentimes just be me, Frank, Beyoncé, and Ashley Everett. Ashley was our muse that we would work with during the daytime, and Beyoncé would come in for a few hours, a couple hours every day. We would teach her stuff, then we would talk about the references, then get up, dance some more, and do it again the next day and the next day. We completely drowned ourselves and wanted to create something that was purely focused on the attitude, the performance, and the choreography. That was our goal: to create something that was super dynamic but super minimal, something that would catch on like a wildfire.
Gatson: Fosse had really sexy moves, but because of the training — you can even see Beyoncé’s growth in the training, from the beginning of Destiny’s Child to now. We would take her to ballet class, show her how to isolate her hip, show her how to isolate her arms — that’s what Fosse was all about, isolations. I can’t get enough of him.
Knight: I think it’s really important for artists to know the history, Fosse being one of the most influential artists — choreographer, director, writer. Besides “Mexican Breakfast,” we studied everything Fosse throughout the process. We even had [dancer and Broadway performer] Desmond Richardson come in and teach us some Fosse movements, signature Fosse pieces, and we just continued to study what we can from the tapes. As a choreographer that’s looking to tap into your own style, I think it’s important to learn how these other artists flourish. Through that, I was able to learn who I was even more as an artist, to learn about things I brought to the table and had to offer.
I’m a country boy; I grew up in North Carolina and Atlanta, so I did a lot of country things — backyard barbeques, family talent shows. Through these events, you see a lot. One thing I learned from Fosse: You could tell he was a people-watcher. He took a lot of things from everyday people and made it his own. That’s a specialty of mine, too: We all haven’t grown up the same way, so the things you’re exposed to become yours.
“Single Ladies” has my entire childhood in it, if we’re looking at it from that point of view. It has my grandma at the cookout; it has my nephews dancing at the family reunion; it has me in the marching band; it has a little bit of this out in the street. Every piece of me that danced or saw dance plays throughout the movement of “Single Ladies,” so it was a really beautiful piece to me.
Williams: Understanding the tradition of the movement and trying to find similarities in the lines was going to bring it to life and possibly elevate it even more. That is what I think was really cool about how [Gatson and Knight] mixed in the movement with Fosse. Fosse is super musical and is super shape-oriented, and so is J-setting. It’s shape-oriented in the fact that one person is copying the other person’s shape and the next person’s pocket of music, because musicality is so important.
Gatson: I think every video director is trying to do feature films. Jake was put on the map with Beyoncé a bit when he did “Crazy in Love,” and we won awards that year, so now we come all the way back in 2008, and Beyoncé allows Jake to do this great cinematic piece, “If I Were A Boy.” Jake trusted me, so he was like, “Okay, Frank, show me what you wanna do for ‘Single Ladies.’” As somebody who wanted to do feature films, his focus was on that, and I can’t blame him for that, because my focus was on the dance. I just remember they shot “If I Were A Boy” for four days, and we shot “Single Ladies” in 12 hours.
The dance was the star [of “Single Ladies”]. [Jake] being a director, he loved “If I Were A Boy” because it had dialogue; it had storyline; we were on a hundred different locations. Because I’m a dancer and Beyoncé’s a dancer by heart, we had to convince Jake that the star was the dancer. There was no set; there was nothing more than three girls and choreography. You couldn’t depend on a lamp, a police car, a location. You were in a white place, white room — a void.
Nava: If you can get the camera in the best place to appreciate the dance move without having to edit lots, then you are onto the type of coverage of dance where people will really have an opportunity to appreciate that talent in front of you — that personality and that evolving story of the dance. That was part of [director of photography Jim Fealy and my] creative response to such amazing choreography.
They definitely were working on the choreography for ages, but when I saw it, it became clear that a very specific photographic approach would do justice to such great performance. You would really get an opportunity to hold one long take that evolved with the action. We put the camera in the best place to appreciate a particular move or motion in a certain moment so it wouldn’t be interrupted by edits or a complicated set or lighting. I could adjust the choreography so that the fourth member of the dance routine was the steady camera [operated by George Bianchini].
