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What You Get is What You See

I’ve watched Beyonce’s performance at the Billboard Music Awards a few times today. Online chatter is generally gushy about the video effects and the dancing, but the song itself gets the least love among the many moving parts. “What a shame that such a performance was wasted on such a weak song. You’ll never hear that song 10 yrs from now,” one commenter noted.

You won’t get any push back on that appraisal from me. Still, my mind wandered to what other music might make use of such a display with more staying power.

Even more than that, however, after reading David T. Little’s column considering the intersection of the musical and the political, tracks like “Run the World (Girls)” raise questions for me concerning the line between performance as political inspiration vs. the manipulative power of a good beat and a great designer. There is a message about empowerment that I’m seeking inside this music that I don’t cleanly hear or see.

At first I thought it was just the idea that the influence of barely being dressed seemed slightly off message. I’m not usually such a prude, and after catching this fan-made video, I realized it wasn’t just that–well, not entirely. The lingerie was a front on an issue that you don’t encounter when, say, reading about this Saudi woman’s campaign to fight against driving prohibitions in her home country. Sexy is a powerful package, as are network production values, but I was looking for a core that brought a celebration of girls running the world to the table with something more weighty than glitz, windblown hair, and tech tricks, and that’s where this performance gave me nothing but air.

UPDATE: I knew I wasn’t the only one who found something hard to swallow in “Run the World (Girls),” but this video from NineteenPercent lays it out and then some.


  1. If you would like to see a video of girl power (she’s literally 11 years old) that inspires without the least aid from “glitz, windblown hair, and tech tricks” click the link below – though she uses quite a bit of air, hot or otherwise. She shows how advocacy for women in music is changing the future of Europe. The video also illustrates that popular music has many different faces:

    Thanks for the interesting post and links.

  2. “Never hear this song 10 years from now”… I bet they said the same thing about half the songs from the 80s. I definitely didn’t think “Kung Fu Fighting” would still be getting played.

  3. john pippen says

    I can see what you mean, for sure, Molly. As far as alternative examples of performers advocating for the rights of others, I always turn to Janelle Monae. Here’s a link for “Many Moons.” I feel like her stuff is some of the most exciting music I’ve heard in any style in years. Other tracks feature lengthy quotations of Debussy to suggest spiritual transcendence, marching bands to rally communities against media exploitation of women, and, well, you get the idea:

  4. Run the World is both manipulative and disingenuous in that it takes an important issue (the empowerment of women) and, as you note, says almost nothing about it. She should also do her homework:

    co-chairmen of her record label: Mr. Steve Barnett and Mr. Rick Rubin
    director of the official “Run the World” video: Mr. Francis Lawrence
    producer of “Run the World”: Switch (Mr. Dave Taylor)

    While she can’t do much about the chairman of her record company, you’d think that if her heart was really in the message she’d find a competent woman to produce the song and a competent woman to direct the video, there’s plenty of them out there looking for work. Empowerment starts with individuals who have power (like her) making enlightened, gutsy decisions, it’s not a keyword Beyonce.

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