The most interesting and enjoyable thing about “Run the World” is how off-kilter it sounds. It’s a very, very uneasy blend of Beyoncé’s typical R&B style with a much more raw and off-putting sound sampled from the dancehall inflected avant-house of Major Lazer’s “Pon de Floor.” (Embedding is disabled, unfortunately, so click here to start it playing, and then come back and read.) You could see the aggressive, avant-garde stuff as representing actual female strength, if you wanted to, and the more R&B tinged elements as representing “femininity.” Notably, the prechorus — that’s the “my persuasion/ can build a nation” part, the most lyrically problematic section — cuts out the militaristic drum beat and the squealing monosynths in favor of deluxe R&B production, sweetened backing vocals, and the faintly exotic (and classically “weak” and “decorative”) iv-I chord progression, all of which depicts a seducer-destroyer feminine of the Delilah/Salome model about as strongly as it’s possible to do in purely musical terms. Just like the repetition in the poetic form highlights those lyrics, they’re the ones that are most strongly marked as “different” in the music, which again tends to give them a privileged status.
But let’s take a step back for a minute and consider “Pon de Floor,” because even on its own this music is hella problematic. You watched the video, right? Do you – uh. Do you notice anything a little, uh, questionable about the song? Hang on, let me put it in perspective. Here’s a picture of the musicians behind Major Lazer,
and here’s a picture of the director of the video.
Do you see the problem now?
This isn’t really a white/black thing. I’m sure there are at least a couple of white guys who look pretty much like Diplo and Switch that are totally ensconced in the Jamaican music scene. But these are not those guys. Diplo is an American, Switch is British, and both of them have made their careers out of appropriating and remixing music from other (poorer) countries. This in itself is not a terrible thing: I believe that these musicians do have a real affection for, and a real understanding of, the music that they’re drawing from, and it would be a sad world if we couldn’t be inspired by the art of other cultures. But I am less convinced that most of their fans responded to this song by trying to learn more about actual dancehall music. By the same token, I don’t think that Eric Wareheim is really trying to insult Jamaica here, as the combination of infantile sexuality and self-consciously godawful green-screen effects is pretty much his stock in trade. But I’m pretty sure that for most of the people who watched this video, the takeaway is that Jamaican music and dancing — and by extension, Jamaican people — are primitive and overly sexualized. And really, really weird. (And some of this comes through in Beyoncé’s use of the sample too — not the primitive sex part, which is more a function of the video, but definitely the weirdness and ethnic otherness. Check out her pronunciation of “boy,” if you have any doubts.)
And this misses a lot of nuance. Check out the video for Tony Matterhorn’s “Dutty Wine.”
This is similar in a lot of ways. Again, you could walk away thinking that it’s all about sublimated sex, what with the men judging the dance contest and all. But it would be very hard for the typical American listener/viewer to walk away from this thinking that it’s just weird and sexual, the way that they do from Major Lazer. You know in this case that there are things going on that you don’t quite understand. And although the dancing is obviously sexual, it also clearly has a lot to do with competition, and even more than that it seems to be about skill, control, and physical mastery. Now, the dutty wine is a relatively restrained dance compared to “daggering,” which is the stuff on display in the “Pon de Floor” video. But here’s the thing: even daggering is never really all about sex. Go onto youtube and search for it if you like. One thing you’ll notice is that Wareheim isn’t really exaggerating it all that much: moves like jumping off of a high perch and landing on your partner’s pelvis are actually done. This looks sexual. But it also looks freaking hard to do, once you realize that it’s not a wire stunt or anything. The dichotomy is elegantly captured by wikipedia’s description of the dance, which as of this writing defines it as “an artistic form of dance originating from the Caribbean which incorporates wrestling and other forms of frantic movement,” but also claims — and I’m just guessing that this might have been written by another editor — that “the penis is used in a dagger like fashion to repeatedly stab at the vagina in violent and plundering manner.” Even in Jamaica, people tend to forget the artistic element: daggering has been the subject of a moral panic which claims, among other things, that it’s all demeaning to women, and that men have been injuring their penises by trying to perform daggering-type moves during actual sexual intercourse. And it needs to be said that even within Jamaica, this is NOT how people typically dance. It’s a very limited subculture within the broader music scene, associated with the roughest (and, I’m guessing, poorest) elements of society… that is, with people for whom upsetting social norms, even if it’s by miming violent sex on the dancefloor, is probably an empowering gesture. As for the demeaning to women aspect — certainly that’s the case for some of it. Certainly that’s the idea you’d get from what’s on display in the Major Lazer video. But check out this performance by dancehall queen Mad Michelle.
The sexual element is still there. But there are many, many points where skill, strength, and control take center stage. That jumping business at the beginning? It’s an astonishing display of physicality, but where’s the sex appeal there? And then listen to Lady Saw’s “Chat to Mi Back”
This one is a little more ambiguous. The dancing on display is more straightforwardly sexual, and the lyrics include a line where the singer boasts about how much her man loves/wants her. But most of the song is about conflict between women, and the dancing is meant to be an extension of the argument. Basically, Lady Saw claims that when she hears women talking trash, she just spins around and shakes her ass at them, demonstrating demonstrating through her skill (and physical fitness/sexiness, I guess) that her opponents criticism is groundless. Okay, so I just read that sentence back to myself and I sound like the world’s most pedantic white guy, but I don’t really know how else to explain it: that is what’s going on. Dance, then, is politics carried out by other means. The sex doesn’t go away — in any case where you have women dancing for an even partially male audience, objectification is going to be an issue — but it’s not the only thing. And again, the balance can shift over time. The dignified and sedate art of classical ballet used to be about as respectable as pole dancing.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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?
@ 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…
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. :)
Well, I’ve seen The Princess and the Frog, but no, not GG. :(
I’ll check out the TFT page, though. Weeeee!