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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Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear