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

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


Jay-Z and Beyoncé perform at the Grammys. Photo: Getty
Youtube Screengrab
Show Hide image

Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis