Art / mx + Bey

The Pop Culture Matrix

Disclaimers:

  • Big data might save the world, but this exercise is entirely subjective. Any references from before 2008 come from covers of Us Weekly that we saw in the grocery store.
  • Names that appear on the matrix might more accurately be associated with public perception of the individual rather than with their true character (e.g., Ariana Grande’s public image versus her private personality).
  • We exclusively listen to soft folk music played by tender white guys who wear beards as an aesthetic.1 We are, therefore, wholly unqualified to talk about celebrity and pop culture.
  • Our liberal arts educations have indoctrinated us with dangerously progressive ideas, such as “women are disproportionately obstructed by systemic factors in their pursuit of general equality and individual success in the United States” and also “bigotry maybe ain’t so hot.”

MTV hosted the Video Music Awards (VMAs) on August 28, 2016. The awards celebrate what we know as “pop”—the culture, the phenomenon, and the collection of individual people. But the show that featured Britney Spears, Nick Jonas, and Adele became more coronation than celebration; Beyoncé, the woman of a million “#yaaaasqueens,” was epic. She demolished, shined, destroyed, and owned the night. She showed up on the red carpet wearing a shag rug shaped like angel wings. In case no one got the metaphor, for Beyoncé, the heavens aren’t just accessible, they’re part of the deal. She’s made a career out of being independent, and in the months after the release of her album dealing with infidelity and identity, she’s only become more important and more “pop.”

Pop culture means a lot of things. It’s Bethenny hawking cocktails on the Real Housewives of New York City2 and Larry David doing Bernie Sanders impressions on Saturday Night Live. It’s America’s industrialized guilty pleasure and default selling point. If the Kardashian empire drags society down, Frank Ocean gives Americans something to wear on their sleeves.

In a year when sixty million people voted for a reality TV star to become president, it’s something we need to understand. For every Donald Trump, there’s an “Alright” that becomes the anthem of a protest movement and a “White Privilege Part II” that absolves white rappers of guilt. Built into the BeyHive3 is a set of assumptions about whom America celebrates, how that group conducts itself, and what it represents.

In the following discussion, we look at a few case studies in order to help better contextualize and understand the way we treat pop culture in America. The cases don’t represent every celebrity we place in a given category, but rather provide an example of the way a given celebrity-type can act. We then abstract the discussion from individual categories and look at the career paths of two of America’s biggest stars today.

The Pop Culture Matrix

Ann Basu / The Bowdoin Globalist

The Pop Culture Matrix is a two-dimensional graph with the y-axis running vertically from Confessional to Aspirational and the x-axis running horizontally from Idiot to Self-Aware.

The Aspirational artist is the one who thinks: “There are problems in the world and I will use my art to fix them.” The Aspirational artist sees that issues exist, believes in their inherent negativity, and tries to be a positive force for change; this artist genuinely strives for improvement (or at least, what they perceive as improvement), whether or not they achieve it.

The Confessional artist, on the other hand, muses: “Sure, there might be problems in the world, but qué será, será.” The Confessional artist embraces the fact that there are issues that could be dealt with or subscribes to a kind of absurdist philosophy that rejects any inherent negativity in them. The Confessional artist, then, either plays into these issues without effect or actively aggravates them for personal gain.

Turning to the x-axis, Self-Aware is pretty straightforward. A Self-Aware artist understands the fundamental pieces of the celebrity game and how they can be used most effectively. A Self-Aware artist, furthermore, is an autonomous artist. Not only do they know how to do what they do, but they have the ability to do what they know how to do how they know how to do it.

Idiot, on the other hand, is arguably a misnomer; but it is a term near and dear to the heart of one of your authors and we already put it on the graph so it stays.4 The Idiot artist is more or less the opposite of the Self-Aware artist; yet, for the sake of accuracy, we may break it down into two species. These two Idiots have similar superficial qualities which justify their falling opposite Self-Aware in presentation, but as distinct species, they bear subtle-but-critical differences in makeup.5

The first species of the Idiot artist, Idiot Insapiens, is the simple antithesis to the Self-Aware artist. Like the Self-Aware artist, Idiot Insapiens is autonomous, but what sets it apart is that it does not understand the rules of the game it is playing. To some extent, it might not even be aware there is a game at all. It’s like your grandmother using The E-Mail. She can Turn The Computer On and she knows that she needs to Click The Little E to get Online To The Internet; but if (God forbid) someone changed the homepage your brother set up from AOL to literally anything else, or if anyone even mentions the word PDF—well, break out the biscuits and tea, because you’ve got a distressed Grammy.

This is all to say that Grammy, like Idiot Insapiens, is capable of participating in the system at a surface level, but—as demonstrated by her inability to adapt to changes in it—does not fundamentally understand it. This Idiot artist cannot adapt to a shifting landscape, nor can it self-reflect and try something new.6 What’s more, because there is no higher and wiser power pulling the strings, autonomy may even work against the Idiot Insapiens. Imagine what a relief it would be for all involved if your brother could simply operate your grandma.

This brings us to Idiot Invitus, the reverse of Idiot Insapiens. Idiot Invitus may or may not know the game; it matters not. The defining characteristic of this species of Idiot artist is a lack of autonomy. Idiot Invitus is a puppet. Idiot Invitus is a pawn. Idiot Invitus is your brother writing and sending your grandmother’s emails for her. While Idiot Insapiens is there by its own doing, Idiot Invitus has been pigeonholed into the domain of the Idiot by whatever powers that be. If the Idiot Insapiens simply can’t help itself, in the colloquial sense that it is responsible for its own follies, the Idiot Invitus literally cannot help itself—save drastic measures. Show me a Macklemore, and I’ll give you a Big Ariana.7

We will revisit the significance of this distinction further on.8 But first, now that we’ve defined our axes, let’s have ourselves some fun.

Courtesy Matthewjs007/flickr.com

Courtesy Matthewjs007/flickr.com

Aspirational Idiot

In the fall of 2012, Seattle-based rapper Macklemore released his first studio album, The Heist. The album caught fire almost immediately, opening at number two on the Billboard 200 chart and going platinum by the following spring. One of the singles, “Thrift Shop,” became unavoidable, with Macklemore’s earnest appreciation for quirky, hip, and fun clothes leaving a deep imprint on his public persona.

A year and a couple months later, Macklemore won four Grammy awards for The Heist, including “Best New Artist” and “Best Rap Album.” Apparently, he disagreed with the decision. As shown in the screenshot he posted on Instagram in the hours following the awards ceremony, Macklemore texted fellow nominee Kendrick Lamar that night and said: “You got robbed. I wanted you to win. You should have. It’s weird and it sucks that I robbed you. I was gonna say that during the speech. Then the music started playing during my speech and I froze.” The whole thing would have been nice—if not a little weird—except for the fact that Macklemore told the whole world what he did. The whole chain of events gave the impression that Macklemore tried to play the game and craft his public persona, yet his actions just came across as bizarre and patronizing.

In the intervening years, Macklemore’s only become more, well, Macklemore-ish. He released White Privilege II to the collective groan of everyone, and he released “Downtown,” a less well-liked sequel to Thrift Shop.9 Throughout his career, he’s shown an abstract familiarity with difficult questions and tried to wrestle with them, but without fail he comes up short. Macklemore comes across as a real fan of hip-hop, but it’s never quite clear that he really understands what’s going on.

His song “Same Love,” a plea for recognition of same-sex marriage rights, provides a useful example of the issue. In it, he takes on a tough topic and then never offers anything to the debate. And he’s close to saying something real, too—he works in a genre infamous for its homophobia, which he name checks in the song and then never confronts head on. He raps, “If I was gay I would think hip-hop hates me,” and he follows it up with, ”Have you read the YouTube comments lately?” It’s the only section that he debates something beyond “homophobia is bad.” And in it he takes common knowledge—hip hop is homophobic—and then spits it back out diluted. It’s not the rappers at fault; it’s the YouTube commenters.

