Bow Down, Haters: Money and Gender in Beyoncé’s Latest Track
March 18, 2013
Okay, here I go, here I go again. Girls, what’s my weakness? Beyoncé, okay then. Beyoncé’s new track “Bow Down \ I Been On” is awesome. For several reasons. It’s just the kind of rap that we might expect from Her Highness: simple and melodic with a message of female financial independence and empowerment.
Sure the lyrics aren’t that clever; she’s always rhyming girls with world: “I know when you were little girls\ you dreamt of being in my world \ Don’t forget, don’t forget it \ Respect that \ Bow down, bitches.” But, that’s not the point with Beyoncé. Her message is that little girls shouldn’t give up on their dreams. Ever. Every young person has Queen-of-the-Mountain material inside. Her message is a product of a particularly American class-mobile ideal of independence and the free market narrative of merit-based value. Deal with it. She not only deals with it, never misrepresenting her comfortable, middle-class upbringing and loving and doting parents (see the picture of a young Beyoncé in pageant attire surrounded by trophies and awards on a suburban fireplace mantle that she included as the cover image for this track on her website), but she embraces her success within the capitalist music system.
In the “I Been On” section of the track, her revelling in financial success (and her Southern drawl) is loud and clear: “Gold every-thang\ Gold-ass chains \ Gold-ass rangs.” At least she is spending and recirculating her money, not psychopathically hoarding it. In the footsteps of many before her, she identifies as a Southern, Black, female, “self-made” millionaire, and she’s enjoying her lifestyle and using her fame to try to inspire others. She’s a straight-forward, non-subtle, mainstream, pop star. And mostly, we are missing out if we expect anything else from her. But, she delivers something more – her own brand of womanist feminism – anyway.
The opening rap subverts the stereotypical representation of women in relationship to other humans, most commonly as wives or mothers: “I took some time to live my life \ But don’t think I’m just his little wife \ Don’t get it twisted \ This my shit \ Bow down, bitches.” Her recent status as mother and the naming of her “Mrs. Carter” tour has been read by many as a loss of her independence. Motherhood has even made her a target of strange moralistic criticism. Considering B’s recent family-centered life choices, one womanist blogger was compelled to critique “Bow Down” for its lack of “age appropriateness.” What is this, Sunday School? Let’s also remember that marriage for Black Americans has a history parallel to the story of slavery and emancipation, so the fact of her naming her most recent tour after her legal, married name is a celebration of equality for Blacks. And, considering that she – Beyoncé – will keep every single penny of her earnings no matter what name she goes by or performs under is a marker of a significant historical feminist victory. Furthermore, the prenup signed by both her and Jay Z includes a clause that he is to pay her for every child she bears with his paternity compensating her for any lost income due to pregnancy, birth, or child-rearing. Um, paid maternity leave? Can you say feminist economic utopia?
Other bloggers, including Sarah Dean from the Huffington Post, read the repetition of the word “bitches” as a put-down directed at other women. Dean even claims that B is taking a cue from Jay Z and the like, using the word “bitches” to dismiss and degrade women. But I don’t hear the rap like that at all. I hear it as reclamation of the term that has been incredibly popular in the rap genre. I read Beyonce’s use of the term “bitches” as a direct shake-off of criticism, regardless of the gender of the person constructing the criticism, aimed at diminishing Beyonce’s woman-made, confident achievements. It is hip-hop hipster irony. Ironic because she, yes SHE, is posturing and swaggering in a traditionally male industry, in a traditionally white and male mega-wealthy club. She is taking the term from the men and re-associating it, not with women, but with critics. And, come on. She’s right: that’s what critics do. We bitch – about pop culture, about music, about film. Call it analysis and evaluation if you prefer, but it’s still bitchin’.
Especially considering in the second portion of the track “I Been On” when she raps in an electronically male voice, this track is all about her having fun in a character and poking at the boys club that her husband inhabits. She has an all-female band and dance crew, she rose to stardom from an all-female group, and she attributes part of her success publicly and repeatedly to her mother: “Kiss my Mama \ Show that love.” She celebrates traditional, hetero femininity but while respecting women’s work and cooperation as non-traditional sources of power. Ultimately, the artificial deep voice that is really her own reveals gender as a mere performance just as much as rap is a performance. Her critique is of mainstream, over-masculinized, rap culture as a product of patriarchy, not at all of other women.
I’ve said it once, and I will say it again. Expecting Beyoncé to live up to a Yankee-made, college-educated standard of feminism is futile. Expecting Beyoncé to rap intellectual like Mos Def – hottie that he is – is just as futile. Nevertheless, she is a more influential feminist, and rapper, than most of us will ever be. So…