TW: racism, sexism
Since Beyoncé Knowles-Carter’s surprise album release last week, she’s been the focus of a lot of conversations in my life. Judging by my Facebook feed, she’s been the focus of many others’ conversations, too. One interesting word choice keeps coming up again and again: entertainer. In the search for a concise way of describing her, we’ve collectively fallen on that one. The appeal is quite understandable, as one site attempts to summarize what she does by listing her as “an American singer, songwriter, record producer, actress, dancer and fashion designer”. “Entertainer” is a much simpler way of acknowledging her various talents and loads of hard work without obviously forgetting anything.
And so that’s the word we’ve increasingly chosen to stand alone for what Beyoncé does. From CNBC to L.A. Reid, talking about Beyoncé primarily — if not exclusively — as an “entertainer” has become the norm. To be fair, we have made something of a point in using that word. One of Beyoncé’s clearest focuses in her work is to create something people can enjoy on as many levels as possible.
In a GQ interview last February, she explained her habit of watching recordings of her performances, wishing to enjoy them, but instead using them to improve — the goal is to make them entertaining, just not for her while reviewing. Since at the time, she had an upcoming Super Bowl performance, she explained, “One of the reasons I connect to the Super Bowl is that I approach my shows like an athlete”. She meant that in the context of how she strives to improve, but it seems important that she is clearly comparing her performances to others that are first and foremost meant to entertain.
That said, when she sings (more like chants), “nine to five just to stay alive” as she did on the recently released track “Ghost”, it’s hard to limit what she does to simply an act of entertainment. It’s harder still to do that when she samples feminist writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s speech on why we should all be feminists on another, “***Flawless”. In both cases, the words are built into the song, and are part of its rhythm – clearly we’re meant to be entertained by them. But it’s hard not to notice that Beyoncé has a message that she is using her songs to convey. She is, according to many, the most talented entertainer in the world today, but we shouldn’t let that be said in a way that eclipses her as a person saying valuable, powerful things, most obviously about gender and class.
It seems difficult to label her as an “entertainer” in a way that doesn’t do that. That’s probably why those arguing that she isn’t a feminist (or if she is, she’s a disreputable one) have been so quick to argue for labeling her an “entertainer” rather than an “artist”. This mode of indirectly devaluing Beyoncé to a “mere entertainer” seems reminiscent of the way many other Black female artists are dismissed and minimized. Josephine Baker was herself a difficult-to-pin-down mixture of dancer, singer, and actress, and frequently is summarized as an “entertainer”. That reduction of her to someone who simply “entertained” (or even titillated) often dovetails with ignoring how she refused to perform in segregated venues and participated in the French resistance under Nazi occupation. Instead, she’s been retroactively reduced to a sort of sex symbol, trotted out for comparisons to modern pop stars and their sexual performances, and otherwise barely addressed.
The way terms like “entertainer” can still be used to preemptively dismiss any message or meaning in artists’ work should give us pause before using them. There is a history of that term being used to avoid understanding important statements, particularly those said by Black women, like Beyoncé. Her work is absolutely meant to entertain, and there’s something powerful in acknowledging that, but treating that as the beginning and end of what Beyoncé does can be and is being used to limit how much we listen to her.