I’ve decided to steer away from popular culture commentary on Corner Cases because I feel like this topic is adequately covered elsewhere online, but that Beyoncé song is still getting airplay and I’ve got Sex at Dawn on the brain, so I just can’t help myself.
“Single Ladies” is a brilliant song, and as it often is with these things, the exact source of its brilliance cannot be pinned down. Musically it’s pretty standard stuff–playground taunt cadence, call-and-response refrain, and a beat that’s infectious but no more infectious than a zillion other pop songs out there. Beyoncé’s a strong singer, but for me she’s fallen victim to the pop chanteuse ceiling effect–so many female vocalists are so good that they all start to sound the same. Still, I can’t get “Single Ladies” out of my head. The whole package works, and not just in an earwormy way. There’s something sharp, forceful, and alive about it. Even a tongue-in-cheek cover by bluegrass parody band the Cleverlys can’t help but be a really great song.
The premise as I gathered from half-attending listenings at the gym or wherever it is that ubiquitous singles make themselves felt is this: for three years Beyoncé (or rather the persona adopted by Beyoncé in the song, who I will refer to as Beyoncé because novel font color is more fun than shudder quotes) loved a man. For a while he loved her too, but then this Caddish Ex-Suitor (or maybe Suitors–he could be a composite) rejected her, presumably for another woman. Soon after the breakup they run into each other at a club. Beyoncé is looking sexy in a way that makes the CE-S realize in no uncertain terms what he passed up. Maybe he approaches her, maybe he just stares longingly from afar, but either way he can forget about it. Beyoncé is willing to sex it up for the other guys at the club (“Decided to dip and now you wanna trip/’Cause another brother noticed me”), but for him she now feels nothing but contempt. He had his chance. If he really wanted her he should have married her.
Like a lot of great stories, the lyrics of “Single Ladies” paints a specific scene in order to tap into universal emotions. Everyone has been rejected by a lover. Everyone has wanted to make that person regret it. Some are lucky enough to play out a revenge scenario in real life. The rest of us live vicariously through Beyoncé. But that alone isn’t enough to give the song its punch. We also need to feel that her anger is serious and justified. She spent “three good years” with this guy, and crucially, was ready to marry him. The marriage part is what gives the song weight. This isn’t some teenybopper breakup that will be forgotten in a week–Beyoncé is playing for real stakes.
Except, isn’t it better that they didn’t get married? From what I can tell there are two possible reasons why CE-S broke up with Beyoncé–(1) he wasn’t really in love with her or (2) he was in love with her, but he still wanted to have sex with other women. Neither of these situations would magically change simply because he put a ring on it. All that would do is delay the inevitable breakup a few years and make it uglier because then there’d be money and lawyers and maybe children involved. CE-S may be feeling like a chump sitting there in the club at that moment, but I’d say he dodged a bullet. And not just him. Beyoncé’s contempt is palpable in a way that seems to spring from something deeper than just the circumstances of a bad breakup. Did she really want to spend the remaining forty-odd years of her life with someone she can’t stand? Or is a proposal of marriage all it takes to change a scrub into a mensch? What about the brother at the club she’s dancing with? Is he a sap for getting pulled into someone else’s relationship drama, or is he just keeping his mouth shut in the hopes of landing some collateral revenge sex? If he were to propose to her out of the blue, would he be transformed into the man of her dreams? And how long would that last?
The charitable reading is that the breakup is recent, emotions are still raw, and Beyoncé is not in her right mind. But I don’t think that’s the way the song comes off. “Single Ladies” wouldn’t be a hit if it was called “Cloudy Thinking”. Likewise I doubt we’re in some kind of Randy Newmanesque unreliable narrator territory here, where we’re supposed to be reading the singer’s flaws between the lines. No, we’re firmly on Beyoncé’s side. What makes this a tough, arresting song is the fact that it depicts a grown woman’s hard-won moment of clarity, power, and autonomy. But a crucial condition of that power and autonomy is that she secure the lifelong loyalty and approval of precisely one man. How does Beyoncé square this particular circle? Here comes the bridge.
Don’t treat me to the things of the world. I’m not that kind of girl. Your love is what I prefer, what I deserve. Here’s a man that makes me, then takes me and delivers me to a destiny, to infinity and beyond. Pull me into your arms, say I’m the one you own. If you don’t you’ll be alone, and like a ghost I’ll be gone.
This is so weak I had mentally tuned it out–I didn’t even realize the song had a bridge until I heard the Cleverlys’ version. (Their guitarist reads this part in a monotone off a notecard, which absolutely nails it.) By definition a bridge has to sound different, but the one for “Single Ladies” accomplishes this by jettisoning all the song’s good parts. The beat loses its insistence. Beyoncé’s singing devolves into some hookless Macy Grayish recitative. (Where’s a guest rapper when you need one?) Worst of all, the lyrics go to hell. What was terse, smart, and alive becomes florid, generic, and dull. Punchy imagery gives way to half comprehensible mush cribbed from a Hallmark card. Who is she speaking to here–CE-S, men in general? Does it matter? Isn’t “to infinity and beyond” Buzz Lightyear’s catchphrase? As for “I’m the one you own”–let’s just give Beyoncé a pass on that one and say that she needed something to rhyme with “alone”. The bridge ends on a moderately better note–though a cliché, “like a ghost I’ll be gone” is at least a cliché that has Beyoncé retaking the reins–but it’s still a relief when the rationalizing stops and the handclaps kick back in.
What exactly are all the single ladies being asked to do here? If it’s to exult in their sexiness for its own sake, this is a fierce and joyful song. If it is to celebrate their market value as marriageable females, it feels fatally compromised. What I want at the end is a sadder but wiser Beyoncé resolving to trust the toughness and self-reliance that appears to comprise the better part of her nature. She probably will get married at some point, and that’ll be a wonderful thing, but not the end-all-be-all. What I sense, though, is that she’s looking for a man to put a ring on it just as ardently as before, except this time she’s going to make sure it’s the right man.
“Single Ladies” is just a pop song, and by “just a pop song” I mean “an invaluable portal into gender politics”. It’s a fantasy of power, specifically sexual power, and there are rules about who gets to exercise what. Imagine the same scenario with a male protagonist. If a man is spurned by a woman then later makes her ache for what she rejected, that’s it–that’s the story. A woman must additionally justify the use of her sexual power by demonstrating that it was really about getting married all along. Otherwise she’s tawdry–not Beyoncé, merely Ke$ha. I love “Single Ladies” and am not going to object to anyone who cares about this kind of bookkeeping chalking it up in the “feminist” column, but it depresses me how the song still isn’t able to pull itself free of the antiquated stud/whore double standard. (Where, perversely, “whore” means “a woman who has sex without asking for something costly in exchange”.) I have no opinion about Beyoncé one way or the other, but Beyoncé I’m going to choose to imagine forever dancing in the club, lost in the feeling of her own sexiness, not giving a damn what any man thinks.