Part of the reason “Beyoncé” surprised everyone was that it was not only an audio album released without fanfare, but a “visual album”’ as well. While I’m still not exactly sure what that means, I know I can’t listen to “Drunk in Love” without envisioning Bey’s windmilling arms or hear “Partition” without picturing Joan Smalls’ red lips forming the word “Yoncé,” so, whatever it is, it works. But these videos aren’t only standard pop music video fare. “Beyoncé” as visual album is a smart, complicated investigation of viewer and viewed, performer and performance. An attentive watcher will see an impressive alchemic performance with Beyoncé as a powerful magician, turning her beauty into power: over her life, over her work, and over her audience.
Don’t believe me? Keep reading. Video-by-video, here’s my take.
“Pretty Hurts,” dir. Melina Moustakis
Though throughout the album, she often snarls a feminist takedown of the beauty norms she manifests, the visual album is preoccupied Beyoncé’s beautiful, perfect body, her beautiful, perfect face, and her beautiful, perfect hair. Bey knows you won’t be able to take your eyes off her, so by beginning her album with this song, she’s refusing the viewer the option of watching these videos in a haze of greed, or lust, or envy. Instead, we learn that this body—beautiful, perfect—is both prize and price of a life spent in front of a panel of unimpressed judges.
“Ghost,” dir. Pierre Debusschere
In “Ghost,” a fresh-faced Bey intones a barely interesting rap about the monotony of a daily routine. I’m not too convinced by Queen Bey’s attempt to speak for the working man, but the shots of her gyrating in fabric as it presses against her whole form or billows behind her are visually stunning. The way the fabric alternately covers her head, her face, her whole body, and then reveals them again, nods astutely to the various archetypes she evokes throughout the album: bride, mother, superwoman, queen.
“Haunted,” dir. Jonas Åkerlund
Next comes “Haunted,” in which Beyoncé is treated to tableau after tableau of infirmity, corruption, and sexual perversion. The hotel is a kind of Knowlesian dystopia where Bey dominates all media. The other residents seem demonic, but it is Beyoncé’s face that drives them crazy and provokes them to destroy the screens bearing her image.
“Drunk in Love,” dir. Hype Williams
On one level, “Drunk in Love,” is a classic Beyoncé video: she sings to the camera, rolls around half-naked; dances against a background of smoke. It’s also the first pull of the strong undercurrent of meta-commentary occurring throughout the album. The video begins with Beyoncé holding a trophy, a visual echo of the ones in “Pretty Hurts,” the figurine on top shown in close-up as the song begins. The suggestion here is that what Beyoncé is really in love with is success. Connecting the two videos in this way means adding an air of performance and artifice to “Drunk in Love.” In the first half of the video, she sings directly to the camera, sexy and inviting, until Jay-Z appears to do his verse. From then on the eye contact Bey makes with the camera (and therefore us) is aggressive, possessive; she smiles only at Jay-Z. Ultimately, Beyoncé is turning her own right to privacy into a weapon against our fascination with it.
“Blow,” dir. Hype Williams
Lyrically, “Blow” is one of the most radical songs on “Beyoncé,” which may explain the pretty straightforward video. The looks in this video recall women past, from sexed-up fifties femininity to the crimped hair of eighties power rock. All these incarnations of Bey are united by a decidedly twenty-first century Beyoncé who demands oral sex. When the lights go out, we see that the men, too, are metaphors: vampires with glowing eyes, sharp teeth, and a thirst for female flesh.
“No Angel,” dir. @lilinternet
“No Angel” is the most boring song on the album, but the video makes up for it. Shot in Third Ward, Houston, the neighborhood in which Beyoncé grew up, Bey (dressed angelically in all white) poses outside a rundown house as the viewer is taken on a tour of the neighborhood. The video begins with shots of men in various poses of machismo: in jacked-up cars, showing off bullet wounds. It’s only when Beyoncé stops singing that several consecutive shots of women appear. These women are capitalizing—literally—on their femininity: they’re strippers whose sex is lucrative and therefore powerful, counterbalancing the hard masculinity that came before.
“Yoncé,” dir. Ricky Saiz
On first look, “Yoncé” envisions Beyoncé as a female pimp, flanked by models Joan Smalls, Chanel Iman, and Jourdan Dunn. Beyoncé doesn’t utter a word; instead, she lets her girls rap about her magnetic sexuality over a catchy, clapped beat, as the camera focuses on their asses, breasts, and mouths. As the video ends, Bey struts down a catwalk, a dark world of popping flashbulbs that echo lyrics from “Ghost:” “Catcalls on catwalks, man these women getting solemn,” which, with Bey’s diction, sounds a little like “asylum.” Thus, in “Yoncé,” we are made to understand that female beauty is both refuge and threat.
“Partition,” dir. Jake Nava
“Partition” ruminates on fame and the audience’s eye: Beyoncé demands privacy from not only the chauffeur, but also the paparazzi. The irony of a song that exposes details about Bey’s sex life while rotating around a chorus that demands privacy is encapsulated in one of the opening shots, when Bey pulls off her mask to reveal a veil. The video continues with Beyoncé in all kinds of elaborate get-ups, and the leopard spots projected onto her in the last shot suggest she is not human but animal, object, art.