Gatson: Even the cast was organically made. [Ebony Williams] wasn’t supposed to be the girl in the video, but the girl who was supposed to do it got trapped in Japan, and we had to cast another girl last-minute and make her be the girl. Fate or the spirit of the world just worked it out. She was perfect for it. It was just something that was magical.
Williams: Every day that you walk in the room, you still feel like you’re auditioning, so that first rehearsal was still surreal. I wanted to make sure that I was doing my best and was showing myself in the best light. I was trying to book that job, okay? I was going to dance next to Beyoncé Knowles, I was trying to make sure that I was going to figure it out. I was also super-exhausted — I had just finished rehearsal with my ballet company because I was doing dual-jobs at the same time. But I couldn’t believe that I was in the same room standing next to the one and only Beyoncé. It was surreal.
“SASHA FIERCE. SHE SHOWED UP FOR WORK TODAY.”
With the choreography set and the black-and-white aesthetic on lock, Beyoncé, Everett ,and Williams suited up: Everett and Williams donned matching black leotards, with Beyoncé in a similar garment that stood out with its own embellishments and the addition of a mechanical glove custom-made for her by jeweler Lorraine Schwartz. All three had their hair teased and tied half-up in styles that threw to ‘60s girl groups looks; all three wore heels.
The heels would prove to be a bit of a headache, as at least three pairs were needed to get through the shoot due to the intense choreography. “If you ever want to be triflin’ and just watch for the heels, you can see three different heels,” reveals Gatson. “To do that number full-out top to bottom every take, just imagine that. Just imagine the pressure on the heels!”
Nava: I spent two days doing “If I Were A Boy” on the streets of New York, and I saw her acting in a way that was not very glamorous. That character that she was playing, she gave it integrity. At the very end, we got back to the studio and did the separate sections where she sings so that people could understand that what was happening in the video wasn’t actually the narrative — that was the narrator, her, singing about this story. What we were showing in the film was just her playing on the way that she felt about masculinity and behavior in that moment.
It became a cinematic job, and “Single Ladies” became a minimalistic performance inspired by a Bob Fosse job but updated. When we had just finished doing those little bits in the studio, I kinda went, “Yes, we got it,” and she was like “Alright, I think we better go next door to the ‘Single Ladies’ studio, we got a video to shoot.” This young woman’s work ethic is incredible. I, personally, was sort of powering down a little bit after running around New York on a tight schedule for a couple of days. It was a pretty intense New York shoot, and she had more energy than any of us the whole time, as usual.
Gatson: They had that bodysuit on and their legs were showing. You could see the lines in the movement — that’s important, to see the lines. I don’t think people understand why people are in dance class with tights on: you’re there to see your body, and of course you can’t go to dance class naked! I love lines. Michael Jackson understands lines; Beyoncé understands lines. They just knew to put their bodies [in a certain way], so that line is something that’ll go down in history.
Lorraine Schwartz, designer of Beyoncé’s “bionic glove”: [The design] was about who Beyoncé is. She wanted something that represents a strong, independent, powerful woman — something modern, yet futuristic. We made the glove before we saw the video, but being that the video features only women, it only further signifies these characteristics. The glove really symbolizes that empowerment and that strength that lies within women.
We were really working on a time constraint to create something original. To begin, we needed a wax mold of her hand, so she had to sit with her entire arm and hand in the wax for about an hour at different angles — and this was just for the mold alone. We created it in titanium, which is a lightweight metal as well as an extremely difficult metal to create jewelry with. It needed to be comfortable, detachable so she could wear it in multiple ways.
Williams: Beyoncé is a chameleon and can just watch something and make it happen. That is what was really special about the three of us — the fact that we understood the lines and the fact that we understood that Fosse’s work was really brilliant and timeless. That was something that we really wanted to bring forth. On top of it, we just had a lot of fun together. We all are super driven perfectionists, which is also something that shows through. We all have a huge attention to detail, which was also super important. We are similar in height.
