New Times,
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29 May 2011updated 09 Feb 2015 2:43pm

Laurie Penny on Beyonce’s sexy revolution

The singer's latest video gives new meaning to the term "riot porn".

By Laurie Penny


Anarchist philosopher and revolutionary feminist Emma Goldman is rumoured to have written that she didn’t want to be part of any revolution if she couldn’t dance. Well, we all know who can dance! That’s right, Beyonce! In her latest video, ‘Run the World (Girls)’, multi-millionaire popstar Beyonce Knowles brings the spirit of Tahrir Square to MTV, celebrating the two most crucial elements of the Arab Spring: state violence and arse-wiggling sex-appeal. Any implication that this might be a strategy to distract attention from the fact that Knowles was paid $1million by the Gaddafi family for a private performance in 2007 is, of course, the work of liars and reprobates.

The video, which has had almost thirty million YouTube hits in its first month of release, gives a new meaning to the term “riot porn”. In a fast-paced, soft-focus extravaganza of cultural stereotyping, Knowles leads a scantily-clad army of sexy ladies against some genericmale oppressors in an unspecificed desert location. The singer and her stocking-bloc wear a bric-a-brac of vaguely Middle-Eastern exotica, all jingly-jangly headdresses and flowing scarves and jungle cats on leashes. It’s a kinky riff on the current political narrative whereby revolutions only happen in mysterious, far-off oriental lands, with deserts and lions and stuff: they can’t ever happen in the West, and certainly not in America.

Let’s not get too snooty. In some ways, it’s great that the idea of revolution is going mainstream. An important distinction must be drawn between preventing the profit machine of pop culture from cannibalising the romance of popular resistance, and just getting petty because some people were having running battles with the cops before it was cool. Watching this video, however, one can’t help wondering precisely which part of the anarchist handbook puts quite so much emphasis on bitches and bling. ‘Run the World’ is a child’s collage of revolutionary aesthetics: there are banners, a burning car, illegible slogans daubed on the scenery, menacing lines of surprisingly hunky riot cops bashing their shields, and Beyonce in a big spiky dress made of crystal. Every dictator’s favourite diva might have been of some use if she’d actually showed up to the popular protests in Egypt, Spain and London this week, but only as a very expensive missile to be bodily thrown at lines of advancing state heavies.

Any hint of actual violence is conspicuously edited out of this stylised uprising. There is no blood or broken glass, only Knowles wriggling in a leotard on the sandy floor, and when the police andbacking-singer protesters actually do clash, they just run around a lot with their fists raised, like some sort of anarchic Morris dance. Knowles, now clad in clingy black rubber, gyrates around a gang of riot cops with their truncheons raised, pulls their hair and gets pushed to the floor and menaced, which she seems to enjoy rather a lot.

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This knowing nod to sado-masochism is probably the most offensive part of the whole four-and-a-half minute horrorshow. In real life, there’s nothing fun or sexy about getting your head kicked in by the pigs. Just ask the peaceful protesters of Placa de Catalunya, Barcelona, who are, as I write, being beaten by the Spanish police. Just ask the family of Ian Tomlinson. Police violence is not kinky, it’s not edgy, and it’s not cool: it’s scary. This year alone, hundreds of protestors around the world have been savaged by armed officers of the state: hundreds have died; it is highly likely that more will die before the end of the year. There is absolutely nothing erotic about that at all. The rest of the dance is a feat of militaristic choreography and pouty faux-feminist empowerment. Nubile young zealots in army caps and suspenders hump, stamp and writhe on the floor towards dumbfounded lines of black-clad police stooges in what appears to be a glorious ritual display of female sexual aggression. At one point the whole group splay their legs and advance in a synchronised wobble that suggests that they might be about to eat the police with their vaginas. The application of this brilliant tactic may be more aesthetic than practical, although it would probably get the thumbs up from Mark Kennedy-Stone.

One suspects that long-skirted, bespectacled, thick-limbed Emma Goldman would not have been allowed to be part of this porny pastiche of popular struggle were she alive today, however much she may have wanted to dance. Goldman was a sexual revolutionary, but Beyonce is a *sexy* revolutionary, and that’s what the kids are buying today. The ones who aren’t getting battered in Yemen, Bahrain or Catalunya, that is.

And then we come to the song itself. Thematically, ‘Run The World (Girls)’ is the same old Beyonce-branded pseudo-empowerment bullshit: a muted call for the sort of mitigated female insurrection that responds to the quotidian lassitudes of patriarchy with a variety of sexy dances and some lipgloss. Its attempt to stitch together the glitzy girl-power rhetoric of Beyonce’s Single Ladies alter-ego, Sasha Fierce, with the rather more urgent fierceness of the Arab Spring is embarrassingly unsuccessful: the single has failed to make the impact its producers hoped for in the US charts.

Most fascinating, however, is the track, which is no stirring revolutionary heart-sweller, but a quiet, clickety hip-hop number that heavily samples Major Lazer’s minimalist Pon De Floor. It’s jerky and uneven, all stops and starts and bitten-off gasps, the sort of sound an anarchist might make if she were being slowly, rhythmically strangled by a paranoid pop culture that has no idea in hell what is happening to its former target market.

At 1:58, as Beyonce is having a lovely time being savaged by sexy MTV coppers, along comes the following gem of a lyric, just in case you thought she might have been serious about that whole rebellion thing: ‘I’m just playing/ Come here baby/ Hope you still like me/ If you pay me’. To the barricades, ladies: the feminist insurrection is here. Revolutions are inherently romantic, and that romance can always be co-opted by the unscrupulous to turn a profit. It’s easy to imagine the death-knell of any movement for change starting to ring when its agitators find their slogans appearing on tshirts and mouthed by wealthy popstars with a history of shakin’ it for dictators. Not everything, however, can be appropriated. There are elements of this new, networked uprising that will never be easy to swallow,even when sliced up into four-and-a-half minute bitesized chunks of sexualised, sanitised anti-sentiment.

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