This is not a Macklemore problem. The Aspirational Idiot artists almost all work this way: they connect their music to some higher significance, connect their personas to that issue, and then offer some lukewarm—or discreetly wrong—take on the issue. Beyond that, though, it’s possible that the Aspirational Idiot artists are the most harmless types on the matrix. They’re generally easy to ignore, their messages are diluted to the point where they lose all meaning, and their songs almost universally lack staying power.

Artists: Macklemore, Meghan Trainor, Mumford & Sons, will.i.am, Chris Martin, Bono, J. Cole.

Courtesy Jessica Barbaio/flickr.com

Courtesy Jessica Barbaio/flickr.com

Confessional Idiot

Miley Cyrus has been listed among TIME’s 100 most influential people twice: once in 2008 and again in 2014. Within those six years lies a Robert Caro-worthy history of events, with aggressive self-promotion and brand management leading the way. She shed her Disney sheen twice over, challenging societal norms and expectations for how women should act in the public eye. She also just seemed like she was having a lot of fun. Miley Cyrus is not a Confessional Idiot.

Ariana Grande, however, is. Grande is only two years younger than Miley, but they feel generations apart, and the difference between the two helps to contextualize the gap between the Confessional Idiot and the Self-Aware Confessional groupings. Miley smoked a joint on stage in Europe to shed her image; Grande got caught licking an unpurchased donut and saying, “I hate America.” Grande later released a statement explaining her actions and tying them to a larger message about nutrition and obesity in America; the headlines still only talked about her trying to lick a donut.

In this way, Grande’s the perfect example of why both the Idiot Invitus and the Idiot Insapiens fall under the same umbrella: the difference doesn’t necessarily matter.10 Either Grande is an impulsive prisoner of her managers who released a statement to mitigate the damage from the incident, or she’s an artist trying to act out and break away from her past as a teen pop star—except her act of rebellion was licking something that’s not hers and announcing something controversial just to say something controversial.11 In other words, her attempt to escape her teen branding came by doing the most 11-year-old thing she possibly could have done.

Grande’s ascent to stardom shouldn’t be discredited; while someone like Miley was made for the limelight, Grande worked her way up.12 The same is true for many of the Idiots, whether Invitus or Insapiens. But pop culture requires constant innovation—sitting still makes one less exciting, and being less exciting is the antithesis of pop culture. Once the Idiots reached their status, they couldn’t lose what they’d already made. It could be that their managers took control of their image, or that they didn’t understand what exactly made them popular in the first place. Conversely, the celebrities we discuss and admire and hate to love understand exactly what got them to where they are in the first place.

Artists: Ariana Grande, Chris Brown, Justin Bieber (pre-Purpose), Ke$ha, Robin Thicke.

Courtesy Rodrigo Ferrari, Lollapalooza Chile/flickr.com

Courtesy Rodrigo Ferrari, Lollapalooza Chile/flickr.com

Confessional Self-Aware

Kanye West has 21 Grammy Awards and appears three times on Rolling Stone’s “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.” Kanye West sold a white t-shirt online for $120. Kanye West is one of the best-selling artists of all time and arguably the world’s best living hip-hop producer. Kanye West tweeted that he was $53 million in debt and asked Mark Zuckerberg for $1 billion because “one of the coolest things you could ever do is to help me in my time of need.” During a televised benefit concert for Hurricane Katrina, Kanye West interrupted Mike Myers to assert, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” During the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, Kanye West interrupted Taylor Swift to say that he liked Beyoncé’s music video a lot. The Atlantic called Kanye West the American Mozart. Barack Obama called him a jackass. Kanye West called himself a god.

Divinity notwithstanding, we must at least give him this: Kanye works in mysterious ways.

