The writer is the FT’s pop critic
Beyoncé has released a new single, “Break My Soul”. Like an edict from on high, its messaging has provoked a rush of commentary. Exegesis centres on lyrics expressing post-pandemic disillusionment with the slog of nine-to-five work and a vintage house music sound that points to “queer Black and brown clubs in the 1970s and ‘80s,” in the words of Pitchfork, the US music website.
Meanwhile, the Beyhive — as the singer’s fan base is known — buzzes with questions about how the song should be parsed. When she sings, “I just quit my job,” is she endorsing the so-called Great Resignation of US employees quitting work amid wage stagnation and Covid? Or does her complaint that “Damn, they work me so damn hard” take aim at capitalism itself, thief of labour and time? A jittery Wall Street nervously awaits the next payroll data to find out.
Well, all right: that’s an exaggeration. But it’s true that among the ranks of opinionated entertainers, none is held to be as influential as Beyoncé. Leonardo DiCaprio’s warnings about climate change or Lady Gaga’s advocacy for LGBTQ+ communities never command the same degree of attention as Beyoncé’s interventions about racial politics and societal unrest. Kanye West attracts attention — but the rapper’s libertarian edgelordery is usually met with outrage rather than the reverence that Queen Bey’s words inspire.
There are two explanations for why this is. One is Beyoncé’s medium of expression. Pop singers are recorded with incredible attention to detail and listened to very closely by their public. We hear them with an intimacy that we don’t experience with the other amplified voices of mass entertainment. And Beyoncé heightens her impact by mainly communicating through music rather than interviews, keeping an almost Garbo-like silence outside of her songs.
The other factor relates to race and gender. The Houston-born singer belongs to an African-American singing tradition that fuses religion, pop and politics. Its roots lie in gospel music, which became secularised into soul in the 1950s and 1960s, a transition that took place alongside the civil rights struggle in the US. Soul’s philosophy of emancipation found its most significant star in Aretha Franklin, who rose to national prominence in the 1960s. “It was neither my intention nor my plan,” she said in her memoir, “but some were saying that in my voice . . . they heard the proud history of a people who had been struggling for centuries.”
Like Franklin, Beyoncé is keenly aware of the reach of her powerful voice and the proud history to which it belongs. Her songs make artful reference to various black American pop styles, such as the house music sample running through “Break My Soul”. When she growls its title in the refrain, she evokes Franklin’s superb vocal attack.
Independence is a recurrent motif in her work. Her habit of surprise-releasing records signals her freedom from conventional record industry scheduling. Queen Bey demands the power implicit in the regal honorifics bestowed on black American women singers. It’s an act of racial and feminist liberation — but with a modern twist.
Conceptions of oppression have ramified since Franklin’s era. There is now a minute attentiveness to overlapping degrees of difference between the activisms of Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, LGBTQ+ inclusion, and so on. The ultimate logic of this intersectionality is recognition of every person’s uniqueness. “Looking for something that lives inside me,” as Beyoncé sings on “Break My Soul”.
This is why her words resonate: the greatest black American pop singer of our time is also the supreme voice of identity politics, the individualistic credo that shapes today’s civil rights struggles.