Beyoncé in the video for "Jealous" from the new album.
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Laurie Penny on Beyoncé: Five reasons Beyoncé's new album is a multi-faceted thing of awe and wonder

We should be jealous of the ten-year-olds who will grow up to tracks like Beyoncé's "Flawless", when all we had was the Spice Girls' "Wannabe".

Beyoncé's new album is bloody brilliant. The surprise self-titled seventeen-track offering dropped on Thursday, and the internet has spent the subsequent seventy-two hours freaking out, making gifs, and freaking out some more about the gifs. This is an appropriate reaction. It is a multi-platform, multi-faceted thing of awe and wonder. 

I'm not going to make an appeal to internet feminism to leave this album alone. Art demands critique, and I have a feeling this will garner a great deal. I’m just saying that while all that happens, I’ll be over here, dancing. And this is why. In no particular order of air-punch velocity:

1. "Superpower", a shruggable song with a video of stylised rioting that had me running in squealing circles around my living room. This is not the writhing-against-sexy-police pseudo-radicalism of "Girls (Run The World)". There is not a single spurious circus animal in sight. Instead, there are cop cars on fire. There’s Bey masking up and charging at some armoured heavies, snogging a hooded anarcho-type in a possible nod to that viral photo of the riot-line kiss in Vancouver a couple of years ago. The shot of the police visors that cuts back to Beyoncé's heavy, perfect eye-makeup. War paint. Femme is armour in this song, as it is in the rest of the album, which does't mean it stops rubber bullets real or rhetorical - it just answers them defiantly.

2. "Flawless" - my favourite track on the album, the most danceable and also the most explicitly feminist. The sampling of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's TED talk is gorgeously done, and I imagine a great many young people will now download and watch the whole thing. The song is a great big glorious fuck-you-lovingly to all Beyoncé's many feminist critics. I've been one myself in the past, and I know when I've been told. I love it when she does the "Single Ladies" hand-flash, showing off her wedding ring right after explaining that she's not just some dude's wifey, even if that dude happens to be Jay-Z. I am delighted for and jealous of the ten-year-olds who get to grow up with this track, when all we had was fucking "Wannabe".

3. And then there's "Pretty Hurts". Which is a storming number by itself, and matters much more in the context of this album. It takes the beauty myth and opens it up in a way that can be played on the radio, warmly but without compromise. "Pretty Hurts" instantly recalls TLC's song "Unpretty", which really resonated with me as a teenager, addressing similar themes about beauty, the work of beauty, and the painful contradictions of trying to exist within beauty culture as a woman who is ambitious and hungry for love. With one crucial difference.

"Unpretty" was addressed, ultimately, to patriarchy. The song blamed both it and men for making girls feel less than worthy, but did so with eyes lowered, asking for approval, acknowledging their power: "Why do I look to all these things? To keep you happy." "Pretty Hurts", as the title suggests, is much more upfront. It shows that being Beyoncé takes work, work that hurts, that costs. Crucially, it does not apologise for doing that work. This song, along with "Flawless", sounds best if you listen to it whilst imagining Lilly Allen spinning in a shallow pit of her own crypto-racist irrelevance.

4. "Blow". Ah, "Blow". "Blow" is a song all about how much Beyoncé enjoys receiving oral sex. She is not the first mainstream pop star to do this - Christina Aguilera tried in 2010 with "WooHoo", and hip-hop has been doing it since at least the early aughts (I'm thinking of Missy Elliott's "Work It" and, more recently, fierce queer acts like Angel Haze and Brooke Candy). But "Blow" is a big, sexy, confident number all about how great it is to get eaten out, and succeeds on every level where "Woohoo" was euphemistic, unsure and oddly shy, Aguilera mouthing like a little girl about how she tastes like cake down there. I do not think Beyoncé is concerned to persuade us that her cunt tastes like cake. Like "Unpretty", the earlier song takes something intimate that matters to women and addresses it to men, stripping it of power. Beyoncé, one feels, is addressing women first and foremost, particularly in this album. "Blow" is smooth and randy and sounds a bit like Prince. It contains barely-veiled directions to the clitoris. I believe Kathy Acker would have liked this song a lot.

5. But none of those are the most exciting things about this album. The most exciting thing about it is this. Beyoncé, before she is anything else, is an artist of the market. She would never release an album, especially a surprise album, that her public was not in some significant way ready for, and the mainstream, dance-pop listening world was ready for this. It was ready for an album about feminism and sexual confidence and compassion that gets you on your feet and then gets you critiquing beauty culture and then runs through the streets burning cop cars in an insanely glammed-out version of black bloc. Beyoncé is good at giving her audience what they want, and the fact that we wanted this is significant.

I don’t think that the Beyoncé of five years ago would have dreamed of making this piece, just as the Beyoncé of today would not play a private show for a dictator. The fact that the politics of her music were so recently so different does not invalidate the importance of this album. On the contrary, it accentuates it. Something has changed, and it has to do with the internet, and it has to do with young women, and with how much bullshit all of us are prepared to put up with. And I think that’s magnificent.

 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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