‘Un-American girl’: how Beyoncé uses the power of pleasure to transcend a country on fire
Oh, to be an “un-American girl” in the year of our Lord 2022. One of the greatest pop stars of all time knows only she has the juice, the genius and the audacity to seize this middle-fingers-in-the-air moniker on I’m That Girl, the “still pimpin’”, mystical prologue to Beyoncé’s latest masterpiece, Renaissance. The track immediately reacquaints us with versions of Beyoncé we met on her 2016 watershed Lemonade: Beyoncé the outlaw, the bandit, the baller; a sister who is “indecent”, “such a heathen”, “thuggin’” for her “un-American life”. But whereas Lemonade boldly and allusively traced the fuel for her errantry (armed with a baseball bat, no less) all the way back to the historical nightmare of slavery and its lasting systemic problems – broken Black intimacies, alienated lovers, fractured families and generations of Black women left behind to clean up the mess – her seventh studio album paints a portrait of a dancefloor rebel-with-a-cause whose joyous uncoupling with what it means to be “American” right now demands that we redefine that word altogether.
To be “un-American” in Beyoncé’s Renaissance age is to be “comfortable in my skin”, as she sings on the slinky Chicago house banger Cozy. The song features trans icon Ts Madison’s soundbite “Black as I want to be” and a verse that not only sets out to “paint the world pussy pink”, but drench it in the colours of Daniel Quasar’s expansive Progress Pride rainbow flag. If, in other words, to be “American” in 2022 means living in everyday physical, social, political and existential peril as Black and Brown peoples, as women, trans and queer peoples – and especially as Black and Brown queer folk – then count her out. Beyoncé knows, like the rest of us in the margins, that curating a radical life is a “litany for survival”, as the late Black feminist poet and essayist Audre Lorde put it. Conceptually, Renaissance leans into this tradition of queer-of-colour thought forged by scholars influenced by Lorde and her generation of thinkers (Rod Ferguson, Kara Keeling, Tavia Nyong’o, Marlon Ross, Jafari Allen, Madison Moore, to name but a few): folks who have excavated and championed alternative sites of plenitude and pleasure in the face of intersectional violence and exclusion. As Keeling notes of pop empress Donna Summer (who Beyoncé references on Renaissance’s closing track) and I Feel Love, this queer freedom music is rooted in ecstasy, “whose root comes from the Greek ekstasis, meaning ‘standing outside oneself’. It transduces one into more than one, someone who is many. They.”
Beyoncé’s summer soundtrack is the welcome antidote to our current epoch: a season in which six unelected jurists of the US supreme court told women and people with uteruses that our bodies are not our own. It is the third year of a pandemic in which we continue to struggle to keep our bodies well and gradually learn how to make contact again with other bodies. There’s no end in sight to the forever fresh and brutal anti-Black, anti-Brown, anti-queer, anti-trans and anti-woman pandemic. Into this midst, Beyoncé has unleashed a reclamation of the pleasure to be found in our own flesh. “She knew how much we needed to dance” is how my colleague Kathryn Lofton, a Yale religious studies scholar, put it when she texted me the night that Renaissance’s intoxicating lead single Break My Soul arrived like a spiritual meteor from the sky – one week before the supreme court’s decision to overturn constitutional abortion rights. The Yoncé on this record is still well aware that the world is on fire: despite “votin’ out 45”, you best keep your “energy” up by any means necessary “‘cause them Karens just turned into terrorists”. We are in the mix with her as each track reverberates with layers of lyrical, musical and thematic call-and-response across the expanse of the album. Leaning again and again into the baptismal magic of the beat and the insistence on “looking for something that lives inside me”, she offers up one escape strategy after another to resist and reject America’s habit of attempting to break minoritised peoples.