Kanye’s name seems always to be in the news attached to a new scandal; yet a Kanye West scandal is a unique sort. Rarely, if ever, does a Kanye West scandal carry the objective deplorability of a Donald Trump scandal. While the latter alienates populations and groups unable to defend themselves, the former often consists of complicated-but-petty feuds with celebrities a decade his junior. Even when a Kanye scandal enters the arena of social justice, it is brief and sporadic, or not altogether coherent, perhaps functioning more as self-aggrandizement than as ceiling-breaking. But still, in this respect, it is exceptionally successful; for the more we wonder about Kanye’s motives, the longer we think about him. Nor is a Kanye West scandal as clearly a result of thoughtlessness as, to take an earlier example, an Ariana Grande scandal. When Kanye declares bankruptcy, on Twitter, and asks Mark Zuckerberg to invest in him, on Twitter, he’s done something far more bizarre, more layered, and more inexplicable than licking a donut. It may be difficult to like Kanye, but it is equally difficult to call him a bigot or an idiot.

Kanye West operates chaos professionally. He could probably lead a seminar on the maxim “Any press is good press.” In fact, it is not unrealistic to imagine that he would. Kanye West could found a Spin Medical School and countless Spin students—having dedicated years of their life to Spin Pre-Med, poring over Spin textbooks and studying all night for the Spin MCAT—would hope to attend, while only the lucky few would receive their Spin MDs from the Head Spin Doctor himself. And if the whole operation crashed and burned, it wouldn’t matter. Because in failure and success alike, Kanye West comes out on top, gracefully disgraceful. Because his life is dope and he does dope shit. Because as the Creator of His own rules, He can play the game better than any mere man.13

Artists: Kanye, Drake, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Justin Bieber (post-Purpose), Taylor Swift (post-Red), Kim Kardashian.

Courtesy Merlijn Hoek/flickr.com

Courtesy Merlijn Hoek/flickr.com

Aspirational Self-Aware

On “untitled 1| 8.19.2014,” the first track of his album untitled unmastered, Kendrick Lamar raps “I made To Pimp A Butterfly for you / Told me to use my vocals to save mankind for you,” ostensibly talking with God, but more so bargaining with America. The effect would be Kanye-esque if it weren’t so true. Kendrick is a singular icon in American pop culture, a man with the weight of the future on his shoulder. When he talks, America listens.

The album untitled unmastered is half-impenetrable, half-project in motion. Kendrick raps without choruses and sings without bridges; songs contain live commentary from friends and discursive “jam sessions.” The album’s rawness reflects Kendrick’s reality: he’s already inspired the Black Lives Matter movement, and he’s struggled with what it means to be black in America in the most public way possible. In effect, his personal life has become public; his friends commenting on bars is public domain material now. The album is effectively a work of sacrifice. It’s Kendrick ripping the doors wide open and showing the world what he’s going through. This sacrifice is also a necessary process for Kendrick to become the savior of mankind that we actually expect him to be.

When Kendrick took the stage at the 2016 Grammys, he clearly intended to broaden his base. The Grammys aren’t exactly the Oscars in terms of formality, but Kendrick’s performance nonetheless broke with convention. Here was one of America’s biggest rappers, performing at a celebration of the year’s best music, taking the stage dressed in a prison outfit and wearing chains. His material wasn’t comfortable either—he sang “Alright” and “The Blacker The Berry”; and while “Alright” can be intensely optimistic, “The Blacker The Berry” deals directly with being black in America and the uncomfortable messages about race that society promotes. The songs are two of Kendrick’s most “black” songs—the ones that deal with the rage and institutional oppression of black people, the ones that aren’t “for” white people, insofar as any music is “for” anyone—and he opened them up to mass culture.

Kendrick’s place in pop culture is still evolving. He’s gone from rap sensation to movement icon, and everybody seems ready to welcome the change. It’s a hallmark of the Aspirational Self-Aware artist: they’re not only comfortable with the mechanics of their stardom, but they also have a vision of America so well formulated that they can communicate extraordinarily complex ideas to mass audiences. They use the sheer power of their being to facilitate conversations which would otherwise be unwieldy. At their core, these artists have to be optimists, or else the entire experiment would become irrelevant. They believe in a better destination, which allows them to guide us forward. They’re almost, with one notable exception, exclusively men.

