Who Runs The World? Rutgers Says Beyonce

Jun 12, 2014
Originally published on June 12, 2014 2:31 pm

Transcript

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

So it's summer, or close enough. A lot of college campuses are open for business. In most classrooms, if a student walked in playing Beyonce loud enough for everybody to hear, most professors would probably ask him or her to turn it off, but in Professor Kevin Allred's class that student might be asked to turn it up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "RUN THE WORLD (GIRLS)")

BEYONCE KNOWLES: (Singing) My persuasion can build a nation. Endless power, the love we can devour. You'll do anything for me. Who run the world? Girls.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: (Singing) Girls.

KNOWLES: (Singing) Who run the world? Girls.

WOMEN: (Singing) Girls.

KNOWLES: (Singing) Who run the world? Girls.

WOMEN: (Singing) Girls.

MARTIN: That's "Run The World (Girls)," one of the songs you might learn more about if you took the politicizing Beyonce class at Rutgers University this summer. The man who teaches it, Kevin Allred, is with us now. Professor Allred, welcome. Thanks for joining us.

KEVIN ALLRED: Thank you - nice to be here.

MARTIN: So what do you teach normally? What's your subject?

ALLRED: Well, it's a women's and gender studies department that I'm in. So, you know, anything from 101 gender studies to more kind of specified classes, like this new one on Beyonce.

MARTIN: Why her? What is it about her that you find politically interesting?

ALLRED: Well, besides the fact that she's just one of, if not the most, powerful person in pop culture right now. It seems like she's on top of everything. I read an article a few years ago by Daphne Brooks, a professor at Princeton, and she was arguing that the "B'Day" album should be looked - politically, in kind of line with black, female protest singing throughout history. And I was really compelled by that. And I wanted to continue that and, like, think about all of Beyonce's work, post and pre "B'Day," and her career in general as a way to engage students around these conversations about race, gender, sexuality and the politics of those categories in the United States, especially, was my interest. So it kind of blossomed out of there...

MARTIN: It's...

ALLRED: ...As well as me being a fan of hers. Just...

MARTIN: And you're in the BeyHive?

ALLRED: Yeah.

MARTIN: You're in the BeyHive.

ALLRED: I am.

MARTIN: As fans of Beyonce are known - I - should I out myself? That I'm also the BeyHive.

ALLRED: It's OK. It's OK.

MARTIN: OK, thank you. All right - I just feel, in the spirit of full disclosure, we should probably...

ALLRED: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Disclose that we're all in the BeyHive. You know, it's interesting 'cause of the one hand I'm sure you've gotten the - so this is what people are sending their kids to Rutgers to study, part of it. But it is a fact that Beyonce has gotten a lot of attention from people outside of the pop-culture world. I mean, in the same week that, you know, the Fox pundit Bill O'Reilly used a segment of his show to express shock at her video partition, which is, you know, very much about, you know, sexuality. And then on the other side of the equation, the feminist scholar Bell Hooks, speaking on a panel at The New School in New York City, took issue with a Time magazine cover that Beyonce was on, in which she posed in a typical Beyonce outfit. And she actually used the word terrorist to describe her...

ALLRED: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Because she said that she felt that she imposed this sort of image on young women that she feels is not healthy - so kind of interesting that she's attracted a lot of attention. Why do you think that is? Is it because just - she such has - such a big footprint in the marketplace? Why do you think that is?

ALLRED: Yeah, I think - and especially after she kind of took everyone by surprise with the lat album, which is unheard of in today's music industry, I think. And I think that directed everyone's attention to her immediately just because she kind of thwarted a lot of the industry ways that they've been putting out music, and she became - not that she wasn't already. She's, of course - you know, whenever Beyonce does something it's a new story. And she somehow manages to keep everything really private in her life, but yet be so public. And it's a weird juxtaposition of those two things, and I think that's what makes everyone kind of obsessed about her or obsess about her and think about every little move she makes. So, you know, whether it's one side of the coin wanting to come at her for being what they perceive as too sexual or too explicit, and then the other side of the coin where you have Bell Hooks already arguing this idea of putting forth an image that maybe is not so positive for young girls. I kind of see her point, but I think Beyonce has so much control over her own image that if she chooses to put that image as what she wants on the Time Magazine, I don't think anyone else is forcing her into dressing like that or being on the cover in that way. So in that way, I think that runs counter to what Bell Hooks was saying.

