What's behind the puritanical obsession with Jay-Z and Beyoncé's marriage?

Their performance of “Drunk In Love” at the Grammys was undoubtedly sultry, but why does it give the media licence to speculate about “what goes on” in the couple’s own home?

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

A couple of weeks ago, missionary columnist Naomi Schaefer Riley of the New York Post wrote, “We’re missing the point of marriage.” That sounds about right: In her Tuesday column, she offered a free marriage-counseling session to Beyoncé and husband Jay-Z in a scathing review of the happy couple’s “Drunk In Love” romp that opened the GRAMMY Awards earlier this week. Shawn Corey Carter, she’ll have you know, is “a poor excuse for a husband.”

The transgression: Beyoncé’s bare thighs and high crotch, and Jay-Z’s groping of all relevant anatomy. “Beyoncé’s booty-shaking was certainly no worse than Miley Cyrus’s twerking or any number of other performances by Madonna, for instance. But there’s something particularly icky about doing it while your husband looks on approvingly,” she writes, then quotes Charlotte Hays, the renowned author of When Did White Trash Become the New Normal? saying, “Honestly, I didn’t want to watch Jay-Z and Beyoncé’s foreplay.”

It was a sultry display, no question. (I rooted.) But does the spectacular marketing of Beyoncé’s sexuality mean that neither she nor her husband share a healthy regard for matrimony? And that we’re all vicious horndogs for applauding?

Pulp quarterbacking of celebrity relationships is a pastime in at least three hemispheres, of course, but the Knowles-Carter marriage is a perfect storm for puritanical concern-trolling. He’s a rapper, and she’s half-naked. God save Dolores Tucker. “Indeed,” Riley scoffs, “the happy couple seems to have completely blurred the line between what goes on in their bedroom and what happens on national TV.” No, in fact, it seems that Riley has rather blurred these lines.

Such conflation of popular persons and their personas is, if anything, a disregard of “what goes on” in the couple’s own home, where bills and chores are divided between the two of them, and then maybe a few maids, and none of us. Yet by one spouse’s flaunting the other to a live, televised audience, “they’re suggesting to audiences that this kind of public sexual behavior is compatible with a loving modern marriage.” Why wouldn’t these things be compatible? What’s Naomi Schaefer Riley afraid of, exactly?

So here we have a faith-based columnist’s angst or visceral puritanism masquerading as critique. Likewise, though with a left-feminist gist, Akiba Solomon of Colorlines weighed in (as did others) with a lament that the couple’s shout-out to a classic black biopicWhat’s Love Got to Do With It – and the march of gender equality are, alas, incompatible. “I’m disappointed in Beyoncé,” Solomon sighs. “I wish in this moment she could have been more Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and less ‘Cater 2 U.’”

Beyoncé was neither icon that night – she was Beyoncé. She’s is a woman in her own right, not a fantasy reconfiguration by which the diva might reflect all of our dreams, thinking, and biases. To protest that her performance could have been more purely feminist, or to diagnose marital decay based on her writhing in tandem with her husband, is to wish upon a star. 

We do this naturally as fans. But it’s a chauvinist flex for op-ed folk to reduce real people – famous as they may be – to agendas and insecurities that are more so the critic’s than the artist’s. Yes, Beyoncé recently co-signed the Shriver Report (“Gender Equality Is a Myth!”) and she’s a workaholic musician who riffs off feminist themes. But, as was similarly demonstrated with another Grammy performer, Macklemore, too often we hoist up pop culture magnates as freelance politicians, just so we can tear them down.

Justin Charity is a music and fiction writer based in Brooklyn, N.Y.

This article first appeared on newrepublic.com

 

Jay-Z and Beyoncé perform at the Grammys. Photo: Getty
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Man in the mirror-ball: Simon Armitage's The Unaccompanied

With this mature, engaging and empathetic work, the poet softens the pain of passing years. 