Artists: Kendrick Lamar, Frank Ocean, Beyoncé, Jay-Z, Chance the Rapper.

Courtesy Eva Rinaldi/flickr.com

Courtesy Eva Rinaldi/flickr.com

Case study: The Taylor Frontier

Taylor Swift of 2016 can be hard to reconcile with Taylor Swift of 2006. Things look pretty similar on the surface—her “girl next door” look has transfigured into a “supermodel next door” look and her music still deals with roughly the same themes—but virtually no one thinks of her the same way they once did.

When Taylor burst onto the scene in 2007, she was still young and unknown enough to play the naïf. She could sing about the love that high schoolers feel—true love in its own way—and optimistically retell her own outside perspective. She hadn’t found love, but she certainly believed in it.

Taylor’s early music is hard to place on the matrix. It’s not Aspirational, exactly, but it’s certainly not Confessional either. It offers a belief in America as a fundamental good. Sure, times can be tough, times can be easy, but in the end, everybody wins. The earnest naivete made it easy to smile patronizingly at Taylor, and it underlines the complex dynamics of celebrity in America: though we’d later learn Taylor knew what she was doing the whole time, early Taylor’s position on the matrix is unquestionably Idiot. The high schooler who believes in love can’t be respected as an artist truly aware of their role in the pop culture universe.

In a 2015 GQ profile, Taylor recounts how, as a child, she used to watch Behind the Music every day.14 It wasn’t an exercise in star-admiration though. As she described:

I would see these bands that were doing so well, and I’d wonder what went wrong. I thought about this a lot. And what I established in my brain was that a lack of self-awareness was always the downfall. That was always the catalyst for the loss of relevance and the loss of ambition and the loss of great art.

It’s a funny image—tiny Taylor Swift, sitting in front of a TV and thinking “if only Alanis Morissette had been more self-aware”15—but it jibes with 2016 Taylor. 2016 Taylor is someone who plays the naïf, but the act is only halfhearted.

On her most recent album, 1989, Taylor released a string of hits mostly written in the “time is a flat circle” branch of philosophy.16 “Blank Space” discusses the way celebrity allows people to manipulate those around them, and “Style” entirely sheds the novelty of the relationships Taylor dreamt of in 2006. In “Style,” she sings, “I should just tell you to leave / Cause I know exactly where it leads / But I watch us go round and round each time.”

In “Style,” Taylor’s telling a story. But there’s a more important B plot happening: the song is allegedly about Taylor’s relationship with One Direction star Harry Styles. It’s a knowing wink to the way in which Taylor’s personal life has become public property.

Taylor’s always had something of a knowing wink, but the extent to which it was clear largely tracks with the evolution of her pop culture persona. Looking back, it does become relatively clear that she was always self-aware, if not to the extent to which she is today. Her fans realized this at different times, a testament to just how successfully she swindled the American public, but her self-awareness is out in the open now.

Taylor has always controlled her image, which became progressively more defined as her career progressed. In 2008’s Fearless, Taylor purposefully cultivated her naïve, optimistic image. She released “Love Story” as the album’s first single, while “Teardrops On My Guitar” and “You Belong With Me” became massive successes. The storyline isn’t exactly nuanced: beautiful country star believes in love. As one critic wrote, “she lets the whole world know that in high school she wasn’t the popular girl,” as absurd as that sounds today.

The album also marked Taylor’s debut as a public personality. Now legally an adult and already developing a more conventionally pop sound, Taylor opened herself up beyond her lyrics. Or, she sort of did. Rolling Stone wasn’t convinced; everything felt too perfect.17 She dealt with Kanye’s interruption at the Grammys and came across as the innocent teenager; Joe Jonas dumped her over the phone and she confessed that although it was tough, she’d rise above it. Hers was a controlled entrance to pop culture, where the stakes were low.

