If you and I are friends – and if we’re not, we probably should be – you’re undoubtedly scratching your head right now, wondering why I’m about to lay into Beyonce. After all, I’ve been a vocal and unabashed fan of Lady B even before she went solo; I’ve got love for Miss Knowles (Mrs. Z?), and I don’t care who knows. She’s one of the finest pop stars of our time, a classy performer with an ear for a great hook, and one of the few artists in her genre who consistently releases excellent albums.
Way back when I wrote my first Jukebox From Hell, I gave Carrie Underwood a fairly sound thrashing for her song “Before He Cheats”, which puts a backwards, reductive face on feminism by portraying its hero as a shrill, vehicle-smashing harpy, less concerned with her man’s actions than with a crackpot theory about his infidelity. Within the self-contained narrative of “If I Were A Boy”, Beyonce never cops to resorting to vandalism to prove her point, but in her efforts to release a poignant girl-power ballad, she winds up overstating her case by painting every member of the male species with the same angry brush. It’s a fatal flaw that torpedoes so many man-hating songs; it’s a boring tune to boot, but what really gives it the stench of hellfire is that ugly reverse sexism.
Let’s turn the clocks back for a second, and discuss what Alanis’ “You Oughta Know” and Buckcherry’s “Crazy Bitch” have in common. They both fall under that all-inclusive “rock” umbrella, yes. They both can be heard at any karaoke bar on any given Friday night, yes. They’ve both worn out their welcome, yes. But what they both boast – and what “If I Were A Boy” lacks – is specificity. Alanis’ fiery kiss-off is directed specifically at an ex-lover; she targets not the entire male race, but a specific man
named Joey Gladstone, and the song avoids wanton stereotyping of all men as total douches who play with woodchuck puppets. (And hey, check out her second album, Supposed Former Infatuation Junkie – some of the tunes there are downright tender, dispelling the notion that Alanis only wrote man-hatin’ anthems.) Meanwhile, “Crazy Bitch”, while a foul, odious stain on the collective pop landscape, at least has the decency to single out one particular crazy bitch. Beyonce, meanwhile, has no such tact; she steps into the shoes of a boy, and immediately determines that as a boy, her job is to swill beer, get some strange, and put the feelings of her significant other DEAD LAST on her priorities list, right after cleaning out the gutters and scratching her nuts.
She fluctuates themes between verse and chorus – in the verses, she lays out a series of male stereotypes (“drink beer with the guys, and chase after girls”) that she feels informs the essential infrastructure of masculinity. It’s bad – downright vicious at times, even claiming that as a boy, her duty would be to nail bar bimbos while her woman is at home, ready to dote hand and food – but the choruses are even worse. Here, Beyonce takes the moral high ground, asserting that what she’d ACTUALLY do if she were a boy is be a shining beacon of perfection, the kind of guy who would never hang out with his friends, and will only come home promptly at five, bearing roses, do the dishes, and then be on the couch in time for “Grey’s Anatomy”. Because that, at the end of the day, is what separates men from women: women have the ability to feel and to care, while men only enjoy watching sports, communicating through a series of grunts, and cultivating their STD collection.
And don’t think for a moment that you’ve fooled me with your choice of language, Beyonce. It’s tempting to read her choice to use the childish noun “boy” as a pejorative, in subtle contrast with the word “man”: as in, a boy would do all these things, but a REAL MAN would not. But then, how do you explain B’s later hit “Girls (Run the World)”? Artistic consistency requires imagining a satirical vein to Beyonce’s work that, in all honesty, probably isn’t there; we are left, then, to assume that Beyonce is using “boy” as an all-encompassing term for an entire gender. And, considering that she clearly thinks so negatively of “boys”, is it really that much different from rappers who use the demeaning word “bitch” to describe an entire gender?
Perhaps I’ve unfairly made Beyonce a scapegoat here. What’s really irksome is this notion that it’s okay to paint a broad picture of men as unfaithful, unavailable cavemen; yes, I understand that men are traditionally responsible for establishing a hierarchy that women have worked tirelessly to even out, but does that mean it’s okay to scapegoat them all on the basis of one individual’s specific experience? Moreover, would this even be acceptable if you subbed in any group of people? “If I Were A Woman”? “If I Were An Asian”? “If I Were A Muslim”? “If I Were A Fatty”? I say no – I daresay any member of any of the groups involved would be up in arms, at least if the song weren’t performed with some level of humor. And make no mistake, “If I Were A Boy” is about as humorless and joyless as it gets – points, Beyonce, for an impassioned vocal performance, but your frustrating gender politics just carpet-bombed your entire manifesto. And at this point, I think I’m done sympathizing with any individual that’s this easily manipulated.
Beyonce’s entire career is a series of peaks; both solo and as a Child of Destiny, she’s delivered the pop goods time and again, and with a frequency no other modern pop star can match. I leave you now with the uber-pretentious and super-smarmy video for “If I Were A Boy”; if you can get through it without scoffing, I’ve got a shiny quarter with your name on it, friend.