Musical Talmud: Run the World (Girls)

Musical Talmud: Run the World (Girls)

Should probably be titled “Run the World (Girls) (Don’t, obviously, or why would we even need this?)”

Prominent liberal blogger and frequent OTI podcast guest Amanda Marcotte had an interesting piece up the other day at Pandagon about Beyoncé’s new single “Run The World (Girls).”  As she explains, the song, rather than actually celebrating female strength, suggests that women run things behind the scenes “by being very persuasive with [their] vaginas.”  It’s an appallingly sexist and demonstrably false idea, of course, but a very ancient and persistent one, and one which, as Marcotte suggests, has been used to argue against granting women actual power.  Take a look, it’s well worth reading. And then take a look/listen at the song.

One could perhaps defend the song through a close reading of the lyrics, since Beyoncé does specifically give shout outs to “college grads,” women who are “on [their] grind” (i.e. working hard),  and women who are “smart enough to make these millions, strong enough to bear the children, and then get back to business.”  But this defense doesn’t hold water, because the lyrics also say that “My persuasion/ can build a nation/ Endless power/ The love, we can devour/ you’ll do anything for me.”  The word “devour” in particular raises a red flag, as this is exactly the kind of language that flat-out misogynists tend to use in their version of the “girls run the world” argument.  I would not say that Beyoncé is heading down that road, exactly… but I would say that she’s ended up in pretty much the same territory as James Brown’s “It’s a man’s, man’s, man’s man’s world,” which is not exactly a powerful feminist text.

Then again.  James Brown never gave a shout out to all the college grads.  Since both sets of lyrics do exist, would it be possible to read the song as supporting both of these models, as embracing actual female strength in addition to the merely “feminine” “strength” that translates into a capitalization on masculine weakness?

Not really.  And this, actually, is why I’m interested in this song, or at least why I’m interested enough to write about it.  Why choose this set of lyrics, rather than the line about college, as the “real” meaning of the song?  As my contributions to this series have already demonstrated, I think, I’ve never been very comfortable with the idea that the meaning of pop music lies in its lyrics.  Here we have a case where the lyrics are ambiguous, and perhaps flatly contradictory. Which means that the meaning, such as it is, lies elsewhere. 

I see four elements at work here.  First is poetic form.  The stuff about actual strength comes up in the verses, one line at a time, and you could be forgiven for missing it entirely.  (There’s a lot of other stuff going on in the verses too, so the listener’s attention is going to be scattered.)  But the prechorus — that’s the “my persuasion” part — is dedicated to that one idea, and you get to hear it all twice over the course of the song.  That naturally gives it more weight.  The chorus, of course, has the most weight of all:  the main idea you get from the song is that of women running the world and/or this mother.  But the whole point of this discussion is to figure out exactly what is meant by that phrase — to accept it as evidence of the song’s real message would be begging the question most severely.

The second element inflecting the song’s meaning has to do with the culture into which the song has been released.  When we listen to a song, we don’t just hear the song.  We also hear all the other songs around it:  songs it sounds like, songs it reminds us of, other songs by the same artists, other songs that are notably different from this song, etc. etc.  We also hear, or at least understand, the specific role that this kind of music, and this particular artist, plays in our society.  It would not quite be true to say that without this context, the song would be meaningless… if the earth gets 2012ed, and for some reason all that survives is this video, alien archaeologists who found it two million years later would still get something out of it.  But the aspects of the song that do depend on context are at least as powerful — if not as durable! — as the “intrinsic” properties of the song itself.  And one of these has to do with the understanding of gender roles that the song’s putative audience is going to bring to the table.  Thus:  if we all really believed that girls ran the world, no one would make a shout-along anthem about how girls run the world. It’s intended as a counterfactual.  It has to be.  There are a few different flavors this could take, though:

1) The informational:  Although y’all don’t realize it, women actually are running the world.  (The video here would need to show people like, I dunno, Golda Meir, Benazir Bhutto, Hillary Clinton, a crowd of Egyptian women facing down police in Tahrir square, and so on.  Do note that it doesn’t.)

