Never one for litotes Queen Bey promises that, “When he fuck me good I take his ass to Red Lobster”. Or, translated for the fans in downtown Workington, ‘ bring me to a climax and I’ll buy you a Subway’. In what has become the high point of Naff, Bey’s promise is made staring into the camera in frenzied self-awareness. Once again (cf. my previous Blogs about Bey) her deep-seated insecurities overwhelm any rescue from irony. She, along with an endless succession of multi-millionaires staring with faux defiance into the camera, look for all the world like young children doggedly showing off their precocious skills for adult approval. “I’m so reckless when I rock my Givenchy dress…!” (Oooohhhh!) The overseeing adults are rarely impressed with the child’s thrashing about, but we are charmed by the intense seriousness of the effort and the straight faced concentration. The title, Destiny’s Child, Beyoncé’s early fling with desperate self-regard, says it all.
But not so, insists Beyoncé. We’re not supposed to take that meta-view – to avert our gaze from the skill – to pull back to see the desperate thrashing about. In an act of theatre, we are expected to suspend disbelief. Our brains dutifully reinterpret cliché (the inevitable backing triangle of ballet-chorus) as reinforcement of creative energies; see camera-leering as a Michaelangelo moment of divine ‘connection’ with the fans; and construe light porn as a courageous rebellion against sexual repression (sic).
I don’t know about you, but when I see that triangular chorus behind Bey I find myself swerving from seeing a phalanx of fearful, Amazonian feminist warriors, to seeing a conspicuous attempt to persuade us/herself that she’s not alone. Lady Gaga veers between using that same phalanx and declaring intense loneliness in her private life. Sounds like an open-and-shut case of a plea for help. Same here – Queen Bey’s lyrics are so often lone voices insisting on survival skills (“spend my life in the dark for the sake of you and me/the only way to go is up, skin thick, too tough“).
So – why does this appear in a Blog under the category, Politics and Culture?
In his best-selling pop psychology book, Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow, Daniel Kahneman introduces us to the now much-explored notion of ‘dual-process thinking’. Stick with it – it’s not that dry. Using the evidence of many fascinating laboratory experiments Kahneman suggests that we have two, somewhat competing, ways of thinking about problems and issues. One, the lazy way (‘System 1’), takes for granted what we see and know. Just as we master the skills of riding a bike and then forget them because we can ride on ‘automatic pilot’, so a teacher, say, looks at a class of students and just gets on with the job as she has found works for her previously. ‘Of course,’ she might say, ‘we have to have quiet in the class if we are to learn.’ Or the police officer arrests a young person for stealing a Gatorade because – well, a crime was committed.
But there is a second way of looking at these things – System 2 thinking. This is more energetic, reflective and analytical thinking which refuses to take things for granted. This is a slow – that is, deliberate – form of thinking, and it may overturn System 1 solutions.
Both Systems 1 and 2 are essential. We couldn’t get by if we analysed every thought, act, interaction. Most theories of action have it that we have both an intuitive self – the one that acts on instinct, experience and intuition – and a ‘propositional’ self – one that wants to put certain experiences in the form of a proposition and an invitation to critical reflection. We use System 2 thinking judiciously.
Now, I find Kahneman both compelling and over-simplistic, particularly as you delve more deeply into his writing where he surrenders to crude behaviourism (people often emerge like rats in a maze). But, no matter. It introduces us to ways of thinking about Beyoncé and her implications for democracy, which is my purpose. The suspension of disbelief, the insistence on looking at bling and self-regard but seeing beauty and quality appeals to System 1 thinking. I don’t believe cultural appreciation is an area where it is appropriate to dull the senses, to accept the intuitive, to opt for lazy thinking. It is, I would say, culture and the arts which serve as a whet-stone for our critical edge. The difference – again, I would say – between an artist and a performer is that the former demands that we reflect critically on what we see and on ourselves as the onlooker. This was, as I’ve written before, the great gift of the renaissance and, indeed, the birth of ‘the artist’ (this was, indeed, when painters and sculptors began to sign their names on their works). Those represented by Masaccio, da Vinci, Lippi, Giotto introduced us to art as a pretext to psychological engagement between painter, subject and onlooker where art previously had demanded distant appreciation and affirmation. It was in this sense that the Renaissance was deeply democratic, and why I believe we need another historical renaissance for a modern age in which we have fallen prey to precisely that form of lazy thinking.
So, is Queen Bey anti-democratic? I have implied as much in previous Blogs where I have lumped her together with, for example, Trump in appealing to ‘The Great Simplification’. Of course, I should also have lumped her together with that other desperately self-regarding Queen – Elizabeth – who also must suffer the dread vertigo of super-elevation, looking down dizzyingly at unattainable normalcy. Yes, I think she is anti-democratic, in that very precise sense in which she uses artistic expression for the purposes of limiting and not enhancing critical thought. I know my sons would take exception with me on this, arguing that her choice of lyrics and of lyrical orientation shows a radical political call-to-arms – or, at last, defence of black consciousness. Well, that’s open to dispute, and I will dispute it in a future Blog.