Multimedia Special – Beyoncé, by Beyoncé, Part 2 – The Visuals

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Released December 13, 2013

1 hr, 18 min

Beyoncé was not the first artist to put together a “visual album,” as Beyoncé is commonly referred to. I’m not quite sure, then, who the first one was – Nine Inch Nails put together a pseudo-visual album in 1992 with The Broken Movie (though that doesn’t really count; we’ll talk about it in a couple of weeks), and Tori Amos did almost exactly what Beyoncé did with her 2009 album Abnormally Attracted to Sin. The difference between these earlier examples and Beyoncé is similar to Apple’s relationship with the portable music player business – not the first, but the best, the most innovative.

The most mainstream.

The Broken Movie has never been commercially released, and, up until 2006, was only available through the shady market of bootleg video tapes. Though Tori Amos is undoubtedly a legend in the music industry, the time when she was a mover and shaker commercially has long since passed, and Abnormally Attracted to Sin has sold just over 200k copies worldwide as a result.

Beyoncé, as mentioned yesterday, sold over 800k in three days. Four times the total sales of Sin, in three days, compared to five years.

A fair comparison? No. Amos has a curiously non-mainstream version of pop that she adheres to, and she has been a recording artist since 1992, losing commercial steam as the 2000s rolled around. Beyoncé, meanwhile, still stands tall as a cultural giant, in a much more visible section of pop music, and is married to rap god Jay Z, though it is very important to note that Beyoncé was all of the above things prior to her marriage to Jay.

Imagine that, having “Jay Z’s wife” as a footnote in your history. That’s how big Beyoncé is.

Visuals have been a central aspect of Beyoncé almost since the beginning of the project. Beyoncé expressed a desire to embrace spontaneity in the filming of each song’s video, refusing to think too hard about what they were going to do before they got to each video’s setting. There’s no central story; rather, the videos adapt the album’s overarching themes, while adding visual themes to the mix. Beyoncé filmed outside of the U.S. for many of the videos; this is most evident in “Blue,” though it is noticeable in other videos as well.

Each video has, for the most part, its own aesthetic, owing to the multitude of directors that Beyoncé enlisted in the process of filming each video. Beyoncé looks different in almost every video, occasionally looking different mid-video, and the settings are as diverse and varied as the songs themselves. Despite this variety, the videos do still feel like they are all part of one project, owing to the album’s overarching themes of sexuality and positivity in the fact of troubled relationships and unrealistic expectations. Many of the videos feature intricate, highly-choreographed dances, often accompanied by highly cinematic sequences. The video for “Blow” is a great example of this, with many scenes intercut of Beyoncé and a team of dancers along a bar, enacting a complex routine perfectly in sync with each other, often shifting mid-shot to a blacklit version of the same routine, seamlessly.

Generally, each video visualizes the themes of the corresponding song, some more literally than others. Of note are the video pairs of “Pretty Hurts” and “Drunk in Love,” and “Partition” into “Jealous.” “Drunk in Love” portrays the aftermath of the beauty pageant depicted in “Pretty Hurts,” representing Beyoncé’s escape from the constrictive gender roles critiqued and criticized in “Pretty Hurts.” “Partition” depicts the song’s lyrics in a very literal manner, but this is subverted at the very end of the video, where the events that transpired are revealed to be a fantasy in Beyoncé’s head, as she eats breakfast with her husband. “Jealous” depicts what actually happens following that breakfast, following the song’s lyrics in a literal manner as well. “XO” follows its song’s general feel-good nature, depicting Beyoncé enjoying herself in a carnival among a throng of excited fans, riding many of the attractions and exploring the carnival to the upbeat tunes of the song.

The video for “***Flawless,” in particular, provides important context to the audio samples included at the beginning and end of the song – a talent show that Beyoncé took part in with a group she was part of as a child. In the ending sample, it is revealed that they lost the competition – the video provides a visual accompaniment in home video form, revealing that Beyoncé’s team – comprised entirely of young black girls – lost to a group of adult white men. Take from that what you will.

The visual half of Beyoncé is not afraid to toy with the music, either. Videos elongate or shorten songs when necessary for visual cohesiveness. Among the most notable examples are the lengthy intro and manipulation of the chorus for “Pretty Hurts,” cutting the song’s spoken intro into the middle of the video instead. “Rocket” and “Mine” slash out significant portions of their respective songs; “Mine,” quite disappointingly, cuts Drake’s full verse at the end of the song, presumably to keep the video’s focus intact, as Drake is not a major component in it.

Speaking of that, most of the album’s featured guests are represented in their respective videos. Jay Z accompanies his wife on the beach in “Drunk in Love,” appearing as his verse starts and sticking around for the rest, with additional cameos in “Partition” and “Blue.” Drake, as mentioned above, appears in “Mine,” and Blue Ivy is a major component of “Blue.” Unrepresented are Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in “***Flawless,” likely because the video focuses more on the other parts of the song than her audio sample, and, disappointingly for me, Frank Ocean in “Superpower.” Instead, for some reason, we get two brief cameos from Pharrell. Weird. (It’s not actually weird, because he helped produce that track, but it’s still kind of weird because there’s no reason for him to be in the video.)

I’m sure my thoughts here seem kind of scattered. There’s a ton of material here to talk about, but it’s also hard for me to organize a lot of what I have to say, so we’ll cut it here. Beyoncé is an important album for plenty of reasons, but the innovation it brings to the table with its visual portions is one of the big, big reasons, as well as a large part of why the album became so successful. Beyoncé shows that even as far into her career as Beyoncé is, there is no end to her desire to re-invent herself and continue pushing her creative limits. Beyoncé will likely stand as one of the highest points of her career, and for an artist seventeen years into her professional career, that’s absolutely phenomenal.

And she’s only 33. Imagine what she’ll do next.

Notes:

– These videos were in, like, 480p in my library, which made them very frustrating to watch on a 1080p screen.  I had them full-screened, too, because apparently I hate myself.  This is probably due to when I bought the album, as I was using a horrible, horrible Toshiba laptop at the time, and iTunes detected that my laptop would probably explode if I tried to run 1080p video, so it screwed me over.  Luckily, the YouTube videos embedded above are all in 1080p, and the entire visual album is available there as well.

– I found out about the upcoming Platinum Edition of Beyoncé a couple days ago, but I won’t be going into that, because 1) it’s not out yet, 2) I don’t want to buy the entire album over again because iTunes won’t let me just buy the new content, and 3) I don’t care.  It’s the usual post-release deluxe edition shtick, which means a couple new songs and too many remixes.  Not worth it.

– 2700 words about one album.  Definitely a record for iTunes, A to Z, and one that won’t be broken for a long time, though some upcoming posts may give this album a run for its money.

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