2) The aspirational:  women can and should run the world, even though we know they don’t, so get out there and man defend the barricades!  Fight the power!  Assorted slogans!  (I mock only out of habit, here.  This is an important sentiment, and has inspired some fantastic music over the years.)

3) The gnostic:  Like number one, this is about informing the audience of a truth they are not aware of.  But rather than pointing out that “hey, despite what received wisdom might suggest, women play a very important role in the governance of society,” it’s making the claim that “run the world” has a SECRET meaning which is not the same as the meaning you are probably thinking of.  Just like the meek don’t get to actually inherit the earth.  In this case, running the world involves snaring the actual world leaders (all male, of course) in a web of dark and baleful vaginomancy.

Like I said, it wouldn’t be impossible to hear this song as informational or aspirational.  But it would be difficult.  It’s not confrontational enough for the second, and it doesn’t get into the nitty-gritty enough for the first.  Being a college graduate doesn’t make you a world-runner. Buying expensive clothes on credit doesn’t either. (And yes, that is one of the groups of women she salutes:  “all my girls up in the club rocking the latest/ who buy it for themselves and get more money later.”) Even making “these millions” doesn’t really qualify:  millions are nice to have, I’m sure, but they don’t put you in Soros or Koch territory. Plus it kind of sabotages Beyoncé’s bid for solidarity with women who aren’t multi-platinum recording artists. Girls run the world because they are all millionaires?  Please.

As a result, there’s a pretty strong tendency to hear the song’s message of “female empowerment” gnostically:  girls run the world, yes, but not in a way that has anything to do with, like, running the world.  Even without the rest of the lyrics, the chant “Who run the world? Girls!” has, to my ear, an implied tag of “…but not really.”  I assume right off the bat that the song must be making a more complicated point, because the alternative is that it’s desperately naive.  To a certain degree I am twisting the meaning of the song by hearing it this way. But my point is that this kind of twisting is something that we all do all the time anyway.  It’s entirely possible that in ten years (or even two months) the song will be taken up as a feminist rallying cry by people who ignore the very parts of the song that I’m focusing on… at which point the meaning of the song will change. And that would be fine.  Even great.   But I’m pretty sure we’re not there yet.  Look, I know that there are many women engaged in the prosaic day-to-day business of running the world (to the extent that the world is, in fact, run).  I’m sure all of my friends know it too.  I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone who doesn’t know it.  And yet my idea of the common-sense understanding of gender — not my own idea of gender, but the fantastical one that I project into the minds of Real ‘Muricans, or whatever — suggests that the song could not have been meant in that way.  And this in turn shapes my experience of the song.  It would be quite a different matter if the song were about a different group:  consider a song called — yikes! — “Run the World (Jews).”  That would go over differently, is all that I’m saying.  And the difference lies not so much in how we perceive these groups, but rather in our sense of how these groups are generally perceived by others.

Does this mean it would be impossible to write a song that is informationally or aspirationally about women running the world?  Not at all — but you’d have to make an effort to prevent its being misunderstood.  And this song doesn’t.

Then there’s the music.  Boy, this beat is crazy.

15 Comments on “Musical Talmud: Run the World (Girls)”

  1. Jamas Enright #

    I was hoping for an Overthink of that video!

    Tangentially, I am thinking there’s an Overthink essay available in the idea that: a few years ago Beyonce ‘created’ Sasha Fierce, and there was talk about split personality, etc, but now she’s better and only a single personality. But which? This video is on the side of evidence that says that Sasha is the one in left in charge now…


  2. fenzel OTI Staff #

    Love this article! Definitely thought-provoking. I had five additional interpretations for the song/video to propose, none of which I think supercede the stuff you’re already writing about, but which live somewhere in the vortex or trace of the song. Forgive me if I missed anything in your article:

    1. The obvious, obvious comparison to make is the similar (and better) song by Beyonce’s husband and Rihanna, “Run this Town.” I would even venture to say “Run the World (Girls)” is the “California Gurls” to “Run This Town”‘s “Empire State of Mind.” And “run this town” even has Kanye:

    A lot of your points about this song carry over to “Run this Town,” – by not coming out and saying “We run this town,” it leaves open the possibility that, yes, we do run this town. And it has a lot more fascistic elements and expressionstic elements – where you have kind of an ubermensch who is in charge of things simply by existing.