Between Fearless and 2012’s Red, Taylor’s persona and career evolved in a pretty straight line. She had impressively public relationships with everyone from Calvin Harris to a Kennedy, and her music became steadily more pop and less country.18 Her persona became marginally less “perfect,” but her music still mostly dealt with questions about past boyfriends and surface level preferences.

The breaking point came after Red. On the album, she lashed out against more boyfriends and discussed more difficult relationships. She made vague references to past relationships and pushed on with the sparkly-eyed optimism that had driven her to the top. On the matrix, she was clearly more Self-Aware—quietly distrustful of certain types of love, open about relationships so public that they belonged more to Us Weekly than her—but she was still optimistic. She was on the positive y-axis.

And then the world started slut-shaming her. It wasn’t her fault—and it was really unfair—but it meant she couldn’t be that same character anymore. She couldn’t play the hurt, downtrodden lover; she had to take control. And so came 1989, and the exaggerated knowing wink. The game was up. She had a reputation and she had to counteract it.

When it became clear that Taylor was incredibly self-aware, pop culture treated her differently. People don’t ask if she is in love, they ask if her relationships are even real.19 2016 Taylor controls her career and her image, but she’s limited by the length of her shadow. She can’t be Aspirational, because that has been taken from her. Once people saw her as someone more interested in image than love, she had to sing about her image.

It’s possible that Taylor is more image-conscious that any other—particularly male—celebrity. Pop culture values openness and honesty about oneself above all else, and so it makes sense that, for her fans, Taylor’s image-conscious marketing feels like a betrayal. In effect, we’re not getting her; we’re getting what she thinks we want.

But at the same time, celebrity is all about image. We don’t call Kendrick a snake when he buys a suburban home at a modest price. It can be what he really wants, or just a bone he throws to lifestyle writers, but we don’t really question it. It just kind of is.

For Taylor, and the vast majority of our female celebrities, there’s always been a certain skepticism. From the Rolling Stone article to Abercrombie’s slut-shaming, we always assume there’s something else going on. And once we find out that that something else is a sense of self-awareness, female artists immediately have to address it. They’re shoved in the Confessional Self-Aware mold, barred from talking about anything apart from their own reputation.

The lesson from Taylor thus becomes: women in pop culture can absolutely be Self-Aware, but it will always come at the price of one’s message. Any hope for discussing issues larger than oneself immediately fades away, as self-awareness necessarily entails self-defense. And if female artists try to speak to larger issues, their argument is viewed through the lens of their own experience and reputation.

This is the Taylor Frontier. It charts the evolution of the way pop culture treated Taylor Swift from album to album and stretches from Idiot to Confessional Self-Aware.20 It also represents the outer limits of how women can be seen in pop culture. They can be Confessional Idiots, sure, but they can’t extend beyond where Taylor has been. Importantly, this means the Taylor Frontier excludes the Aspirational Self-Aware.

Courtesy Jose Manuel Ubé/flickr.com

Courtesy Jose Manuel Ubé/flickr.com

Queen Bey

Beyoncé has never been really Confessional. Nor has Beyoncé ever truly been an Idiot. Yet she did not use to be as Aspirational or Self-Aware as she has become. For Beyoncé has not always been Beyoncé, and neither has anyone else.

