James Brown, the Father of Soul, performing ”I Can’t Stand Myself.” Do you see this man?! He is working it out – he possesses serious cool, how else could he seem so effortlessly sharp in high water pants? High waters and all, he is working this out. Look closely at what’s behind James Brown. There’s a spotlight just for his feet?! Do you see this?! You can feel the funk, so to speak. It’s a classic performance that is mesmerizing, even in this age of CGI, hyperactive technocolors, and elaborate camera work that often distorts and rearranges the bodies we’re voyeuristically watching (unsure of what belongs to said body, and what’s a trick of the eye.)
Something about James Brown’s performance, the simple, yet highly styled set, the focus on the performer – it seems classic and modern at once. It’s also a rest for the eyes: today’s videos are filled with cuts and sweeping camera swipes. They seem focused on the hyper-glib glance; a greedy, devouring glance, with emphasis placed on fast pleasures and not a lingering appreciation for cool. Technologically, we no longer need long minutes to watch, we catch, with what quickness we have the images that come at us each day – and what we miss, we say we’ll “youtube it,” or “google it.” We seem to need the hold of the image less because its at our disposal – we can always revisit it at our leisure.
Enter Beyonce and her triad of art-house, colormute music videos: “Single Ladies: Put a Ring on It,” “Halo,” and “Diva.” Both “Single Ladies,” and “Diva” are shot in black and white, while “Halo” features a sepia-toned haze, which mutes most all colors, with the exceptions of browns, black and white – helpfully allowing us to see Michael Ealy’s beautiful eyes and Beyonce’s luminescent skin. Beyonce’s videos seem a quiet homage to James Brown’s ” I Can’t Stand Myself.”
If you look closely at the James Brown performance, in the far background, placed atop a platform, there’s a womyn engaged in her own version of working it out. Her outfit is a black dress with a heart-shaped bodice, that appears to have cut-outs on the sides. It seems a more chaste version of the costumes worn in Beyonce’s video for “Single Ladies.” The choreography, (if you can call it that) if looked at as a whole, while more controlled and stylized in Beyonce’s video, is also similar. Both James Brown and Beyonce focus on elaborate foot work, and both the womyn on the platform, James Brown, and the dancers in Beyonce’s video are exercising an on-point rhythmic reaction between their bodies and the bass of each song. In other words, the two performances, don’t match exactly, but they rhyme.
In both performances, the artist/performer is at the center of the viewer’s attention. Beyonce’s video is unique because of how it allows the womyn from the background into the foreground – to be at the center of the gaze, however we might feel about what that means and how its represented in this modern incarnation.
What strikes me about all three of Beyonce’s recent videos, is that she is teaching us how to watch her; reinventing herself under our gaze, openly even, but we are in some ways unaware of the re-invention. It is so subtle that we watch in awe, utterly willing to be trained. I have two minds about this. On the one hand, I absolutely appreciate a womyn’s (and in particular a womyn of color’s) ability to capture, claim, and control the gaze upon her; to train us how to see her. In the midst of so many female artists’ whose image is created by the surrender of the control of how they are looked upon and gazed at, Beyonce’s myth is built on the idea of control and awareness. She excuses us from our prurient fantasies and gaze, by naming her alter uber-sexual ego Sasha, and allowing us to watch in open, full desire. She even explains the ruse to us: you’re not really watching me, it’s a facsimile, a made up persona, I’m hidden, behind the facade – safe.
In the aftermath of beautiful womyn, fallen and cracked from the weight of the gaze – Dorothy Dandridge, Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland, Britney Spears to name a few, Beyonce’s willingness to ”wear the mask,” as Paul lawrence Dunbar once intoned in his poem “We Wear the Mask,” appears not only protective, but wise. You can add escape artist to Beyonce’s list of talents – because she has escaped (or at least appears to have escaped) our slippery, conflicted gaze. She’s managed, I suppose we can imagine, problematic as the alter ego ruse may be, to step off of the platform. Or has she?
How nice it would be if we could all step off the pedestal.