Friday, September 19, 2014

The Beyonce versus Taylor Swift debate

There is one.

On strictly artistic grounds, there isn't much to debate. Beyonce has a better voice and is a more disciplined performer. She is however, more disciplined about her performance than her art. Her performances are unfailingly magnificent things to see but the actual songs are forgettable. Swift is equally disciplined but she is more a disciplined businesswoman than a  disciplined performer; she is, in fact, a driven performer in the Madonna or Mick Jagger mold, which is to say that her art is as good as her business sense requires it to be. That, unfortunately, is not very good. If Swift had worked harder at developing the narrative style songwriting that launched her career (or if she'd had a Keith Richard like partner), she probably would have produced some memorable songs eventually. As it turned out, she didn't have to to become incredibly successful so she never bothered. Her songs are marginally better than Beyonce's but that isn't much to brag about.

What both singers have in common is more significant than any differences. Both are daughters of white-collar business men who trained them in hard-core capitalist values and both were more influenced by their fathers than their mothers. They have become role models for girls and take their responsibility as role models seriously. On the other hand, they are both celebrities and are probably headed for train wrecks as that seems to be the fate of most celebrities. Furthermore, the entertainment industry just doesn't produce the sort of character development that makes for great human beings.

The argument about these two artists is really a political one. It's an argument about what women should be like. It troubles the people who push Beyonce over Taylor Swift that so many young women identify so strongly with Taylor Swift.

Race, and racism, has a lot do with it. Taylor Swift is seen as white, where white stands for a set of cultural values and not skin colour. Ironically, Beyonce shares the same values. The contrast, the supposed non-whiteness that people seek in Beyonce is entirely in their perceptions. She may flash the word "feminism" up on a screen during her performances but Beyonce's understanding of the good life for women culminates in marriage and motherhood. If you look at what the two women have actually done with their lives, as opposed to what they say and sing about their lives, Beyonce has been more successful at living traditional "white" values than Swift. Now, you might be tempted to say "so far" and also to remind me that Beyonce is older than Swift. To which I would say, yes, but there is something about Swift's pursuit of "love' that remains adolescent and unserious.

All of which is to say that the victim of racism in this equation is Beyonce. Although they would get angry at the suggestion, people who hate Swift and push Beyonce as an alternative see not the actual woman but a noble savage stereotype. The sheer physicality of Beyonce, the emphasis on performance and appearance above any actual content, is what allows this illusion to be projected onto her. Black women performers aren't much better off than Josephine Baker because white critics still see them as a way to project their own fantasies about breaking out of the aspects of "white" culture that displease them rather than as human beings.

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