Beyoncé Knowles’s career began somewhere north of the matrix’s origin. In 1996, Girl’s Tyme rebranded themselves Destiny’s Child, a name inspired by a passage from the Book of Isaiah, and though the lineup would be altered slightly over the next decade, Beyoncé’s primacy and the personal success that would follow might as well have been written in stone. In addition to being one of history’s21 favorite and most successful girl groups, Destiny’s Child was also, arguably, Aspirational in its own right. If the implications of piety implied by its name weren’t enough to merit Aspirational-ity, certainly the group’s music bridges the gap. With the qualification that a girl group perhaps by necessity (or rather more accurately, by obligation) will sing primarily about “girl issues,” and even conceding that “Bootylicious” and “Bills, Bills, Bills” may be more frivolous than they are feminine anthems of empowerment, there is still much to work with. “No, No, No” from their debut album offers a complete reversal in gender roles; where typically the cupidinous male would sing pitifully of his lady-love’s ambivalence, Beyoncé (backed by her girls) swaps it and bemoans the teasing indecision of her “boy.” “Survivor,” though admittedly written in response to negative press surrounding the fragility of the group’s cohesion, may well be interpreted as a declaration of individual [female] autonomy and perseverance. “Independent Women,” however, is an unambiguous affirmation of a mature sort of girl power, in all its liberation and self-sufficiency.

Even so, despite all the praise worthy of Destiny’s Child, Beyoncé’s beginnings are humbled by the radiance of her current royalty. Since Destiny’s Child, Beyoncé has grown into a dominant force in the music industry, an accomplished actress, and perhaps pop culture’s most venerated female icon.

“Crazy in Love,” the lead single of Beyoncé’s premier solo album Dangerously in Love (2003), was an easy hit. It put aside Aspirational substance in favor of a horn-driven exemplar of early noughties Hip-Pop; yet to quote Rolling Stone, “The horns weren’t a hook. They were a herald: Pop’s new queen had arrived.” Thus Queen Bey had laid the catchy and necessarily inoffensive groundwork upon which she would come to understand the full power of her sovereignty and build an empire unequalled by any in all of Black Womanhood.

Cut to 2008’s I am… Sasha Fierce, which opens with “If I Were a Boy,” a heartstring-tugging song about men’s lack of empathy and the emotional abuse of women in relationships. Later on in the album, things turn less doleful as Beyoncé’s powerful alter ego Sasha Fierce takes on uncommitting men in “Single Ladies”—a brasher, more mature, and altogether fiercer update of “No, No, No” mixed with B’Day’s (2006) “Irreplaceable.” Sasha Fierce was a woke Sgt. Pepper.22 Its identity-breaking alias gave the queen agency of her crown and the opportunity to alter her own ego—enter 2013’s Beyoncé. “Pretty Hurts” takes on the perpetual beauty contest of femininity. “Haunted” tells us of Beyoncé’s distrust of record labels and how she plans to run her own business. From “Blow” to “Rocket,” the album is rife with no-more-Ms.-Good-Girl innuendo and sexual reclamation. Even her sneezes have the Midas Touch.

By Beyoncé, Beyoncé had just about become Beyoncé. She controlled her image and could give interviews when and where she wanted—if ever at all. The spotlight shone only on her terms, and her purposeful distance from it offstage protected her from the vicious whirlpool of tabloids and gossip which seems somehow to drown more women than men. Beyoncé could be praised by some as an icon of sexually progressive and self-determining womanhood, while still being adored and objectified by the crowd her celebrity required. Men wanted her and wanted to be her. Women were in the same boat. She was as Self-Aware as she would ever be, but one thing remained before she could could claim present Aspirational status. Beyoncé had more or less conquered the arena of sexuality—now it was time for her to take on something higher-risk.

In February 2016, Beyoncé made a lot of white people mad by reminding them she was black. “Formation” was another contribution to Queen Bey’s impressive catalogue of female anthems, but this one came with a twist. In the first few lines of the song’s opening refrain, Beyoncé professes, “My daddy Alabama, Momma Louisiana / You mix that negro with that Creole make a Texas bama / I like my baby heir with baby hair and afros / I like my negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils.” The music video accompanies these lyrics and the rest of the song with various images of black identity—most notorious are the clips of Beyoncé perched on floating cars in flooded cities, evoking post-Katrina New Orleans. “Formation” would be included on 2016’s Lemonade, whose release and very nature were shrouded in such mystery achievable by few but Beyoncé. Lemonade in general dealt with similar themes to those of “Formation.” It was the passionate declaration of a black woman scorned, both by her lover and by her country. Beyoncé had officially become Beyoncé.