I also think that the dynamic of us all being different shades was really cool to see and feel. We were all relatable to different audience members. People would watch and see something of themselves in each and every one of us. And what I really loved about it was that Beyoncé said she wanted “two stars” next to her, and for me, I was like, “What, you think I’m a star?! Oh my god! Beyoncé thinks I am a star!” She wanted it to be as if we were an old-school singing group or a trio. She wanted it to be about a trio and not just about her, which was really giving and gracious.
Knight: I think it was the first shot of the day, and Frank was like, “Okay, Quel, be prepared for her for when she shows up on set. She’s not gonna be the same girl you’ve been working with the past two weeks.” We had a week of rehearsals, and [she] had basically gotten in my neck and the necks of the dancers. What I mean by that is she took every piece of advice I had given and every stylized way I moved — it’s all in her brain, in her blood. It feels exactly like her at this point. Every day after rehearsal, Frank was like, “You know, you haven’t quite seen her yet. She hasn’t quite shown up.”
Once we got through the shoot, watching her do the first take from the top, it was just magic. She tapped into every character. Every piece of the movement is perfect. It was just magical, mind-blowing, jaw-dropping. It was the weirdest, craziest, out-of-body experience that you could ever have in your life. After that first take, Frank was like, “And here she is: Sasha Fierce. She showed up for work today.”
Nava: People think it’s one shot, but it’s actually about five shots — even though we were doing it in long takes, we filmed it in chunks so that it wasn’t too demanding on the dancers and so that we could focus on getting perfect chunks. Then we basically seamlessly connected those chunks, and Jarrett [Fijal, film editor] did an amazing job with that. It was a kind of unforgiving photographic approach.
Gatson: If you ever look at old musicals, it was always something they bragged about, about how they would do full takes of the routine. It’s kind of like doing a speech: You gotta start with the speech calmly, you get to the middle part, and then you take it on home. Dance is kind of like that too; if you keep stopping it, it doesn’t get its rise like it needs to. You’re probably going to be tired throughout the middle of it, so it’s something about the adrenaline and the magic of performing a piece. That’s what we wanted: We wanted the energy of how you have to push your body to really bring it on home and bring it on to the finish line. That’s the reason why we go see live shows, you know? We see live shows because we see that performer actually go through top to bottom.
Nava: This is something that has since become very much a part of my approach to dance: much like the best scenes in an action movie, you need to allow the shots to be long to appreciate the cumulative effort, to really show people [that] this is not a trick — this is human beings doing something incredible. That also affected the way in which I recognized that it was important to cover this action. No tricks, not lots of edits — let people see it. You don’t want to keep the camera in just one place, you want the camera to evolve but keep them in frame, so you choreograph the camera moves in relation to the dance.
Gatson: I remember Ebony even on the set, she almost sprained her ankle, but she said, “My ankle’s fine, because I am doing this Beyoncé video.” You were worried because, damn, if her ankle sprained, we couldn’t continue the video shoot. She was so hungry and so driven and so full-out.
Williams: I fell one time and twisted my ankle pretty good, and Beyonce was like, “Stop the music!” right before we finished the song, but I kept going though. We finished the song and she was like “Stop the music, you hurt your ankle!” and I was like “I’m okay, I am fine.” And she was like, “No, let’s take a minute, let’s take a break.”
What was special about it, too, was that we all had our three directors chairs, and we all sat side by side in our chairs — she really wanted us to feel like a wonderful trio. So, they sat me in the chair and wanted to go get ice and were so worried that I was hurt, and I said “No, no, no, I don’t want ice, because if I get ice then I can’t dance!” You aren’t supposed to ice your foot and then move right away. You have to warm it up; it’s like starting from scratch. I said that I was okay, and she said, “Are you sure? You’re gonna feel that tomorrow.” And I looked at her and said, “Beyoncé, I am going to be in this music video. I am about to be in your music video, so I am just fine. We need to keep going.”