MARTIN: But let me jump in here, though...

ALLRED: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...And because the title of your course is politicizing Beyonce. I mean, some people might argue that a real place for a course about Beyonce is the business school, because if she is anything she is a successful businesswoman.

ALLRED: Oh, absolutely.

MARTIN: Certainly in the project of building the Beyonce brand. But your course is about politicizing Beyonce. What - tell me what kinds of things you're going to talk about - think about. I mean, presumably - I mean, I know for the parents who are paying this - might be paying this tuition, you know, I presume you're not, like, lip-synching her videos...

ALLRED: Oh, no.

MARTIN: ...And practicing her dance routines in your class.

ALLRED: No, I...

MARTIN: So what are you doing?

ALLRED: Yeah - no, I've got some of those e-mails thinking, you know, we're going to have a quiz on different Beyonce facts, but what I'm actually doing is putting her in line with this longer history of black feminism and black feminist thought in the United States. So on the syllabus I'll give a number of readings and a few songs that they should maybe think about or look at before coming to class, and then usually we start out with a video. So, for instance, we were talking about "Grown Woman."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GROWN WOMAN")

KNOWLES: (Singing) I remember being young and so brave I knew what I needed. I was spending all my nights and days laid back day dreaming.

WOMEN: (Singing) Day dreaming, day dreaming, day dreaming.

KNOWLES: (Singing) Look at me. I'm a big girl now, said I'm gon' do something. Told the world I would paint this town, now betcha I run this...

ALLRED: We had just watched her "Life Is But A Dream" documentary kind of as an intro to get - you know, this is the way Beyonce the packages herself and wants us to see and know about, maybe, some of her more private moments. And we looked at "Grown Woman" alongside a reading by Melissa Harris-Perry from her "Sister Citizen" book - a chapter about the way black women kind of experience the world in the U.S., at least, as this kind of crooked room.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GROWN WOMAN")

KNOWLES: (Singing) I'm a grown woman.

WOMEN: (Singing) I'm a grown woman.

KNOWLES: (Singing) I can do whatever I want.

WOMEN: (Singing) I can do whatever I want.

ALLRED: And you either have to lean to see everything - orient yourself so it seems normal, or you stand straight and have to reorient your surroundings. And we talked about how she, in the "Grown Woman" video - how might she be thinking about the crooked room leaning versus readjusting the world around her. You know, it always makes me think of the famous Audre Lorde, "Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master's House." You know, how is she using different tools to kind reorient herself in the room? And we look at that through the video and the visuals that she represents.

MARTIN: So let me play a little bit of "Pretty Hurts," which is from the latest album. This is - if there's one song that I think people might know at the moment - where they would think there's a real message here, I think it would be "Pretty Hurts." Let me play a little bit here.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRETTY HURTS")

KNOWLES: (Singing) Just another stage. Pageant the pain away. This time I'm going to take the crown without falling down, down, down. Pretty hurts. We shine the light on whatever's worse. Perfection is a disease of a nation. Pretty hurts, pretty hurts.

MARTIN: That is one, I think, song and a video that a lot of people would point to to say, here is a person who is very much a part of the industry, who is very successful at being pretty in a conventional way, and she's turning it on its head in a video where she's presented, herself, as a beauty queen but she's also showing a lot of the stuff that goes into that and the pain of getting to be that thin. It's pretty - it's actually kind of explicit in some - and I don't mean sexually, I mean in terms of showing the extreme lengths that some people go to to meet that beauty ideal.

ALLRED: Yeah.

MARTIN: But since some people would say she's got a completely contradictory message here, how do you reconcile this for yourself? Not to give everything away from the course, but how do you think about that? How do you encourage your students to think about that?

