"I went into the studio, I had a chant in my head, it was aggressive, it was angry, it wasn't the Beyoncé that wakes up every morning," she told iTunes Radio. "...Imagine the person that hates you. Imagine a person that doesn't believe in you. And look in the mirror and say, 'Bow down, bitch' and I guarantee you feel gangsta.”
That track reemerged in December on the self-titled “video album” that she and her team created in secret and released sans forewarning—prompting an Internet freakout and enormous sales. By then, “Bow Down” had been reengineered into “***Flawless,” with the song’s original back half replaced by a TEDx talk snippet from author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a rap from Beyoncé, and an instantly viral refrain about rising in the morning looking perfect.
“It’s not to be taken literally,” said musician The-Dream, who co-wrote the song along with Beyoncé, Chauncey Hollis, Rey Reel, and Rashad Muhammad. “Nobody wakes up flawless. It’s an oxymoron. But the meaning behind it, to say ‘I just woke up feeling good,’ is what it’s about.”
The accompanying video dramatizes that spirit via a multicultural punk-rock mosh pit. Shooting in Paris, director Jake Nava populated the scene with models, actual London Rudeboys, and members of something called the Parisian Anti-Racist Skinhead Alliance.
“That was cool, because we were creating a subculture video in the wrong city, and in their numbers were Indians and blacks and whites,” Nava told me. “There was a utopian feeling about that posse, because they were making a big thing about the fact that they were not in any way [associated] with the racist connotations of original skinheads.”
It's Beyoncé herself who makes the video so memorable, though. The famously coiffed pop star thrashes her head, bares her teeth, and playfully wiggles her hands. “What I loved about her performance, having filmed her many times, was the choppy change-iness of it,” Nava said. “She wasn’t being dainty. She got right into the spirit of the mosh pit.”
The July/August issue of The Atlantic features a short, edited interview I did with Beyoncé’s creative director Todd Tourso, talking about “Flawless.” Here’s a much longer version of the conversation, with tidbits about the origins of the song, the Beyoncé album cover, and the artistic mentality that makes Queen Bey different from any other pop star.
What state was “Flawless” in when you got involved?
Todd Tourso: I got on the team in the beginning of June , and we started almost immediately on the visual album process. It was such a blur. She was on tour and we were traveling, and we would shoot during the day sometimes: 10, 12 hour days starting at five or six in the morning. Then she would go do a show. Then she would go to the studio. Then she would pop up on set, six or seven the next morning, having not slept, and she’d tell us about some song she made the night before that was going to be amazing. That happened two or three times. I believe [“Flawless”] was one of them.
I don’t want to speak for her, but I think that she knew that “Bow Down,” the song that she had started previously, was a type of an energy that this record needed. But she also felt that it needed a flip side, something that was more sort of macro. “Flawless” was meant to be the portion of the song that inspired the listener, gave them some reason for the bravado that defined “Bow Down.”
When “Bow Down” came out, some people criticized it as taking on women or being too boastful. Was she developing “Flawless” with those criticisms in mind?
It’s hard to say how much that affects her process. But I think that when she started messing around with those sounds [for “Bow Down”] she started to make a conscious effort to make music for herself, have a little more fun with it, and not overthink it. And not be scared about what her core fan base, or, y’know, people might think about it. When it came out, it freaked people out a lot. But it laid the groundwork for everything we were about to do with the album, and got her fans ready for something that was different: more aggressive, less apologetic, and very timely.
So it’s hard to say whether or not the criticisms of that song affected its evolution. You can be concerned on one hand, and on the other know that you have to follow your heart. When all the pieces start to move into place, then you have the perspective where you can fill in the gaps and know what’s needed to complete the sentence.
A big part of it for her was this idea of struggle and the fight to become a champion. All the defeats and hard times and losses that she’s had that felt like they were earth-shattering, in perspective, made her the warrior that she is today—made her be able to step out and say, “Bow down, bitch.” Because to her, it’s like, “I’ve been through all this. I’ve worked harder. I’ve suffered more. I’ve seen the bad part of the industry and the good part of the industry.” When the album was coming together, she homed in on her Star Search moment, where she lost and she thought that was the end of the world, and now looking back that’s just a funny little asterisk in her biography. I think once she connected that Star Search moment to “Bow Down,” “Flawless” was born, sort of as the resolution or the victory lap.
So you hear this song, and then your role as the creative director is to do what?
My role is to sit with it and think of a director that we think can visually capture it. Sometimes, it’s just, “Oh this person has the right aesthetic and we feel that their career is in the right place where we want to partner.” Sometimes it’s more, "We have a very clear idea of what we want to do and how it’s going to look—who’s the director that can capture that aesthetic for us?"
We wanted to do a Houston video that was like a Juvenile video, like a new version of a hood video. We knew that it made sense with “Bow Down,” but it seemed too easy or too obvious. And then I believe it was when we were on set for the “Partition” video, she came in in the morning and she was talking about this new song she’d made, “Flawless,” and how it was the perfect girl anthem and she was so excited about it. Through out the day, she would sing it for us or talk about it, and I think she came up with the idea of that becoming the resolution or the footnote to “Bow Down.”
Once that came together, it was like, “Okay, there’s no way we can have this obvious video for this song. Can we take that treatment and put it with something that you wouldn’t expect?” Which is where the “No Angel” video came from.
We needed something much more aggressive and out-of-left-field that speaks more abstractly to the concept of “Flawless.” We had been talking to Jake Nava about working on some stuff, and we didn't know what, yet. Him being an old Brit that grew up on the ska and Rudeboy scene of the ‘80s, he immediately saw a correlation between the visceral energy of these old-school, punk-rock parties and the idea of how you can’t judge a book by its cover—a lot of things you perceive people to be are not what they really are, and everybody has this beautiful, chaotic energy just being themselves.