Beyoncé: the politics of being an “entertainer”

TW: racism, sexism

1372788533_beyonce-knowles-concert-467Since 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.


102 thoughts on “Beyoncé: the politics of being an “entertainer”

  1. Adele is still the best singer around, though. More than just an entertainer, but a real singer with real calibre. Her songs are so haunting!

  2. Great points… i’d call Beyonce – a performing artist or something like that, because she acts and performs her art… it’s way more difficult of a task then composing – or dancing per se. In Eastern Europe it’s expected from an actor – and a comedian too, that they can dance and sing as well, but they are not viewed/called entertainers because that somehow seems to be dismissive. From other side – howcome “entertaining” became synonymous with wasting-time/money/ guilty pleasures etc? In our parts it’s from religion i guess – Christian Orthodoxy does view entertainment as frivolous, not sure about US though… Anyway it is, i think art MUST be entertaining – in terms that it has to provoke strong emotions, it mustn’t be boring… if that’s called – being entertaining, so be it 😉 (As a writer, i had issues with being told i write “easily” whatever that means – and you never know what exactly peeps mean by that, but you do know you don’t want your writings to be called THAT ;))

  3. For now, many artists have to act like Beyonce as entertainer. If not, they are not like Beyonce but only like “them” as usually.

    Thank you !

  4. Beyonce is a musical force of nature. She’s a hurricane whirling about the musical landscape. She’s almost all too encompassing in her talents for her own good. Not everyone can capture all her glory at first, second, or even third glance and listen. But, for those that care to notice and appreciate, she’s way beyond any category critics can stuff her in. There’s no real label that works for her beside Beyonce.

  5. I have never really understood the fascination with the Beyonce brand, but I can see that she has continued to keep herself in the spotlight and breathe new life into what she does year after year. It’s takes dedication to expand your image and art beyond the usual medium of consumption. Beyonce clearly desires to position herself among the greats not just in music, but also among the entrepreneurs and advocates that define our time.

  6. Keep in mind that singing, dancing, acting (and more), plus all of the mediums through which these talents can be displayed, fall under the general umbrella of The Entertainment Industry. If you haven’t, I humbly suggest that you watch the movie, “That’s Entertainment.” That’s Entertainment is a collection of movie clips from the heyday of the MGM musicals. The artists featured in these clips were the best of the best, including Frank Sinatra, Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Fred Astaire among others. I have no doubt that each of them considered him or herself “an entertainer.”

  7. Personally, I think she is a great entertainer. Artistry is not something I have seen in her work; great business savvy yes. Artistry to me is doing things that have never been done in your craft- musically, visually, vocally and in performance. Creating new niches that no one else has even thought of and then becomes the standard of comparison or improvement. Please do not mention the “shocking” album drop- that’s business not art. She is talented yes but I just don’t see artist, I see entertainer.

    • You are so right However she did not originate the album drop at night either that was done by another artist first she is just the first mega artist to do so she didnt originate that either as for business savvy other people make decisions for her to make money she just follows through

  8. We seem to be speaking of entertainers as if it were new. Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, Sammy Davis Jr., Judy Garland, all entertainers. They were singers, actors, dancers, etc. Decades ago, you had to bring more to the table than just your voice. Congrats to Bey for becoming well rounded, she has joined a cast of many.

  9. I think an Artist is an entertainer. When you create a piece of art be it on a canvas or recorded into a song and you release it to the world for the public to view, it then becomes a piece of entertainment.

    I like Beyonce, I don’t think she is this amazing person because I don’t know her personally but I can say that her music does carry messages to the listeners. You can hear who she is in her songs and that, hearing who she is, is due to her ability to artistically put her words, her life, her thoughts into a song for the entertainment of those who adore her work. She is an entertainer and I don’t think there is anything wrong with being an entertainer because as I stated, in my eyes, all entertainers are artists.

    Great post.

    *I must say her latest album is so amazing in lyrical content and messages about who she is, she has opened her self-up and created an album that I actually bought and paid for.

  10. I think Beyoncé is a performing artist .. she knows what to do to mess with my man’s mind 😦 :0… Hmmm .. she cool :0, creative and tots fashionable:) 🙂 🙂 🙂 🙂 … if your trying to tell me being an entertainer is racist .. sorry it’s not

  11. This article took me on a roller coaster of reactions. Beyonce is such a beautiful, thriving artist. So many people classify her as otherwise that I tend to start listening. Thank you for this article.

  12. The music industry is always changing and I think Beyonce has the ability to be a game changer. She is the cornerstone of the rnb industry, as well as a terrific artist. However I don’t think she is either an artist or an entertainer. She is a role model for many many people, and will go down as one of the greatest.

  13. Beyonce is a Diva, you can like her music or not – she just is. She has the talent and works hard for her success, her voice will go down in history next to Whitney Houston, Tina Turner, Celine Dion and so on, and so on… 🙂

    p.s. I love the way you write, did you went to journalism university?

    • Thanks for the compliment! I didn’t actually get a journalism-focused degree, but I went to Sarah Lawrence, which is a college with a really strong writing ethos (it’s a little trial by fire actually).

      • That’s awesome 🙂 I could tell bc of the objectivity rather then throwing emotions in article… Your point of view was there but not in an aggressive way, and also loved the incorporated external links. 😉 Cheers from Ivy

  14. Beyonce is an artist not simply an entertainer, with incomparable amounts of power. In her latest album she showcases parts of her personal life by artistically creating this “visual album”. She must define herself an artist first.

  15. Ok?!?! I agree with your point of view here why is there such a need to put Motha Bey in a box. Why must they try to diminish who she is. I say artist first and entertainer second! Great post by the way, and beautifully written.

  16. Fantasia, and Jennifer Hudson are real singers, the only reason they dont get the recognition they deserve is Fantasia is a dark black woman, and Jennifer was over weight and neither of them has the backing that she has and it is totally unfair

  17. She is so amazing, she makes want to be a better human, to do things by myself and to know that some day i would be successful like her, because in order to be successful, you have to be happy with yourself.

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