Each sound is a building block in a seamless, exuberant sonic history of how to live a free life in our Black bodies
Nearly a decade since Beyoncé pulled Black feminism explicitly to the centre of her repertoire (on her masterful, self-titled 2013 “surprise” album), Renaissance continues to deepen this resolve as it weds cutting-edge pop experimentation with Black feminist liberation principles that speak to our ever-present precarity. As the devastating body camera footage of Black life devalued, mishandled and brutalised by the state just keeps rolling in the US – in Georgia just this past week and God knows where next – Beyoncé’s latest album builds a pathway to another plane out of American carnage and into a cosmos of Black ecstatic wonder and eroticism, drama and exploration, libidinal role play and fierce, funky play. The physical body of our heroine is a serious force to be reckoned with here – as a vision of adornment draped in a bedazzled, skin-baring number on the Lady Godiva-meets-Josephine Baker album cover; as a “hypersonic, sex erotic” as she sings on the rapturous Cuff It, a seductive Get Lucky reboot with Nile Rodgers back in the house alongside the likes of Raphael Saadiq and Sheila E; as a heat conductor capable of “leav[ing] you in a trance”; an effulgent goddess of light so potent that “everything next to me gets lit up, too”.
Such radiance is the required calling card for any great dance diva who aims to rule the night. Certainly the canonical ones know that glitter and hope are key ingredients of the last half century of contemporary dance music. And Renaissance is awash in everything from Chicago house and Rodgers’ hugely influential 70s sound to Jamaican dancehall (ushered in by Grace Jones on Move, a captivating cameo steeped in her trademark bravado), Detroit techno, the lush 80s R&B dance pop of Quincy Jones, the 90s pop-house of Robin S; to the 21st-century EDM of Skrillex, the Nola bounce of Big Freedia and nods to dubstep, electronica and Miami bass. The astonishing versatility and fearless invention of Beyoncé’s vocals threads this all together as her voice moves all over the register map: flirting with the angelic soprano trills and runs of soul angels such as Minnie Riperton and Deniece Williams, revelling in Jones’s bump-and-growl androgyny, gliding coolly through the new-wave android pop of Gary Numan and Janelle Monáe and dominating with her fiercely commanding flow as an MC. It is a voice that contains multitudes, evoking the scale, depths and diversity of Blackness itself.
Each sound constitutes a dense building block in a seamless, exuberant sonic history of how to live a free life in our Black bodies in spite of enduring attempts to annihilate them. Black music (and Black art more broadly) has encapsulated this mighty and prodigious pursuit across the centuries in America, dating back to the exquisitely complex sacred music we composed in bonds to the equally sophisticated and rebelliously “profane” music of the blues, innovated by post-emancipated African Americans seizing the will to articulate a full array of human desires, fears, heartaches and dreams.
On the extraordinary Church Girl, the heart of Renaissance, Beyoncé sings us through that always closer-than-it-seems divide between holy and sexual salvation, letting a sample from gospel greats the Clark Sisters ease us into a thick, filthy groove, an unapologetically raunchy twerk anthem for the ages steeped in catharsis and hard-won self love. “I’m gon’ let go of this body / I’m gonna love on me / Nobody can judge me / But me,” she sings. “I was born free.” Armed with clapbacks at hip-hop misogyny and heaps of virtuosic rap swagger, she delivers a critical sermon to her Black girl and women fans: let go of your inhibitions and jettison the respectability politics first devised by turn-of-the-century Black church women as a coat of armour to withstand the racism and sexism suffered on the regular. Such politics, as many a Black feminist has since noted, swiftly turned into a straitjacket. “Swimmin’ through the oceans of tears we cried,” Beyoncé, the healer, sings as she steps out of the water and assures us: “I ain’t tryna hurt nobody / Tryna bring the life up in your body …”
Renaissance is an irresistible invitation to head out into the thrilling, glorious and sensuous unknown, to fantasise and “levitate” and move passionately alongside one another. “We flying over bullshit,” Beyoncé declares on Honey Dijon’s staccato-driven, futurist track Alien Superstar – all the more reason this gift of an album insists on taking us “higher”, pushing us to imagine going “where nobody’s been”, to an America of our “wild girl” dreams. Its luminous design pulls you close to her on the luxurious finale, the Donna Summer-interpolating Summer Renaissance, as she asks us: “Can you see my brain open wide now?” Yes, and the view is breathtaking.
• Daphne A Brooks is a professor of African American studies, American studies, women’s, gender and sexuality Studies and music at Yale university, and the author of Liner Notes for the Revolution: The Intellectual Life of Black Feminist Sound