The recent firestorm regarding Beyonce's promotional imagery leaves me baffled. The entire hubbub about Mrs. Knowles-Carter and her whitetification seems misplaced, especially in the Post Michael Jackson Era. It's apparent that Queen B has rigorously studied MJ's rules of pop super status to create an internationally recognized brand.
Incubated in the hit-making quartet (then trio) of Destiny's Child, then proclaimed a break out sensation with her solo efforts, Beyonce has become the booty-popping-stilettoed-guru of live performance. The woman can sing. And move some serious product. And of course, there's the wind machine and sparkly spandex, but I digress. Featured on the 2007 cover of Sports Illustrated's Swimsuit Edition and securing a multimillion-dollar contract with L'Oreal, homegirl is riding it until the wheels fall off. The secret of her success? Ambiguity. Or, as I lovingly refer, the race towards whiteness.
This kinda-a-little-bit-but-not-quite mentality has been with the pop superstar since birth. I mean "Beyonce"? It's kinda Creole, a little bit black and not quite French. But it works and it's certainly unique. Although, the same can be said for Laqueefa, but everybody knows a black woman is the worst thing you can be in America. Apparently we don't get married, we're angry all the time and we're fat. And sassy. Sassy. Sometimes very sassy (See: The Help). If your goal is to become an internationally marketable personality you've got to move yourself as far away from these characteristics as possible. Hair dye, lace front wigs and the digital age provide a wealth of opportunities to accomplish this visually, since the majority of your fans will never see you in the 'real' world. Besides, most of us only respond to the cues we're familiar with anyway, (i.e. blonde = sexy and light skin = beautiful).
Ultimately though, all performers use some level of this sympathetic magic to influence their public. By using ambiguity as artifice they create a space for slippage that the audience uses to imagine the artist's deep intentions, or, simply as fodder to talk about them badly. While I am majorly stoked about being a black person, I can't say I haven't wished for a "Becky moment" when trying to hail a cab, shop at Barney's or date a black athlete. I'm kidding. Kinda. A little bit. But not quite.
As an artist who engages in the performance medium, I have found that using the same tools Beyonce does (i.e. whiteness, blondeness, air-from-who-knows-where) that I can create mass appeal in the Art World™. My most recent proxy? Ten white women- blonde hair beating furiously against four high-powered wind machines. The most satisfying part of this exchange is that creation of ambiguity. By personally serving as a fringe member of the performance, the audience isn't sure if I'm 'The Artist', or, 'The Help'.
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