Last December, Beyoncé rioted against pop-music conventions with the surprise midnight rollout of the 14 tracks and 17 music videos on her self-titled, sonically adventurous, recorded-in-secret “visual album.” But Queen B’s rebellion had actually begun seven months earlier. That’s when she, sans forewarning, released “Bow Down/I Been On,” six disorienting minutes of the ultra-coiffed diva sounding like a swaggering rap kingpin as she commanded her audience to “bow down, bitches.” Reactions ranged from delight to scorn. Some said she’d disrespected women; Rush Limbaugh even took the time to misconstrue the lyrics on his radio show. But by the time Mrs. Knowles-Carter rereleased the song on her album—revised and renamed “Flawless”—one thing was clear: it signaled the ascent of a more aggressive, more self-assured superstar.
Here, Beyoncé’s creative director, Todd Tourso, describes how her team reworked “Bow Down” into “Flawless” and its accompanying music video. The interview has been edited for brevity.
On bookending the song with clips from a 1993 Star Search competition: “Flawless” was meant to give some reason for the bravado that defined “Bow Down.” A big part of it was the struggle to become a champion. She homed in on her Star Search moment: she lost and thought that was the end of the world, and now looking back that’s just a funny asterisk in her biography.
On sampling the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk on feminism: That was something Beyoncé found at, like, 4 o’clock in the morning on YouTube. I think that she feels confident in representing what feminism means in 2014, but she struggled a bit with how to articulate why she feels how she does and how it enabled her to be who she is. When she stumbled upon that clip, it felt like exactly what we were trying to say.
On setting the scene for the video: In Paris, we rented a monastery that we art-directed to feel like a shitty underground club. One of the specific things we said was “When you look at it, you should smell urine.” [Shooting in] black-and-white helped with the lo-fi yet fashion-y vibe.
On casting skinheads: [Music-video director] Jake Nava immediately saw a correlation between the visceral energy of old-school punk rockers and the idea that a lot of things you perceive people to be are not what they really are. So he came back with this idea of a moshing party, with this multicultural group of skinheads. If you really look [at the cast], you can tell: the ones with scabs on their faces and black eyes are the real skinheads, and the ones who have chiseled jawlines and cheekbones are models.