    So yeah, there’s a lot to think about in the comparison (enough for a whole separate post), which brings me to my second point:

    2. What does “run” mean in this context? It doesn’t just refer to “who is in charge of the governement or institutions of political authority?” In “Run this town,” “run” tends to refer to a sort of freedom and social cache – if you are able to walk around town wealthy and respected, doing whatever you want to do and in full possession of your faculties and sense of self, you are “running” the town, whether you are the government or not. The people “running” the town change on a nightly basis.

    It brings me to a philosophical quote I came across that has amused me, which I can’t attribute off the top of my head and which I will paraphrase – “It is best to think of the universe as a conspiracy set up for the sole benefit of a select few: your immediate group of friends.”

    Is “running” a zero-sum game? Can lots of people “run” the same thing? Maybe “running” is just looking good, or feeling good, or being proud. Maybe “running” is doing a lot of stuff in active succession, like “running” a table in pool.

    At any rate, in “Run the World (Girls),” “run” doesn’t _have_ to mean “Who’s the Boss?”

    3. What is “the world” we are talking about? A lot of dance songs that refer to people in clubs set up a reality that only exists within the reality of “the club,” which is a transformative and transformed place, where supposedly the rules of the outside world don’t necessarily apply.

    “Who Runs the World (Girls)” could just as easily be about dance floor politics – women feel hunted and victimized on dance floors, but there is an argument – which, again, we don’t entirely believe, but which is somewhat more plausible in a club than in a boardroom – that really, because of their sexuality, dancing skills, and allure, women are the true holders of power out on the dance floor.

    There also may be a synechdotal relationship between the “world” and “the club” – things are said about the world, which are really meant to be about the club, which are then extrapolated to be about the world because the club is a michocosm of the world, albeit one that operates by different rules.

    4. Another thing that can stand in for “the world” is the world of consumption – and the consumption of commercial music. If you see this song as a product and instrument of a capitalist system, see it cynically as a self-preservational pop song, a memetic (as opposed to mimetic) earworm meant to get you to buy it, then the girls who run the world could be the consumers who purchase music.

    Girls (and girls specifically, not women) are definitely tastemakers who with their dollars (which are often their parents dollars) dictate what sort of commercial music is going to succeed, and this song is celebrating and rewarding their power by praising them for their purchase of it.

    I have have phantom statistical memory (by which I mean, I heard a rumor that someone made up) that boys are more likely to pirate music than girls, and while older people buy more music overall than young people, they don’t buy as much new music, which is why new music is pretty much dictated by young girls (I mean, with the dominance of Glee, is this really that hard to believe). Here’s a post supporting one way in which girls really do run the world:

    To the bougeoise capitalists making this music, this truly is “the world” – if history is truly a dialectic of economic struggle, there is no other or greater world that exists than the world of their product and profit.

    This raises the question of why it is “girls” and not “women” who run the world, other than the half-rhyme. So I guess that’s a half-point.

    5. And while the songwriters and video director are all white, Beyonce is black, and while she did not live this narrative herself, there is a powerful semi-mythological cultural narrative of black men having a lot of trouble finding work and being disproportionately sent to jail because of structural racism, leaving behind black women to raise themselves up by their bootstraps, go to college, become professional, and take on the bulk of responsibility available to them.

    I don’t think this is the most pressing piece of the song, but I think it’s in there somewhere.

    Ooh! Ooh! In backing this up with research, I found a 6th point (6th and a half point)

    6.5. – Since Destiny’s Child, Beyonce’s father has also been her manager – until late March of this year (so, only 2 months ago), when it was announced they were mutually parting ways. It’s not clear exactly what is motivating the split, but according to the AP, he is going to focus more on Gospel music.