ALLRED: Well, I think it provokes a discussion. So for my class, this is great stuff because you have these two different sides where - do these contradict? Can we somehow bring them together and see it as one fluid statement that she's making? And I tend to think of her work as - these videos as small, little pieces of performance, right? So I try and take away the - Beyonce as the person. And, you know, what is she putting forth in this video? So the "Pretty Hurts" video or the song, even - the lyrics are pretty straightforward about, you know, these detrimental facets of beauty, or the way that we stereotypically conceived beauty in the world. And she's exposing them at least. And maybe she's just showing that she's also been a part of this and maybe been a victim of these ideals of beauty, even though pretty much everyone agrees that Beyonce is stereotypically beautiful - what we consider - would consider to be beautiful. And then I take the sexuality of other videos, for instance, as more performance about - you know, we'll look at "Partition" next to writings about the way that black women's bodies have been seen over time or treated over time, and how in "Partition" is she performing the objectification of a black woman's body, versus objectifying her own body? So I try and make those kind of distinctions about what she's doing. It's not her lifestyle, necessarily, that's in "Partition." Although, who knows? Maybe, you know, that is a private fantasy or something. We don't know.

MARTIN: Well, for those who haven't seen it, "Partition" is about having an intimate moment with her significant other in a limousine.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PARTITION")

KNOWLES: (Singing) Driver, roll up the partition fast. Over there I swear I saw them cameras flash. Handprints and footprints on my glass. Handprints and good grips all on my - private show with the music blasting. He like to call me Peaches when we get this nasty. Red wine drip, we’ll talk that trash. Chauffeur eavesdropping trying not to crash. Oh there daddy, daddy now you ripped my fur. Oh, baby, baby be sweating out my hair. Took 45 minutes to get all dressed up, and we ain't even going to make it to this club.

ALLRED: Yes.

MARTIN: That's what it's about, so.

ALLRED: Yes.

MARTIN: So before we let you go Professor Allred, what would you say to people who wonder what is the value of studying Beyonce or studying something like this? What would you say?

ALLRED: I think it gives students a critical eye which young people need today, just in general, to think about their world - to think about, you know, whatever jobs they're going to go into. It's going to help you be critical about the world and about the pop culture that you're consuming. I mean, we're so inundated with images and radio, TV, reality TV, movies - all this stuff. We're kind of losing the critical eye on it, and I think it helps students see their world differently. And also it brings back a piece of history - or a group of writers - or, you know, a group of black women that often get overlooked in other core courses that you're reading. You know, if you take a literature course, how many black women are included in the writing? If you take a sociology course, how many black women sociologists are included? So I'm trying to introduce the students to this body of literature that often gets overlooked in assigning in other courses. It's the only thing I assign, so writings by black feminists - black women, in a number of ways that people identify as black women I include - I only include writings like that. So it's also a kind of political choice for me to get students reading this other body of literature. So they're going to learn something new the same as they would in a history class or something else, you know? And they're going to come away with a critical understanding of the world around them.

MARTIN: And just to be clear, you don't get extra credit for learning the "Single Ladies" choreography?

ALLRED: You don't, but I always welcome a little dance break in the middle of class if we can just, you know - no.

(LAUGHTER)

ALLRED: If there's a little time to break it up. We have a four hour class session, so if people want to dance for about 10 minutes in the middle, that's okay with me.

MARTIN: Kevin Allred is teaching the politicizing Beyonce course at Rutgers University this summer. He was nice enough to join us from our bureau in New York, taking a break from his four-hour class. Professor Allred, thanks so much for speaking with us.

ALLRED: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SINGLE LADIES (PUT A RING ON IT)")

KNOWLES: (Singing) All the single ladies.

WOMEN: (Singing) All the single ladies.

KNOWLES: (Singing) All the single ladies.

WOMEN: (Singing) All the single ladies.

KNOWLES: (Singing) All the single ladies.

WOMEN: (Singing) All the single ladies.

KNOWLES: (Singing) All the single ladies. Now put your hands up. Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh. 'Cause if you like it then you should have put a ring on it. If you like it then you should have put a ring on it. Don't be mad once you see that he want it. 'Cause if you like it then you should have put a ring on it.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.