The Beyonce Experiment: How Far Can She Go?
Last week, a new Beyonce debuted a new song, "Standing on the Sun," in an online advertisement for the clothing company H&M. In the 90-second ad, she models bikinis while staring into the camera, dancing, splashing in the water and lip-synching the song. Apart from two bits of text on screen identifying the clothing maker, it looks like a Beyonce video. So does another commercial, released a couple of weeks earlier, that introduced the song "Grown Woman": In between sips of Pepsi, Beyonce dances with multiple mirror images of herself, dressed in outfits from her previous videos.
This isn't the first time a pop star has introduced a new song in an advertisement, but as with nearly everything Beyonce has done recently — gestate and bear a child, perform at President Obama's inauguration and at the Super Bowl, present an awkwardly assembled home video — it has felt like news, and fodder for endless discussion online.
"There's as much Beyonce as you can take," NPR Music's pop critic Ann Powers tells Morning Edition's David Greene. It's not unusual, that idea of using celebrity to sell a product. "In the early days," Powers says, "fan magazines were invented so that products could be pushed through the images of very early movie stars. Like Mary Pickford, for example: Her marriage to Douglas Fairbanks was the early 20th century version of Beyonce and Jay-Z."
You may think she's great; you may think she's overexposed, but there's no denying: Today, Beyonce stands alone in the pop landscape.
"One of the things about Beyonce's saturation of every moment of our lives is that she is largely in control of it," Powers says, "which makes her very different than many tabloid stars. The nature of tabloid media is that it's not in the star's control. We think of Britney Spears, that moment years ago when she shaved her head. Beyonce has almost completely taken command of her representation in these media, which is extremely unusual."
That control, and her drive for perfection, which led, indirectly, to both the inauguration controversy and the Super Bowl spectacular, means that we scrutinize her differently. "I do feel that what we're watching, we might call it The Beyonce Experiment," Powers says. "She wants to be A-class, No. 1 in critics' eyes. She wants to sell the most, and she wants to influence the culture. I'm interested to see how far she can take it. Plus, her new song is bangin'."
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
The ultra pop star Beyonce is out with a new song. Let's listen here, for a second.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STANDING ON THE SUN")
BEYONCÉ KNOWLES: (Singing) My body is magnified in the sun, set me alight...
GREENE: OK, Beyonce, new song - not normally news that would demand our time here on the program. But something struck us about the way this song was released. Beyonce is singing and dancing while modeling a swimsuit collection. And at the end of the video, we see the logo for the clothing chain H&M.
We've got NPR music critic Ann Powers on the line with us. And Ann, what do you make of a mega-star debuting a new song with a swimsuit ad?
ANN POWERS, BYLINE: Well, David, doesn't that song just make you think of sun and sand and swim trunks? I mean...
GREENE: Yeah, not a bikini - swim trunks. Yeah.
POWERS: ...sounds like that. (LAUGHTER)
GREENE: Yeah, sure. Absolutely.
Honestly, these days many pop stars, if they don't debut their new songs through commercials, they support their song campaigns with commercials. Justin Timberlake did it recently; Taylor Swift, for Target. The Black Eyed Peas have been pioneers in this - they did it a few years back. So it's really common. Beyonce, you know, she's a very classy artist, so I guess that makes people notice. But she, herself, had already done it; with a pretty fabulous Pepsi commercial that debuted a song called "Grown Woman," a little while back.
She's doing a lot of other stuff, too. I mean, Beyonce was out of the public eye for a little while after her daughter, Blue Ivy, was born. And this is not the only way she's making a splash coming back.
POWERS: Absolutely. Beyonce's return to the public eye has been phenomenal. She sang at the inauguration of President Obama. She had a spectacular Super Bowl show. She is launching a summer tour. You can follow Beyonce on Tumblr. You can check out the HBO documentary she made. She has new songs available on YouTube...
GREENE: There's a lot of Beyonce.
POWERS: There's as much Beyonce as you can take.
GREENE: Doesn't she have a videographer who's following her around everywhere, too?
POWERS: Yeah. One of the things about Beyonce's saturation of every moment of our lives is that she is largely in control of it, which makes her very different than many tabloid stars. The nature of tabloid media is that it's not in the star's control. We think of Britney Spears - that moment years ago, when she shaved her head. Beyonce has almost completely taken command of her representation in these media, which is extremely unusual.
GREENE: The way to get rid of the paparazzi is to actually just let yourself be seen on video at every second.
POWERS: Exactly. They can't steal what you are giving them forthrightly.
GREENE: Well, why does a star like Beyonce feel the need to become part of the saturation? I mean, she's making millions of dollars, probably from this H&M deal, but it's not like she needs more money. It's not like she needs more exposure.
POWERS: David, I think there's two ways to look at that. One is personal. Beyonce, under the tutelage of her father - Matthew Knowles, her former manager - began performing when she was just a child. Being in the public eye is the world that she knows.
GREENE: She doesn't know any other way.
POWERS: Yeah. And at the same time, this is what celebrity is - and has been since the dawn of celebrity. In the early days of Hollywood, fan magazines were invented so that products could be pushed through the images of very early movie stars; like Mary Pickford, for example. Her marriage to Douglas Fairbanks was the early 20th century version of Beyonce and Jay-Z.
GREENE: So I guess in a way, we're just seeing Hollywood do its thing, but in this whole new-media-saturated market.
POWERS: I do feel that what we're watching - we might call it the Beyonce experiment. She wants to be A-class number one in the critics' eyes. She wants to sell the most, and she wants to influence the culture. I'm interested to see how far she can take it. Plus, her new song is banging.
GREENE: Thanks so much for talking to us.
POWERS: Thanks so much.
GREENE: That's NPR's music critic Ann Powers.
(SOUNDBITE OF BEYONCE SONG)
GREENE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.