    Oh, except of course Beyonce’s new manager is Jay-Z, which kind of undercuts this whole story – or makes it even more ironic – a woman singing about girls running the world who left being managed by her dad to being immediately thereafter managed by her husband.

    Although there is talk of Beyonce firing Jay-Z’s company as her manager and getting a different manager as well.

    So, yeah, I guess the actual interpretation is ironic and tense aspiration around Beyonce’s own professional life – almost a taunt – a whole bunch of men, from the label to her manager to the songwriters to the director of the video, telling Beyonce she needs to sing about all the girls who are in charge.


  3. Stokes OTI Staff #

    One of the interesting differences between this song and “Run This Town” is that “Run This Town” has a specific time frame. We will run this town tonight. And they also phrase it as a question a couple of times without immediately answering it: “the only thing that’s on my mind/ is who’s gonna run this town tonight.” So it seems a lot more aspirational — we can and should run this town, but we have to take steps to ensure that we do. As a result, it’s a song to listen to while pregaming, whether you’re pregaming for a night at the club, or the New York City marathon, or a municipal comptroller election.

    The other big difference is that “Run the World” invites shouting along to the chorus in a way that “Run this Town” doesn’t. (The Rihanna song isn’t fast enough, and lacks the fervent repetition.) When you listen to “Run the World,” you feel like she’s talking about all girls About you, if you are a girl. When you listen to “Run this Town,” you feel like they’re talking about themselves, about Rihanna, Jay-Z and La Familia. But you get to identify with their rockstar lifestyle for the duration of the song.


    • Gab #

      I’d also add that a huge difference is what/whom is sexualized. Kanye, the dude that seems more like a guest than full-on member of their club (hah!), is the one rapping about having sex and being sexy, while Rhianna and Jay-Z are focused on hard power. And the sex about which he raps is attributed more to the spoils of success and “running this town,” so to speak, not as the means by which the town is run. His bit really builds off of the tradition in rap and R&B of expressing how the struggles of the past are overcome, but that they lead to different problems (as in you go from worrying about being shot for your money to being used for it).

      And visually, Rhianna isn’t sexualized; or at least not compared to the ladies in “Run The World”. She may look hawt, but she does no gyrating and her outfits aren’t slinky.


  4. Eric the Apathetic #

    It %100 percent a satirical song. She is laughing in her fans faces. She knows that the song doesn’t have to be good. It just has to “empower women”…..then she’ll have a hit. ppl are easily lead by the brand. her songs don’t have to make sense. The sample from this song was already an internet hit. Her lyrics promote women and civil rights, but the sample perpetuates stereotypes.
    Major Lazer..Daggering…..demeaning women.


    • Lee OTI Staff #

      Regardless of the intent of the song–satire or earnest empowerment anthem–it’s clear that fans are *perceiving* it as the latter and not the former. I was in a not-so-affluent part of New York and stumbled across a community arts fair, during which not one, not two, but three dance troupes of young black women all danced to the chorus of this song.

      To them, this song has to be aspirational. They all must be painfully aware that they do not in fact run the world, but clearly hope to some day. And if this makes them get advanced degrees and reach positions of power in the business, government, and academic worlds, then I see no harm in that.


  5. cat #

    I’m not saying it’s a perfect song, or that I even really like it. But to make an argument…

    The beginning gives me echoes of Boudica and an almost animalistic/nature/naturally beautiful connection to the horse she’s riding. So right off the bat, I start with a defensive position. The land has been ravaged and the women are going to be the ones to reclaim. This gels with the men who arrive later who seem to be in uniform and acting as the aggressors.

    The most striking thing to me is how “fashion editorial” it all is. It’s very Vogue and McQueen. It’s Byzantine queen and other “empowering” female images as seen through the eyes of a fashion designer.

    I have no excuse for the dancing. It looks ridiculous. It gives me a bit of a Glee vibe though…remember when Jesse St James and Finn were going to have a confrontation and Jesse assumed it was going to end in some kind of a sing-off or something. The men seem to charge forward with aggression while the women go with chants, dancing, and fashion. There’s something very traditional and basic to it all. Like…these are the sources of female power. Tradition.

