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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Women on the edge: new films Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women

With their claustrophobic close-ups and desolate wide shots, both films are stunning portraits of life on the brink.

Jacqueline Kennedy and Christine Chubbuck may not have had much in common in real life – the former briefly the US first lady, the latter a put-upon television news reporter in the early 1970s in Sarasota, Florida – but two new films named after them are cut resolutely from the same cloth. Jackie and Christine are character studies of haunted women in which the claustrophobic close-up and the desolate wide shot are the predominant forms of address.

Both films hinge on fatal gunshots to the head and both seek to express cinematically a state of mind that is internal: grief and loss in Jackie, which is set mainly in the hours and days after the assassination of President John F Kennedy; depression and paranoia in Christine. In this area, they rely heavily not only on hypnotically controlled performances from their lead actors but on music that describes the psychological contours of distress.

Even before we see anything in Jackie, we hear plunging chords like a string section falling down a lift shaft. This is the unmistakable work of the abrasive art rocker Mica Levi. Her score in Jackie closes in on the ears just as the tight compositions by the cinematographer Stéphane Fontaine exclude the majority of the outside world. The Chilean director Pablo Larraín knows a thing or two about sustaining intensity, as viewers of his earlier work, including his Pinochet-era trilogy (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and No), will attest. Though this is his first English-language film, there is no hint of any softening. The picture will frustrate anyone hoping for a panoramic historical drama, with Larraín and the screenwriter Noah Oppenheim irising intently in on Jackie, played with brittle calm by Natalie Portman, and finding the nation’s woes reflected in her face.

Bit-players come and go as the film jumbles up the past and present, the personal and political. A journalist (Billy Crudup), nameless but based on Theodore White, arrives to interview the widow. Her social secretary, Nancy Tuckerman (Greta Gerwig), urges her on with cheerleading smiles during the shooting of a stiff promotional film intended to present her warmly to the public. Her brother-in-law Bobby (Peter Sarsgaard) hovers anxiously nearby as she negotiates the chasm between private grief and public composure. For all the bustle around her, the film insists on Jackie’s aloneness and Portman gives a performance in which there is as much tantalisingly concealed as fearlessly exposed.

A different sort of unravelling occurs in Christine. Antonio Campos’s film begins by showing Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall) seated next to a large box marked “fragile” as she interviews on camera an empty chair in which she imagines Richard Nixon to be sitting. She asks of the invisible president: “Is it paranoia if everyone is indeed coming after you?” It’s a good question and one that she doesn’t have the self-awareness to ask herself. Pressured by her editor to chase juicy stories, she goes to sleep each night with a police scanner blaring in her ears. She pleads with a local cop for stories about the darker side of Sarasota, scarcely comprehending that the real darkness lies primarily within her.

For all the shots of TV monitors displaying multiple images of Christine in this beige 1970s hell, the film doesn’t blame the sensationalist nature of the media for her fractured state. Nor does it attribute her downfall entirely to the era’s sexism. Yet both of those things exacerbated problems that Chubbuck already had. She is rigid and off-putting, all severe straight lines, from her haircut and eyebrows to the crossed arms and tight, unsmiling lips that make it difficult for anyone to get close to her. That the film does break through is down to Hall, who illuminates the pain that Christine can’t express, and to the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans. It’s perky enough on the surface but there are cellos sawing away sadly underneath. If you listen hard enough, they’re crying: “Help.” 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era