When Beyonce surprised the populace overnight by releasing her self-titled new record exclusively through iTunes, she did so with typical grandiosity. The biggest pop star in the world didn't just flip the switch to sell digital versions of her songs.
Rather, she dropped a thick, vivid package featuring a digital booklet, 14 songs "mastered for iTunes" (whatever that means), a big-budget video for each and a few extra clips. In the process, she suggested a new course for album presentation in the digital music age -- and charged a hefty $15.99 for the pleasure.
Said videos are sequenced after the last track ends, but suggest another story than the music-only version. Moving through songs in the same order, we see a kaleidoscopic visual take on Beyonce and her new music through the lenses of directors including Hype Williams, Terry Richardson, Pierre Debusschere and Jonas Akerlund.
The oddly juxtaposed series of clips/visions features Beyonce in dressing rooms and mansions of debauchery, participating in violent revolutions, cradling her daughter and rolling on the beach while her husband, Jay Z, raps. The videos reframe the "sound-only" versions, and the disconnect between sound and vision can be striking.
Beyonce is first introduced in what feels like a tone-setting short as a beauty pageant contestant in "Pretty Hurts." A song that wonders on beauty, self-esteem and her own culpability as a statuesque celebrity, it's a striking first glimpse. We see her self-consciously examining her body as "Miss 3rd Ward" while skinny models surround her. We witness her fight for a hair dryer, get weighed and then shooed away. She kneels in a bathroom stall, suggesting a struggle with bulimia.
"Pretty hurts," she sings, seeming to set a tone. "You shined a light on whatever's worst / Perfection is a disease of a nation."
She makes a convincing case, were it not for the string of nearly soft-core fashion shoots that follow. Many present in exquisite detail a perfectly lighted Beyonce at her most coiffed. She grinds and rolls around on beds and beaches showing off her curvaceous post-baby body. As a first song on an album, "Pretty Hurts" works. But as thematic opener to such a relentless visual seduction, the hypocrisy is hard to ignore.
Listen without watching as she addresses the challenges that come with beauty, for example, and you miss her posing with legs spread beneath trophies -- and later smashing them. You miss her looking stunning while smoking a cigarette in "Haunted," driving a vintage MG sports car, storming through burning streets in "Superpower" looking rebel-fabulous as she and others approach a line of riot cops. A moment later in "Heaven," she's looking very refreshed in a church sanctuary.
She poses alongside Houston strippers in "Yonce," gets nasty in a castle while wearing bejeweled lingerie (her servants wear miniskirts) during "Partition." In "Jealous," she sits alone, seething with jealousy and shattering crystal and dinnerware before taking to the streets to look for her man. A second later she's in her underwear, drenched in water and rolling around.
Which, hey, she's Beyonce for a reason. If you've got it ...
But there was certainly a part of me who wished this video album would have headed in a different direction after "Pretty Hurts."
I kept hoping that she'd gradually shed the artifice over the following videos until we saw the human Beyonce as she looks at 11 a.m. on a Saturday morning after a night of rollerskating and freakiness. Unstyled. Grungy, hungover, minus the makeup and after Blue Ivy screaming her awake early. But still beautiful.
If history is any guide, that's the real Beyonce. A person with incredible talent -- but less willing to shed the filters to express her true self. It's there in the lyrics, the challenge she issues. But if pretty hurts so much, why spend so much creative energy feeding it?