    The lyrics don’t make a whole lot of sense to me so it’s hard to interpret them.

    For me, this is the center of meaning.
    “Boy im just playing, come here baby
    Hope you still like me, ** pay me
    My persuasion can build a nation
    Endless power, our love we can devour
    You’ll do anything for me”

    It’s saying I’m not trying to distance myself from men. Female empowerment and feminism is about equality not man-hating. We say we “run the world” but “I’m just playing” I know it works differently than that. That’s there a collaboration. “Hope you still like me” despite what I’m saying. Despite the fact that I need to be a little aggressive to define myself in opposition to you, to go to a base of traditional power different from yours, that I can be self-sufficient…I hope you can respect that.

    Because of the traditional aspects I read into it, I see “persuasion” and “love” as peaceful. I’m getting echoes of the tradition of women as the peacemakers and diplomats. The ones who persuade and fight aggression with love. Love is all encompassing and can do more than aggression and militarism. I can convince you do to anything while if I used force I could only force you to do so much.

    I think the fashion is an important part. It’s saying that the women don’t have to be unattractive to still want to overthrow the current dynamic which seems to serve attractive women. The fashion is reclaimed not as an element of oppression…that they’re forced to be “hawt” but something that makes them feel empowered. But maybe I’m too involved in the language of fashion magazines.

    At least…that’s what I see.


    • Gab #

      The Boudicca comparison is exactly what jumped to my mind at first when watching, too. However, I think the rest of the song makes it transition from a rebellious and powerful woman to a hypersexualized one in a voyeuristic society. There isn’t even any demonstration in the video that the men actually do anything other than oggle and stare- so where is the manifestation of the soft power? Maybe if the guys had run off at the order/command of the women, sure, even if it was just a visual cue or something. But note how the final shot is of all of the women saluting them as if awaiting orders. I don’t see Beyonce as warrior queen by the end of the song, even if she does start out that way. By the end she’s conquered, going from that aggressive dance in defiance to a pose of submission and defeat. Don’t forget, Boudicca may almost have overthrown the Roman Empire, but almost is the key word there. She eventually lost. And maybe that’s where Boudicca went wrong*? She didn’t use soft power.

      But then I think of “The Lion in Winter.” Between the legend that she rode around on a horse to recruit for the crusades (and I think it gets talked about in the script…? I haven’t seen the movie in years, mind you) and the way she totally runs the show in the movie, Eleanor of Aquitine seems like a good historical soft power counter-example- one of success where she’s not just a bit of eyecandy at the behest of the men around her. She instead, whispers and makes them think they’re so smart, when really she’s feeding them her own ideas. And I love Katherine Hepburn, so there ya go.

      On lyrics alone, I hate it, and the persuasion stuff is what I think the real focus is, especially given how, as Stokes points out, it has a privileged position in terms of sound. I don’t like it, I don’t wanna putta ring on it, and I sure as Hell ain’t gonna apologize for any visuals or lyrics.

      Although I do have one more thing to add: The crazy pulsating and jiggling of the shoulders and stuff at the beginning is pretty much her signature. It’s about making her jelly jiggle. “Bootylicious” may be in the OED, but that doesn’t make the vibrating, tremor-like, almost seizure-esque choreography any more tolerable- for me, at least. No doubt, it’s difficult, but it’s in all of her videos at some point. Nothing new.

      *I’m not using “wrong” as a value statement from my own perspective. If we’re going from the perspective or lens created by the song, and assuming it’s saying soft power is the way to succeed, leading an actual rebellion would be the “wrong” way to be subversive.


      • cat #

        You bring up an interesting point with the salute. I had to go rewatch it. I think I can still make an argument. The beginning establishes tradition. Images of powerful women…weird convulsive dancing. The end is more militaristic but it’s just a demonstration. It’s like…hrm…when armies march in those huge, very structured parades…or how some people felt about the show at the Beijing Olympics.

