May 2, 2011


Running in Place

The theme song of chart-pop might just as well be Janet Jackson's "What Have You Done For Me Lately?" You are only as good as your latest record, and every new album had better have a good story to go along with it: a new direction, a fresh sound, a change in perspective. The artists with the longest-running careers are the ones who are best at playing that game: the Kanyes and Madonnas and R. Kellys and Eminems who are constantly seeking out new beats and making lateral moves, whose new records always give some kind of a sense of "progress."

At the same time, they have to stick with some kind of brand identity: their fans always have to be aware, within a few seconds, of whose record they're listening to. Sometimes that means treating their voices a certain way, or sticking to particular themes, or using only a particular range of instrumental tones. It's tricky to strike that balance.

So maybe what's going on with the lukewarm reception to Beyoncé's "Run the World (Girls)" is that she hasn't quite gotten the new-to-old ratio right; it's certainly not yet burning up the charts. (Of course, it still doesn't have a proper video, as of this writing—although one is apparently on the way—and "Single Ladies" didn't fully connect until its video appeared. And it's a good bet that the "raise a glass to the college grads" line is going to give it a bump about a month from now.)

Thematically, it's totally in line with the image Beyoncé's been building around herself for the past decade: even its title lines up nicely with "Independent Women (Part 1)," "Single Ladies" and "Diva." Beyoncé's primary job as an artist is to be a voice not just of liberated women, but of women who have been liberated from something: "disrespect us? no they won't!" She's an acrobatic singer who works within the context of hip-hop—the language of her lyrics is always the vocabulary of her rapping contemporaries. (Here, the most obvious example is the "run this mother..." line—a hip-hop commonplace that Rah Digga didn't cut herself off before completing, but that Beyoncé gets some extra juice from editing to a more maternal form.)

We've heard not just this theme but something close to this record before, though. The beat of "Run the World" is straight out of Major Lazer's 2009 quasi-dancehall track "Pon de Floor." (That music video might not be suitable for work, depending on how your workplace feels about dry-humping—okay, it's actually a dance style called "daggering"—and/or vector graphics.) If you haven't heard them before, Major Lazer is the handle for the collaboration between a pair of producers, Diplo and Switch, and a bunch of Jamaican dancehall artists. (The original version of "Pon de Floor" features a vocal by Vybz Kartel; if you're curious what he sounds like on his own, here's his 2008 song "Ramping Shop.")

That's not a problem. "Run the World" is a significant improvement on "Pon de Floor," and even though its melody and martial rhythm don't give Beyoncé a lot to work with, she pulls off some impressive singing on the bridge ("my persuasion can build a nation..."). Where she actually stumbles is that she made this record better eight years ago: its melody, her vocal and the batucada-style groove are close enough to Destiny's Child's "Lose My Breath" that they'd have sounded like she was repeating herself if they'd been on the same album.

But another curious thing about pop stars with long-running careers is that some of their fans are not just enthusiastic, they're emotionally invested in those stars' continued success. (There's a difference between admiring Beyoncé as an artist and being convinced that a song has to be great because Beyoncé recorded it, Q.E.D.) A week or so ago, Kevin and Makael, the two very funny, very deadpan guys who do the YouTube commentary series The Skorpion Show, laid out nearly eight minutes of their thoughts on "Run the World." They are Beyoncé superfans—they take pains to explain that—but they're terribly disappointed by "Run the World." You're better than this, Beyoncé, they explain.

The Skorpion Show's video has already attracted upwards of 1,500 comments, a lot of them indignant; Kevin and Makael have responded by recording a much longer response to the responses to their initial response to the song. As the saying goes, haters gonna make some good points.