When Time pictured an underwear-clad pop star on its cover, hailing her as one of the world’s most influential people, it looked like a crass sales ploy. But in Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, they had more of a point than they seemed to realise. Time had asked Sheryl Sandberg, the head of Facebook, to praise the singer for joining various do-gooding campaigns — but this is the least of her achievements. Beyoncé’s real potency lies in her status as a poster girl for a new conservative counter-revolution taking place among the young.
It may seem, from a distance, that she is just another striptease chanteuse singing about her bottom and using its contours to sell her music. ‘This woman knows about young girls getting pregnant in the African-American community, now it’s about 70 per cent out of wedlock,’ growled Fox News host Bill O’Reilly this week. ‘The “empowering” stuff is just so much garbage’ This may have been true of other singers, who built their careers on equating feminism with promiscuity. But it is emphatically not true of Beyoncé, who can claim to be the strongest pro-marriage voice outside a church or a mosque.
She is, without doubt, an advocate of female empowerment — but she defines marriage as the fulfilment of that empowerment. The critics who complained about her raunchy dance routine with the rapper Jay-Z at the Grammy awards (right) missed a rather important point: the two are married. She is evangelistic about marriage’s virtues. When playing at Glastonbury in 2011, she asked girls with naked ring fingers to protest to their boyfriends on the spot. ‘Ladies,’ she instructed, ‘put your hand in his face.’
Her outlook is informed by a Christianity that is not confined to Sunday worship but permeates her life. She is from a Methodist family; the name of her old band, Destiny’s Child, is taken from the book of Isaiah. In a recent fly-on-the-wall documentary, she is seen referring to Jesus more often than most British clergymen. ‘Look at this beautiful nature, that God created, that I’m about to jump into right now,’ she says, before a swim. ‘With my friend, that I love: my husband. Yes! Thanks be to Jesus.’ When she became pregnant, at an inconvenient time in her career, she told a video diary that she can only guess ‘what God is trying to prepare me for’. After she miscarried, she recorded a song about the joy she had felt upon hearing the heartbeat (‘the most beautiful music I ever heard’).
To be sure, she dresses scantily and enjoys playing the pop provocateur. But she chose the Daily Telegraph to disclose the difference between what she calls the ‘crazy, over-the-top personas’ she creates on stage and her own life. Before meeting her husband, she had only one boyfriend and, as she told the newspapers, ‘We didn’t live together. We didn’t… you know. That was my only experience with a guy, and since then I’ve only had one other man in my life: Jay.’ (His life before marriage is, however, another story.)
Some American musicians wear celibacy rings, sing about the Gospel and stand athwart the prevailing culture. They are, by and large, preaching to the converted. But Beyoncé sends her message from a global pulpit. ‘Don’t think I’m just his little wife/Don’t get it twisted,’ she sings in a new song, ‘Bow Down, Bitches’. To reinforce this point, she called one of her recent tours the ‘Mrs Carter Show’ and has just announced that she will be performing a new 16-concert tour with her husband.
Shelley once declared poets ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world’, because their work was taken to heart by people who would never listen to a syllable of a political speech. The same is now true of popular music. Beyoncé’s exhortation for men to ‘put a ring on it’ is hardly Shelley, but it is perfectly clear. She incurs the wrath of American conservatives because her own politics are Democrat and pro-gun control. She raised $4 million for Barack Obama and sang at his second inauguration ceremony — but half of David Cameron’s cabinet would have done the same, given the chance.
Rutgers University in New Jersey now offers a course called ‘politicising Beyoncé’; the tutor, Prof Kevin Allred, calls her work a ‘gateway’ to wider philosophical points. There is plenty to discuss, including her triumphantly reconciling the ideas of women’s liberty and matrimony. Her coming tour will, to be sure, feature plenty of dirty dancing with her husband — and that will earn the condemnation of the Bill O’Reillys of this world. But her message is that marriage is where the fun begins, not where it ends.