Everyone was silent, because they were like, she did not just talk to Beyonce like that! But Beyoncé looked at me and she smiled and started cracking up and said, “You heard her, let’s go!” and they were like “Okay, action, we are going to do this again.”
Gatson: I do remember saying, “Will that dance hold the viewer’s attention the whole time?” Think about it: That’s the risk. But that’s what we would always re-edit, rethink, re-rehearse — let’s make it like that, let’s shoot it like this. Let’s make the ramp be invisible. It was a lot to make the video have that thing, and it worked. People will watch that thing from top to bottom, and won’t take their eyes off of it.
“HE DROPPED THE ROBE AND SAID, ‘WE’RE GONNA DO THIS SKETCH, RIGHT?”
Bobby Moynihan — who had just joined the SNL cast — found himself in a bizarre situation that involved Justin Timberlake in a leotard when “Single Ladies” eventually inspired a sketch on the late-night comedy staple. Months later, the MTV Video Music Awards recognized the excellence of “Single Ladies” with a whopping nine nominations.
Bobby Moynihan: In my eight years at SNL, this was still probably one of my craziest weeks. I think it was my eighth show? It was really early on. The Saturday before, Kenan and I were hanging out in his dressing room, and he showed me that “Single Ladies” video. I’d been trying to think of something to do with Andy, and I literally just thought, “Well, if I put a leotard on and dance around behind her, maybe that’ll be funny.” That was literally it. Kenan showed it to me, and I was like, “I think that’d be funny! I enjoy dancing, I think I could do a good job at that.” It was simple as that.
She was coming. We didn’t know if she was going to do anything. [SNL was] like, “We don’t know if Beyoncé will do this; we haven’t had contact with her.” It just kind of went away, and that’s what happened in the beginning of SNL, so I was very used to it. I was like, “Oh well! I tried. At least I wrote something that people laughed at at the table.” Then on Thursday, out of nowhere, Andy just knocked on my door and was like, “Hey, do you want to come talk to Beyoncé about doing this sketch?” And I was like, “No! I don’t want to go anywhere near anybody! I am terrified!” He was like, “Come with me, it’ll be fun!” We went down to the dressing room, and Beyoncé was there. I just remember walking in and sitting down, and she was so nice and calm and wonderful. She had a lot of people with her in the room, but she just seemed pretty awesome.
Beyoncé was super wonderful and very kind. She was rehearsing. She looked at us very nicely and said, “You know, is it possible that we could do this as a pre-tape?” She really wanted to focus on the musical part. We were like, “I don’t think that’s going to happen. It’s already Thursday; we would’ve had to plan it.” For all intents and purposes, I was like, “We’re not doing this.” It just went away, that was it. I believe Andy just called Justin Timberlake and was like, “Get down here!” He was in town, and I was not there for this part, but from what I understand, Justin just showed up. They went to the costume department, he changed into a leotard and a robe, went and knocked on her door, dropped the robe, and said, “We’re gonna do this sketch, right?” Then all of a sudden Justin Timberlake was in the sketch too, and she said yes.
Knight: I was there that night. I remember we got there, and Justin stormed into the dressing room and already had his leotard on and started to do the choreography! [Laughs.] At that point I was like, “We really have something huge on our hands here! If it made it to SNL, it was a thing.” SNL gets everything right when it comes to culture and trends. For Justin to be a part of it just took it all up a notch. Justin is someone who has really great taste in artistry and has a good eye for trends, things that are coming and staying and coming and going.
Moynihan: Beyoncé’s a lot funnier than people thinks she is! She made a couple of suggestions — one of the suggestions, when she goes “Yeeeeah!,” was hers, and we wrote it in because it was really funny. Then we had a rehearsal with Justin and figured out some silly characters to make it a little bit sillier. Out of all my time on SNL, there’s a handful of times I can remember being completely and totally like, 15-year-old Bobby Moynihan present, “Holy shit, I’m on Saturday Night Live right now!” You can see it on my face in that Beyoncé scene when we all start crowding around her and dancing. I just remember her right before going, “You don’t have to be afraid! I get it, just go for it!”