The Unaccompanied, by Simon Armitage
Faber & Faber, 76pp, £14.99

“The centuries crawl past,” Simon Armitage notes in his new collection, “none of them going your way”. After a decade of acclaimed travelogues, transgressive prose poetry, and above all translation, Armitage has combed those centuries to produce innovative versions of ancient and medieval texts: Pearl, The Death of King Arthur, Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Georgics. In The Unaccompanied he returns, refreshed from his sojourn in the past and bringing the classics with him; in the book’s dystopian present, in “Poundland”, Odysseus meets the ghost of his drunken comrade Elpenor not in the Underworld, but “slumped and shrunken by the Seasonal Products display”, the poem’s pseudo-archaic English underscoring its ironic rewriting of Homer. Meanwhile, the protagonist of “Prometheus”, holed up in a post-industrial wasteland, sees his father retrieve not fire, but a Champion spark plug.

To lighten its nightmarish visions, The Unaccompanied offers the same beguiling playfulness that has characterised Armitage’s verse from his 1989 debut, Zoom!, to the “Merrie England” of Tyrannosaurus Rex versus The Corduroy Kid (2006). “Tiny”, for instance, reads like an old-school Ladybird Book (“Simon has taken his father, Peter,/to the town’s museum”) and “The Poet Hosts His Annual Office Christmas Party” makes a mischievous nod to Yeats. As ever, there are pinpoint references to popular culture; in “Gravity”, it is the “six-minute-plus/album version” of Fleetwood Mac’s “Sara” that plays on the stereo in the sixth-form common room. Yet Armitage’s concern for the socially excluded – the “skinny kid in jeans and trainers” from “The Ice Age” to whom the poet offers a spurned coat, “brother to brother” – burns unabated.

This collection articulates a new anger that is more personal, a lament for individual mortality, the sadness of time moving on too far and too fast. In “The Present”, the poet attempts to take an icicle home to his daughter:

a taste of the glacier, a sense of the world

being pinned in place by a
diamond-like cold

at each pole, but I open my hand

and there’s nothing to pass on, nothing to hold.

Armitage’s fluid poetics are pitch-perfect and his imagery remains incisive. The bare winter larch trees become “widowed princesses in moth-eaten furs”. In “Poor Old Soul” an elderly man sits, “hunched and skeletal under a pile of clothes,/a Saxon king unearthed in a ditch”. This is the measured poetry of late middle-age, in which only the promise of more loss fills the “white paper, clean pages”. In “Kitchen Window”, the poet’s mother taps the smeared glass before she falls away “behind net curtains” and then further “to deeper/darker reaches and would not surface”. “Emergency” (published in the NS in 2013) could almost be his audition for Grumpy Old Men. “What is it we do now?” he asks as he details the closed banks, and pubs where “tin-foil wraps/change hands under cover/of Loot magazine”. W G Hoskins’s gentle topological classic is referenced in “The Making of the English Landscape”, though a very different country is seen at dusk from a satellite:

like a shipwreck’s carcass raised on a
sea-crane’s hook,

nothing but keel, beams, spars, down to its bare bones.

In “Harmonium”, the poet’s father – who, in 1993’s Book of Matches, berated him for having his ear pierced – helps his son lug an unwanted organ from their local church and reminds him “that the next box I’ll shoulder through this nave/will bear the load of his own dead weight”.

Armitage’s poetic world is instantly recognisable, always inclusive. We know the faded ballrooms that turn into even sadder discos in “The Empire”. Or the clumsy children’s shoe fitter of “The Cinderella of Ferndale”, who leaves her own footprints of disappointment. As the poet stumbles on a farmers’ fancy-dress parade for a breast cancer charity in “Tractors”, the slight incident bleeds into the universal shock of diagnosis: “the musket-ball/or distant star/in your left breast”. Critics often cite Philip Larkin as an influence on his work, but Armitage’s highly tuned sense of such “mirror-ball” moments – small but refracting repeatedly across time and lives – is all his own. Thankfully, with this mature, engaging and empathetic work, he is back to record them for us, softening the pain of passing years. 

Josephine Balmer is a poet and classical translator. “Letting Go: Mourning Sonnets” will be published by Agenda Editions in July

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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