Janet Jackson, TLC, Salt-n-Pepa, Aaliyah. People who know and love those artists think of them nostalgically now, but in their prime they were very popular, and they were pretty open about their sexuality. Much of their music (in my opinion) was realistic in a way Beyoncé’s music is not. How many people have asked their driver to put up the partition before getting it on? Not me. Beyoncé is all about control, and because of that she may be the best entertainer on the planet right now. Sensuality can be about control, sex can be about control, but the idea of losing yourself in another person — I don’t get that when I listen to Bey.
I should say as a disclaimer, I don’t mind all of the love given to Beyoncé because she deserves it on the basis of her talent alone. What gets to me is how hard feminists and generally intelligent women grab onto not just Beyoncé, but her sexuality specifically. The way I feel about it is kind of like what Spike Lee said about Brooklyn, or what Kara Brown said about Jen Selter (Instagram’s butt selfie girl). This is not new. People, women, strong women, have done this before — perhaps more authentically. Beyoncé’s sensuality is just easily accessible right now.
Most of the talent I mentioned, TLC, Aaliyah, Janet, were popular at a time when performance was not extrapolated and dissected the way it is now on the internet. All That existed on Nickelodeon with one of the most diverse casts on TV (without the show being ABOUT said diversity), TLC told us they were not too proud to beg for sex (I can’t imagine that going over well with the internet today), Aaliyah rocked back and forth before she turned 16 (which is probably why Drake and so many other men romanticize how “down” she was), Salt-n-Pepa kept it real about the risks of casual sex in Let’s Talk About Sex, and Janet was keepin it real all around about how to get down. All of that happened in the first 5 years of the 1990s (don’t get me started on a 90s-were-the-best tirade). Also, it is important to note that Beyoncé expressed her sexuality in many songs before this most recent album, but that was before her marriage to Jay-Z.
My qualm with the Beyoncé fever now, or Mrs. Carter, is that we as a society didn’t celebrate her celebrating her sexuality until she was “successfully” (I mean successful here in many ways) paired with a man. Rihanna has always been open about her sexuality, but she’s often written off as a ratchet party girl, rather than a woman who happens to be very cozy with her sexuality because she was raised outside the bounds of American patriarchal/ puritanical culture.
There’s also an element of equality in this 90s contingent that some men feel is missing in feminism today. Too often when a woman asserts herself sexually or otherwise it is interpreted by men (and many women) to mean she does not need a man. I think that’s why people like Beyonce so much right now — she is pretty neatly wrapped up in the traditional sexual structure we think is appropriate (i.e. heterosexual marriage, although some people still have a problem with that, but that’s a whole other can of crazy). But if we go back and look to the old Janet or TLC or even sassy Salt-n-Pepa, you’ll hear appreciation. You won’t hear them giving men praise simply for being men, but what you WILL hear is women taking about how much they love their man because of what he can provide, sexually or otherwise, and that appeals to me. I am interested in a partnership where both partners are giving and taking, and to me, those songs embody that idea.
Mainly because of the Beyhive, and partially because I have tons of friends I respect very much who love Beyonce, I feel the need to tie this up once more by reiterating that I DO NOT HATE BEYONCE. In fact, I have said on multiple occasions that I think her presence is definitely a huge positive for the world. That said, she is not necessarily doing something new by being independent, owning her sexuality, or even being a superb entertainer. What she has done, though, is start conversations like this one, which is one of the best things an artist can achieve. So right on girl! I’d just ask my fellow feminists and non-feminist Bey supporters to take a few steps back and acknowledge that this landscape was cultivated before she came onto the scene, and maybe there is some room in there for ladies like me who don’t see themselves in Beyoncé’s music.