And indeed, only Beyoncé could be Beyoncé. Of course, her career was not without bumps, and the release of “Formation” could not be said to have lacked controversy. But to those who call her hypocritical for having tried to “look white” and only now embracing her race and its suffering, one may point out that it was her playing along that enabled her to perform such a politically divisive song center stage at the Super Bowl, America’s hallowed ground—and only a day after the song’s release. No artist comes to mind who has maintained a consistent image and dedicated his or her entire career to activism while achieving that same kind of exposure. Ditto to those who fault Beyoncé for being called a paragon of female autonomy while also flaunting her physical beauty onstage, in dress and gesture. There is no other female pop star that attained the level of attention Beyoncé has gained without doing the same—let alone the level of veneration.

Beyoncé’s Self-Aware-ness and her Aspirational-ity are exceptional. She has been beautiful but not too slutty, intelligent but not in an ostentatious way, a girl, a woman, a mother, a celebrity. Her career’s abnormality provides a stark and revealing contrast to the norm. It shows us an impossible but mandatory aspiration, something society has defined and demanded in such terms that it precludes the thing’s very actuality—namely, the perfect woman. Only Beyoncé could breach the Taylor Frontier because only Beyoncé is allowed to be Beyoncé.

But of course, that’s not Beyoncé’s fault. It’s ours.

  1. Although Simon “really enjoyed” To Pimp A Butterfly.
  2. Drew watched this show with his family religiously for two years and is only a little bit ashamed of it.
  3. This would be worthy of a sarcastic footnote about bad puns if it weren’t already so well publicized.
  4. The authors have also only now recognized that this is the only non-adjectival descriptor in the bunch and therefore ask you to note that when you read the term “Idiot artist” it is as well if not better applied to us.
  5. And an inability to produce fertile offspring.
  6. Macklemore please stoooooop.
  7. Simon took Spanish and wants you to know it.
  8. “Significance” might well be taken with an entire shaker of salt.
  9. Macklemore’s “White Privilege II” deals with the implications of being a white rapper in a predominantly black culture and questions how he, as a white person, can best fight on behalf of black people. He produced the song with a black artist, but then released the song as “White Privilege II feat. Jamilah Woods.” Upshot: Macklemore used a black artist to defend his moral crusading, took credit for the song, and then decided that his rapping was totally cool and all he had to do was abstractly support black people.
  10. Ke$ha is an entirely different story, and a good example of the ways in which the difference between Insapiens and Invitus can be incredibly impactful for the artists themselves.
  11. Not to mention just how poorly her attempt to confront the real issue of obesity in America went. In the Donut Incident, Grande trivializes any aspirations that she has for a better America, doing the ultimate Confessional thing.
  12. Miley’s father is former country star Billy Ray Cyrus, and her godmother is Dolly Parton. If she wanted to be famous, she had the avenues to get there.
  13. Then Kanye said, “Let there be lucrative petty scandal”; and there was lucrative petty scandal. Kanye saw that the lucrative petty scandal was eaten up by fans; and Kanye separated the lucrative petty scandal from the career-ending blunder. (Pop Culture Genesis 1:3)
  14. A VH1 show that profiled artists on the rise and post-stardom.
  15. Who would’ve thought… it figures.
  16. Sources say it’s unlikely True Detective season 2 will have strong ties to Taylor’s next album.
  17. Money quote: “If this is Swift’s game face, it must be tattooed on, because it never drops.”
  18. The Kennedy was still at Deerfield Academy, a Massachusetts prep school and a place with the highest proportion of people who actually enjoyed the song “Cruise” at the time.
  19. Not to say that this is an unfair question, necessarily.
  20. Female artists can outperform Taylor as an Aspirational Idiot (see Meghan Trainor), but it’s poor consolation.
  21. “History” can be substituted here with “Simon.”
  22. Beatles references: the “Free Square” of pop-music-analysis Bingo.