With subtle songwriting, confessional lyrics, and deeply rooted politics, her new album recognizes the power of the body—and its limits.
Beyoncé and Jay Z got engaged on Jay Z’s birthday, and to celebrate, Beyoncé took her new fiancee to see naked women dance. At Paris’s cabaret club Crazy Horse in 2007, she has said she watched the synchronized striptease with a particular kind of awe. “I just thought it was the ultimate sexy show I’ve ever seen,” she later recalled, “and I was like, ‘I wish I was up there, I wish I could perform that for my man.’” In 2013, she fulfilled that dream by returning to Crazy Horse to film the stupendously sexy music video for “Partition,” a song about giving a blow job in a limo.
It’s the kind of story from which you can pull a few competing narratives about Beyoncé—and about gender, sex, and pop music more broadly. From one popular angle, her co-ed cabaret celebration is a tale of empowerment: a tale of sex-positivity and feminism that bolster a traditional monogamous marriage. But from other angles, it’s the opposite of radical: a story that’s, at base, about women straining to please men. There’s the meta reading, which points out the fact that superstars like Beyoncé are like those Crazy Horse dancers writ large, shimmying to the amazement and jealousy of a global audience. In almost any interpretation, you run into one of pop culture’s abiding beliefs: Sex is power.