Who Is Beyonce Knowles and Why Should We Care?

Untangling the real woman from the powerful brand.

If you bother to read music reviews, and if you happen to have read any reviews of Beyoncé’s music, you’ll notice that critics always say the same thing: Show us who you are. Strangely, many critics said the same about her recent Life Is But a Dream documentary effort for HBO. For some reason, Ms. Knowles-Carter’s true persona remains elusive. Her most formidable attempt to do so was on the ironically schizophrenic double-disc I Am … Sasha Fierce, a mix between lethargic, weepy, self-affirming ballads and oversexed, too-hot-to-trot anthems for “all the single ladies.”

Since the dawn of her solo career, Beyoncé has become a brand that encompasses many roles: singer, actress, doting wife, diva, daughter, sister, simultaneous country girl and Renaissance Woman. The branding is strategic and simple, a mold void of race, passive, if not patriarchal, in its discussion of women’s empowerment. The brand is framed in the likeness of a literary everyman character. Her interviews generally suffer for it.

When the house lights come down, however, something else happens. Beyoncé’s brand may be so bland that she assumes the flavor of whatever role she’s put in—White House guest, L’Oreal spokesperson, Bettie Page-inspired pin-up girl—but she also has a dexterity in her branding not afforded to many artists.

In her recent media blitz, Beyoncé, 31, has attempted to serve all masters. Having dominated the urban music world, Beyoncé is using this year to cast her net wider: Beyonce is selling Americana, right down to the Warhol-inspired Pepsi cans.

Backed with a $50 million Pepsi endorsement deal, Beyoncé is carefully shifting with her image to secure her place as a pop-star legend. In February, she played college cheerleader for middle America, taking the helm of America’s religious sanctuary of football for the Super Bowl halftime show.

But frequently, in her performances, she adopts what is tantamount to “hoodface” (a variation on blackface), with its adaptation of urban street culture as a means of performance. It’s occurred throughout Beyoncé’s career; watch her in this video for “Party” with J. Cole:

Which looks a lot like this (NSFW lyrics):

and this (NSFW lyrics):

Rappers Kreayshawn and Khia are both artists of similar socioeconomic backgrounds; the similarities in their videos make sense. Which leaves me to wonder why Beyonce is in a double-wide.

While there are legions of articles that discuss Beyoncé’s flagrant and willful creative infringement on other artists, there are few that examine the ways in which Beyoncé injects class (and race) as a part of her on-stage persona.

See also crip walking:

None of this would be so bad but for the fact that in her 2008 cover story with Elle magazine, during her discussion of her rise to fame and the differences between herself and her contemporaries, Beyoncé stated:

I grew up upper class. Private school. My dad had a Jaguar. We’re African-American and we work together as a family, so people assume we’re like the Jacksons, but I didn’t have parents using me to get out of a bad situation.

Offensiveness aside, Beyoncé plays a tricky game of class-consciousness. By contrast, her husband’s Watch the Throne album with Kanye West is an incredible record to listen to about wealth, race and power in the context of a national recession from two black men who amassed their respective earnings and international notoriety through rap music. Jay-Z and Kanye are so paid they have seemingly nothing left to do except reflect on how they got to where they are. Beyoncé, meanwhile, continues to play dress-up as the poor little rich girl, even as she once peddled her streetwear line to the masses (though she was rarely seen wearing her designs outside of an ad campaign).

So why does this matter?

While there is no denying that Beyoncé is at the top of her game, there’s much to be said about her ability to pander to young, female audiences, particularly those of color. She is able to influence (and profit from) their perception of what real “independent womanhood” looks like through a highly controlled public image—though from the outside looking in, it doesn’t seem very clear that Beyoncé’s messaging necessarily includes them.