Readin’, writin’ and ruminating on the social value of pop stars—the last is the latest to greet the university course catalogue. Kevin Allred, a lecturer and PhD candidate in Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University, has taught an undergraduate class called “Feminist Perspectives: Politicizing Beyoncé,” in which students analyzed black feminist texts through the canon of Beezus. He’s not the only one to approach pop music through an academic lens. Georgetown’s Professor Michael Eric Dyson offered a class last semester called, “Sociology of Hip Hop: Jay-Z,” and students at the University of South Carolina were able to study “Lady Gaga and the Sociology of the Fame.” While some may choose to sniff at these course titles, The L talked to Allred by phone to find out what it means to look at Beyoncé in terms of gender, racial, economic and sexual politics. And no, learning the “Single Ladies” dance does not count as extra credit.
The L: How did you start thinking about Beyoncé in terms of race, gender and sexual politics? Was it a defining moment in her career, or yours?
KA: I was never much of a Beyoncé fan until the B’Day album came out. It was around then that I saw a shift happen in her career, persona, where she’s claiming more control over her music—she claims to write everything, do everything, which everyone knows isn’t necessarily completely true.
Then I read an article in The Nation by Daphne A. Brooks, an album review of B’Day. I think she’s at Princeton—she’s an academic, a teacher—and she called B’Day one of the most sonically and politically subversive albums of the year. She was saying to look at Beyoncé in a historical moment. The nation was still recovering from Hurricane Katrina, and we’ve had all these images of black women, disenfranchised to the extent that we saw around that. Beyoncé’s coming out, and so many of her songs about material possessions, but what does it mean for a black woman to sing about material possessions in a moment when we see so many black women, all their possessions taken away? That was kind of a springboard for me to be thinking about the rest of her music, and what else can you get out of this.
After that I incorporated her into a lot of other classes I’ve taught—I’ve done a lot of Women’s Studies 101, so we’d have a little moment, a day or two, where we’d talk about that, or pop culture classes. Students always had really strong reactions, both positive and negative, towards her.
The L: What sparked your interest in gender politics?
KA: I have a bachelor’s and a master’s in American studies, and the PhD I’m working on is in women’s and gender studies. I grew up in Utah, which is a very kind of homogenous place. I always felt a little alienated because I came out as gay, and so a lot of the stuff I gravitated towards reading was by black women. The things they wrote really resonated with me.
The L: Which other pop stars or musicians do you think could easily generate a course worth’s material? Would you consider teaching another course on another public figure like that?
KA: I’d love to teach this class again and see with a different group of students what would happen. Someone has emailed me who was teaching a sociology class on fame and Lady Gaga. And then there’s the class on Jay-Z that is happening right now or has just happened, that Michael Eric Dyson was teaching. I think you could do it with anyone who has had a substantial career. They have to have a little bit behind them so you have enough to study for a whole semester, I guess.
The L: Speaking of Jay-Z, did you see that fake bitch poem story? If you were to discuss that in a class of yours, what questions would you ask?
KA: What I’m most interested in, and what I would ask them is, “Why do we want that to be true?” What desire do we have for him to stop using that word? Does that mean sexism is over? Is it an easy fix if he stops using that word? Because there’s so much behind that word. It’s more than just a word. There are these systems of oppression that give the word any weight.
There’s still a lot of other things he could do that maybe are worse, in terms of the whole system that sets that word up to even mean what it means.
The L: In what ways does Beyoncé present herself as a sex-positive feminist? In what ways does her persona/presentation work against that as well?
KA: I think it’s all in the reception, or how we look at her. Because she does have a running thread of girl power, which people on the surface will say is feminist overtone, or feminist tones to her music. But beyond that I think to use the word “feminist” is so loaded and it’s so tough. When I teach [students] I try and not use that word and get them to come to the understanding that what we’re actually talking about is politics. It’s feminist to have some kind of progressive political message that we can read through the music or through the video.
I think in ways when reading her along work about black women’s sexuality, and historically how black women have been stereotyped and positioned sexually, you can look at her and ask questions about: Is claiming her body the way she is, can we see that as a positive step, a political message about claiming a body that was once viewed so negatively and putting it on display?
There’s this video for the “Green Light” song, it’s kind of in black and white, there’s not much color, and she’s saying “you’ve got the green light.” Lyrically, she’s saying “let’s have sex,” but in the video, the color red is put over the sexual parts of her body. So we had a really interesting discussion in class, because lyrically she’s saying, “I’m ready to go, the black female body is always willing and able and ready for whoever,” but visually, it’s flashing these red stops. She’s saying yes, while it also says, “No, you can’t, because I’m going to maintain some kind of control.” It’s these conflicts about sexuality that I think, for me, would define her as a sex positive feminist, not that she would probably want that.
The L: One current American popstar or musician whose actions/presentation could be considered most detrimental to gender, racial, economic, sexual equality?
KA: The person I think of is Katy Perry. Or actually Taylor Swift.
Katy Perry, I’m just thinking of the “I Kissed a Girl” song, which I hate. In other classes, I’ll have people analyze a pop song and have to talk about the gender in it. Some students will analyze that song, and come to the conclusion that it’s really based on this heterosexual fantasy, if you limit the thing for the boyfriend. But some people will be like, “It’s really empowering, because women can take control and go out and do whatever they want to,” and they read it as this queer/bisexual anthem or something, which I think is dangerous because it’s absolutely not. And so I guess, in answer to that question too, it could be anyone, but it depends on the reception. For some people it could be Beyoncé, but I wouldn’t agree.
The reason I say Taylor Swift is because I wrote something once about how—with the Kanye West thing—she perpetuated this racist system, where the whole thing could have been laughed off to begin with, but she played it out for at least a year, where she was the poor little white girl in distress who had to be saved by America from the mean black man who came out. Oh, and Beyoncé is connected too, because she was the one he was speaking up for with Taylor Swift winning the video over “Single Ladies.”
People often think she’s still a 16-year-old girl, but she’s old. She’s 20-something now, and she knows what she’s doing, but we keep giving her leeway. “Oh, she was scared by Kanye West.” All she had to do was say, “this isn’t a big deal.” But then the next year she played her apology song to him, and this to make it okay for America to like Kanye West again. I can’t remember what the lyrics for that song were, but I just found them to be very racist. So she would be my pick, but I don’t think many people would agree.
The L: What are you researching these days?
KA: I need to work on my dissertation, which all these things fit into. More broadly it’s going to be about the ways that black female singers, contemporary black female singers and musicians especially, unsettle these notions we have in the United States about race, gender, sexuality and class. And also looking at the actual sounds of voices, and the ways voices get recorded. A kind of sonic warfare against the state.
The L: Would you ever consider giving extra credit for learning the “Single Ladies” dance?
KA: I had a student once who said she had memorized the dance, but I didn’t let her do it for the class for extra credit. She was like, “Can I do this for my final presentation?” and I said, “I don’t think so, but we could all learn it together…” I wouldn’t say we couldn’t learn the dance together, but I wouldn’t give extra credit for it.
You can follow Sydney Brownstone on Twitter @sydbrownstone