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When Beyoncé’s newest album came out and took everyone by surprise, I remember scrolling through the BuzzFeed rehash and marveling at how relentlessly perfect each GIF looked. If the article was a bit hyperbolic—“41 Most Unbelievably Flawless and Life-Changing Moments from Beyoncé’s New Album”—it also was not alone in its conviction that the American pop icon is a true goddess. She somehow transcends the edgy sexuality of Rihanna, the scary theatricality of Lady Gaga, and the shameless appropriations of Miley Cyrus. Perfection, above all, is a branding strategy, and it seems that Beyoncé has perfected her own cult of personality.
As an entertainer, Beyoncé is on par with Michael Jackson and Madonna, but as a pop phenomenon, we may just as easily compare her to icons like Andy Warhol and Banksy. Both of these artists are celebrated as social movements unto themselves, important more for their innovations in style than artistic technique. Silk-screening was invented around a thousand years ago, after all, and street art is at least as old as the modern city. Warhol, for example, started a movement that embraced pop culture with uncritical arms. From its humble beginnings in the iconic Campbell’s soup can, pop art celebrated the crassest corners of American life, and along with it, all the workings of consumer capitalism.
Banksy also recycles pop culture, but his art consistently breaches boundaries, both physical and political. His art unveils what consumerism really does to us, and the worst irony is that his own popularity is undermining that agenda. As his New York artist’s residency has shown, what used to be guerrilla artfare has turned into a citywide scavenger hunt that culminated in three fans’ attempts to cut down his final piece and keep it for themselves. In the craze for Banksy originals, his work has lost its renegade appeal and transformed him into a pop culture icon. He now belongs in the art collector’s gallery and the Instagram feeds of his fans. Much of Warhol’s work may never have tried to be anything more than just a celebration of capitalism, but against his will, Banksy’s movement has been domesticated.
What does all of this have to do with Beyoncé? In a way, she has picked the best of both worlds. Like Andy Warhol and Banksy, she isn’t giving us anything particularly new. Not only do some of her inspirations border on cultural appropriation, but she has also been accused of outright plagiarizing artists like South African photographer Pieter Hugo and Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker. Beyoncé buys into the glam of consumer culture as much as Warhol does. She exudes the carefree charisma of an artist who just knows how to have fun. She enjoys being at the center of her own cult of personality, and she won’t apologize for it.
But she won’t stop there: unlike Warhol, Beyoncé is not content with just celebrating American life by showing us what it looks like on the outside. She also projects the sense of purpose that makes us attracted to renegade artists like Banksy. We credit her for opening new dialogues about feminism, race, and politics. In her recent music video for “Superpower,” she pairs a niqab with kohl eyeliner, races against a wall of riot police, and chants, “Nothing I know can break us down / They can’t break us down.” The imagery is just specific enough to make us recall Tahrir Square and Taksim Gezi Park, but just vague enough to avoid making a controversial political statement. One reviewer at The Verge even labeled some numbers “boring opulence porn.” But the superficial gleam of “Superpower” is entirely different from that of Warhol’s “Death and Disaster” series, for example, which also recycles images from news media to provocative effect. However, while Warhol simply gives us images to digest for ourselves, Beyoncé goes a step further, translating the images for her audience and morphing modern history into a marketable combination of aural and visual opulence.
For all its provocative imagery, “Superpower” is just one number in a relentless succession of meticulously produced videos. On “Beyoncé,” she is alternately a beauty pageant contestant, a mother, an activist, a lover. In this way, she does to herself what Banksy’s fans did to Banksy. She domesticates political revolt just as she renders innocuous race, class, and sexuality. With Beyoncé, everything is provocative, but not too provocative. Safe, but not too safe. Always sensuous, always smooth, her sexuality is never frightening like Lady Gaga’s, and her cultural appropriations never tasteless like Miley Cyrus’s. She could not be so perfect without being so self-aware. The cult of Beyoncé works like a well-oiled machine, with the open sores of race, feminism, and politics always safely contained within the cogs of production, distribution, and marketing. She is a flawless entertainer not because she is a queen, a diva, or a goddess, but because she is a system that knows its audience. And in that sense, she is truly perfect.
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