        Like, tradition and love are our source of power but look, we can also fight on your terms and use your tactics. The fist in the air, structure, salute of the final dance seems very militaristic…it has the control of something like a drill team (with the guns). I see the salute like…it’s your move, we’re not going to fight with you and would rather work together and coexist but I’ve translated that into a salute, that is, a non-verbal language you can understand better. I see it as a final, we can do what you can and be this structured force of aggression but we’re not going to attack you because we realize “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House”.


        • Gab #

          I almost quoted an aritlce I read last semester about using the master’s tools… And I’m so, so very sorry for almost having done it. ::feels dirty::

          ANYHOO, mayhap I can fid a compromise? Hang in there, I’ll be sort of word-vomitting.

          Marches and demonstrations, who are they for? Who’s the audience? Okay, so military demonstrations. I’m thinking of (and please don’t laugh) the part in “Be Prepared” where the hyenas all march past Scar- and, importantly, that they’re singing about him and turn their heads toward him as they pass him. Nazis? They were Doing two things: Saluting Hitler and putting on a scare-fest for the rest of the world. In the former, yeah, he did salute back, but in a, “Good work, minions,” kind of way, not out of any coexisting desire. And yeah, Hitler’s intent with those demonstrations wasn’t just Aryan Pride, but Aryan power and might in front of the rest of the world. The Beijing ceremony? Same thing, as in it was meant to scare the pants off of the rest of the world, not sumbit and say they want to live in harmony. Drill teams and colorguards march in parades to give tribute to whatever, but also (and mainly) to get recognition and notariety. They aren’t trying to coexist either, but rather compete with their rivals (read: enemies), even if it’s just for a bigger blurb in the newspapaer the next day. In other words, I’m saying marches and demonstrations are given either in tribute to leaders or to intimidate enemies.

          Sooooo… Maybe the women were trying to make the guys watching them wet themselves. Which then changes the last shot from one of a voyeuristic oggle-fest to one of a bunch of dudes frozen in terror. Those men weren’t dumbfounded by the jiggling breasts; rather, they were rendered helpless out of fear.


          • cat #

            I find everyone’s points valid (the English major in me I guess) but I just like to argue the opposite of what everyone else is arguing and I feel like people were coming down really hard on this song without offering a positive interpretation. Not to sound too self-congratulatory but I love that we managed to reference Glee, Boudica, The Lion in Winter, Lorde, Nazis, the Beijing Olympics, and The Lion King. This is how I wish I could make my point in essays. :) Seriously, when are we doing our collab on a post?

  6. Gab #

    @ Cat: I too consider multiple interpretations equally valid, hence why I often try to find compromises, rather than simply dismissing differing opinions. This, of course, makes flame wars on my FB account somewhat difficult to watch unfold (I’m in poli sci, after all, so a lot of highly opinionated, hot-headed colleagues like to go at it on NYT articles I post). But I’d rather be the moderator than come across as a narrow-minded, tunnel-visioned douchebag.

    Speaking of FB and thus modes of communication, we need to find a way of chatting together on something other than OTI’s comments pages. What are you comfortable with?

    I have the beginnings of an idea, though, since we’re both Disney enthusiasts: There’s a new Pooh movie coming out this summer, aye? Doing some overthinking of that in some way would likely be fun, if approved by the Powers That Be. I still have a Star Wars piece that I submitted a while back somewhere in their pipeline, though (hint hint, Powers That Be).

    PS- I also wish I could write papers for grad school about Disney and such, not only for my own enjoyment but for increasing accessibility. But that’s an entire rant about my own personal philosophy on the purpose of academia and the like…


    • cat #

      I will write something on the TFT podcast facebook page and then you can friend me.

      I will probably not be seeing the Pooh movie. I’m more of a Disney Renaissance/princess/musical kind of girl. A lot more gender issues…and Alan Menken…there. I wish you had seen The Princess and the Frog and at least that episode of GG with a similar title so you could help me on the post I’m never going to be finishing. :)


      • Gab #

        Well, I’ve seen The Princess and the Frog, but no, not GG. :(

        I’ll check out the TFT page, though. Weeeee!


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