Soapbox: Beyoncé Deserves an Apology

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soapboxI wrote this post back in January, and put it on the 'post when there's nothing much else going on' list. But now seemed the appropriate moment to post it, in the week after Adele responded to winning a Grammy by saying that it should have gone to Beyoncé.

When I’m in my feminist musicology mode, I generally try to stay analytical rather than polemical, but sometimes I get cross. A headline towards the end of 2016 had this effect on me. I left it to brew for a while to see if it was just a passing irritation, but it turns out that it keeps calling me back to call out its casual sexism and racism.

The headline introduced a cute non-story about the quirks of CD charts, in which it was reported that the new box-set of Mozart’s complete works was the best-selling CD of 2016. I call this a non-story because the chart counts the number of physical discs sold, so a set that includes 225 of them doesn’t really have to sell very many units to clock up an impressive number. And of course the sale of physical discs is becoming something of a minority form of music distribution these days.

But it’s fun to note, and pleasing to see that such a mammoth undertaking as a complete-works set is doing well. Nothing to be cross about there.

The thing that aroused my ire, though, was the way the story was introduced*:

Sorry Beyoncé, Mozart had the best-selling CD of 2016

Adding those first two words, clearly the work of a sub-editor with an eye for click-bait, turns a fun fact nasty. It is completely irrelevant to the story, but just tosses in a gratuitous verbal pat on the head. ‘There, there, little black girl,’ it says, ‘you may fancy yourself as popular, but the dead white men in wigs still beat you, even on the trivial metric of CD sales.’

The intended thrust of this rhetorical flourish is to reference the conventionally-supposed high-art, but niche, value of classical music, and to play with an ostensible reversal of stereotype, whereby it outsells a popular artist. The thing that made (and continues to make) me angry was the combination of sneering condescension, and particular choice of artist.

Because, if the role of the popular artist in this rhetoric is to index low-art but mass-consumed music, Beyoncé really isn’t the best choice. Her biggest impact in 2016 was ‘Formation’, a song that dropped like a bombshell into the popular music scene, with its complex and searing critical voice. If you listen to this and still think you can use Beyoncé as an example of triviality in music, you really don’t get it all. (To be honest, I’m not sure how well I understand it yet, but compelling art is like that - you have to grow into it.)

On the other hand, whilst clearly still successful, Beyoncé was far from the biggest-selling popular artists of the year. By overall sales (not just the physical ones counted for this non-story), the top spot goes to Justin Bieber, a singer whose public image would suit him rather better to the role of triviality.

(Having said that, I think that probably also maligns him unnecessarily. You get a lot of sneering at Bieber too, partly because of his own youth at the time he came to fame, but also because his primary fan-base of teenage girls are routinely derided in their tastes. Barbara Bradby is interesting on this - though a rummage round the internet suggests the book chapter she has written on it is not yet in print. Keep an eye out for it.)

So, why would a sub-editor choose to patronise an adult black woman rather than a youthful white male, even when the latter fitted the narrative they wanted to create better in both factual and stereotypical terms? I am sure I have spent longer thinking about this than the sub-editor did: they just picked a household name that they felt it was okay to patronise and got on with spicing up a story that nobody really cared that deeply about in the first place but might share for its momentary counter-intuitive interest. But they clearly felt that a woman of colour provided the most available object of ridicule for their readers.

And of course the maddening thing about it is that the insult is so efficiently executed - a slap-down in just two words - that my spending several hundred words picking apart why it is unreasonable and rude looks like I am totally over-thinking it. But, you know, it is the casual, normalised sexism and racism that permits the greater injuries to occur. And if we witness this kind of put-down without calling it out, we become complicit with it, and thus also with the greater obstacles our Black sisters have to climb over just to get stuff done.

It is not okay to intuitively think that women of colour are inherently valid targets to sneer at. I think it’s pretty uncivilised to sneer at anyone, really, but if you must make yourself feel good at someone else’s expense, it’s pretty cheap to do so along the lines of your established cultural privilege.

*I originally included a link to the headline in this post, but decided as I went on not to feed the trolls. They’ve made enough advertising revenue from that cheap trick already.

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