Gatson: I was probably the only one who got a little mad about that, and let me just tell you why. It’s just the fact that Justin is an incredible dancer. He could’ve done that choreography much better than that, you understand what I’m saying?! The actors on Saturday Night Live, of course they couldn’t do it, but Justin — if he just would’ve not joked with it, he could’ve killed it! He would’ve tore it up! He’s a dancer! That was the thing. I was on the set that day when they did that. When Justin made fun of the steps, I was like, “Damn, you could do that step better than that!”
Williams: We performed on SNL that night. They were absolutely hilarious. Justin Timberlake is an actual nut. I couldn’t do anything put pee my pants of laughter. They are amazing. They are characters. It also says so much about who she is as a person. She is awesome and a human and real and still very much aware of that. And that is cool.
Moynihan: The second I walked off for that Beyoncé sketch I ran into JAY-Z. I’m standing there in a leotard and heels, and he just looked at me and went, “Nah, man.” And just walked away. [Laughs.] That really happened. He was laughing, but he just went, “Nah, man.” I don’t know what it meant, but it was genius. It was perfect.
Gatson: My favorite live “Single Ladies” is the MTV Awards when Kanye acted all crazy that night. We won the award for best choreography. That was incredible because we had [stage] elevators. We started off with just three girls, and then more girls were revealed on that J-setting part. They would come up magically, and I think I had a hundred girls in that, close to a hundred; I forget the number. That was probably my most enjoyable “Single Ladies” [performance], because Beyoncé opened with a little a cappella à la Michael Jackson/Sammy Davis Jr., then she walked in. It was an incredible night.
“THIS IS WAY BIGGER THAN A MUSIC VIDEO”
In the months following the debut of “Single Ladies,” the music video grew into a cultural juggernaut: People all over the world were recording themselves trying their best to drop it low like Beyoncé, Everett, and Williams — including the President of the United States.
Nava: The thing about “Single Ladies” is that her entertainment of the viewer is so powerful and undeniable that it doesn’t really illicit negative energy, I don’t think. It just makes people think, “That’s great, I want a go!” And so they all did have a go. That sort of escalated, and it’s not the first time that a dance move has become a global trend. When I ended up seeing Obama doing the hand move, I definitely was excited that we had done something in the world of dance that had become timeless.
Knight: Everyone started to upload their videos of them doing it. And when I say everyone, it was celebrities down to people in the country, people overseas — literally everyone was uploading it. For me, that was the moment where I was like, “Okay, this has gone down, this is way bigger than a music video.” It was something everyone was able to connect with. Regardless of race, regardless of gender, regardless of upbringing, regardless of where you are currently, everyone had a piece of that they were able to connect with, and I think that’s what made it so beautiful.
Williams: One thing that was super powerful and why it went viral and why it hit me the way it did was how it is so relatable. Certain movements, anyone can do — anyone can move their hand back and forth. That was smart on so many levels, because that is what people are searching for. People are looking for some linear parallel between someone they look up to and their story.
Often, people see these stars and think that they’re untouchable, that they can’t be living the same stories that I am living. How can I really feel like I am a part of it? And one way they could was by finding these movements that they can do and have their own interpretation [of] and recreate. When it started happening and everyone started making their own versions on YouTube, it was like, “Wow, this is big.”
Nava: I suppose, throughout the history of music videos, there are certain videos where you definitely think, “That video changed the way I feel about the track.” Since I’ve worked with her on “Crazy In Love,” I’d been struck by the maturity of her creative vision and her sense of her own visual identity. I don’t think in any way that she was naive to the power of music videos. But I think that all the stars aligned on that job, and her visual identity was just so powerful, it may have inspired her to recognize how beneficial it was to really go the distance to make great videos. It seems to have stood the test of time and ended up being something that is a part of culture forever.
I thought that in this climate of increasing amounts of content, it becomes really important to make something really stand out. But that’s a lot easier if you’ve got Beyoncé and her talent and her music, and that is why I love to work with her more than anyone else.