“Jealous,” dir. Beyoncé, Francesco Carrozzini, Todd Tourso
In “Jealous,” Bey is driven so mad by her absent lover that she runs to another lover: her public. They are amazed, mesmerized, startled by her, and in the end, she decides she’s better off with Jay.
“Rocket,” dir. Beyoncé, Ed Burke, Bill Kirstein
“Rocket,” like “Drunk in Love,” is a black-and-white love poem to Beyoncé’s beauty. Also like “Drunk in Love,” however, it is not clear who exactly Beyoncé is offering to sit “this aaaaaass” on. Bey is shown alone, over and over again, eating strawberries, rolling around in bed, making bedroom eyes at someone. Again, I interpret this as her making literal love to the camera: there is promise of the actual sex act in this, but not from Beyoncé herself. In one telling moment, the music quiets and she offers to be “a therapist, personal trainer,” anything she and her audience (whether that is lover or listener) create, articulating the complexities of cultivating a public persona as iconic as her own.
“Mine,” dir. Pierre Debusschere
“Mine” shares a director with “Ghost,” which makes sense, as both begin with Beyoncé and some billowing sheets. Draped in a way that again recalls a Madonna figure, Bey’s lyrics seem more autobiographical than anything else we’ve heard. Thus it is appropriate that the main dancers have their faces hidden, finding for themselves a visual privacy in the midst of lyrical vulnerability.
“XO,” dir. Terry Richardson
The bright lights of “XO” recall “Blow,” and like “Blow,” it is the people’s Bey who appears here, happy to be so loved. The video, however, contains a crucial moment where Beyoncé grabs the camera, turning it around on a photogenic cameraman and thereby inverting our relationship with her: she becomes the watcher, in control of the means of our watching. The video ends with her drawing a line across her neck delineating “cut,” implying that this is—again—simply a performance, with her in charge.
“***Flawless,” dir. Jake Nava
“***Flawless” begins with a clip of a young Beyoncé in a talent competition, introduced by an old white man who pronounces the words “hip-hop” and “rapping” like they’re from a foreign language. The video then cuts to a fierce, grown-up Bey threatening her competition, surrounded by graffiti and edgy-looking dancers. There is a brief interlude by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and then Bey busts out the best dance routine in the whole album. The video ends with Beyoncé’s group losing to four absolutely ridiculous-looking white men, emphasizing what exactly it is she’s fighting for, and against, and why it matters.
“Superpower,” dir. Jonas Åkerlund
In my opinion “Superpower” is the best song on the album. The video is just okay, though, a sort of thematic extension of “***Flawless,” taking place in an abandoned warehouse full of graffiti saying all sorts of innocuous things about love. And love is ostensibly what the superpower is, what provokes the riot. One of the most interesting shots shows a car window shattering, mirroring exactly the shattered television screens of other videos—but the green tint of the piece suggests the real superpower might simply be money. In the final shot, Beyoncé grabs her ski-masked paramour by the hand, and the camera zooms in to show both her nails painted green and the dollar bills on her shorts. Considering the ending of the song is presumed to be about Destiny’s Child, perhaps the real war here is for success, and the real superpower Beyoncé’s impressive wealth.
“Heaven,” dir. Beyoncé and Todd Tourso
Heaven is also a boring song with a boring video, though a sad one. I don’t have much insight into it, except to repeat the theory that it’s about the child Beyoncé miscarried.
“Blue,” dir. Beyoncé, Ed Burke, Bill Kiersten
“Blue” I also find lackluster in both video and song. (Directing might be one talent Beyoncé doesn’t have.) Like “XO,” and “Little Angel,” it is full of color and “locals,” in this case from some Brazilian beach town. Everyone is happy. Beyoncé learns a fun dance. Blue Ivy makes a cameo and says something cute, but also looks a lot like Jay-Z, which is too bad.
“Grown Woman,” dir. Jake Nava
The bonus video, “Grown Woman,” is a masterpiece. It alludes to “Pretty Hurts,” beginning with Beyoncé in front of yet another wall of trophies. This time she’s cocky, confident, holding a drink, crown perched sloppily on her head. Footage of her at various ages is assembled to show a life taken place in front of a camera. But it becomes clear that’s all that this life is—the life of a performer—when Beyoncé walks through her mirror and enters a television universe. In this shot, it is literally her own reflection, or image, which serves as a portal into this fantasy world, where she shifts from a relaxed Bey at home with the girls to Sasha Fierce, in a tight black jumpsuit and dark eye makeup. Then we go deeper, into what I interpret to be cyberspace, stylized in an aesthetic borrowed from the hippest Tumblrs: weird, fuzzy graphics, totally bizarre landscapes. The video ends with two shots, the first of Beyoncé sitting at the foot of her own mother, and the next of Bey in an African headdress, a child in each arm and by her shoulder, bestowed with a cherubic kiss. And this is where we leave her, the queen mother of television and of the Internet, beautiful and beloved.
Susannah Sharpless is a junior studying religion.