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Beyonce and Taylor Swift: Sisterhood is powerful, especially when male-directed

Sisters400 Plenty of men know what it's like to cross a line and discover that nothing -- not flowers, not tears, not emotional blog posts -- can eradicate the skunk-like scent of jerkiness once it's sprayed. Kanye West can't seem to apologize enough for bursting in on Taylor Swift during her acceptance speech for Best Female Video at last night's MTV Video Music Awards, even though a replay of the moment reveals that West's imposition started with the words, "I'm sorry, Taylor." Whatever motivated West's words, his aggressiveness read as impossibly rude, not in small part because he is a 32-year-old man and the target of his scorn was a young woman of 19.

From one vantage point, it was a case of chivalry gone horribly wrong. West meant to stand up for Beyonce Knowles, whose "Single Ladies" video is in fact much more memorable than the one for Swift's "You Belong With Me," which took the prize in question. Knowles herself made it fairly clear that she doesn't require the blustering gallantry of West or any other guy when, upon winning Video of the Year for "Single Ladies," she ceded her own acceptance speech slot to Swift. The two women staged a quick sisterly embrace, adding another layer of meaning to an already complicated moment. Now this controversy was about women sticking up for each other, too.

If, as some bloggers are suggesting, West's intervention was staged, there had to be a reason Knowles and Swift agreed to participate. And even if his tirade was spontaneous, that climactic hug between Queen B and Princess Taylor had clearly been arranged (if only within the previous hour) and benefited both parties.

Here's one happy side benefit to what was likely a real gesture of generosity on Knowles' part and humility on Swift's. "You Belong With Me" and "Single Ladies" have both become mega-hits partly because women have embraced them as anthems of empowerment. Little girls and their moms raised their voices together and joined Swift in a round of confidence-boosting during her current national tour. All kinds of people, but especially self-styled sassy females, have posted video tributes to Beyonce's bounce-and-snap display of attitude, and on the VMAs she multiplied her backup dancers to simulate a small army of leotard-clad independent women.

Swift's ditty pleads with a high school crush to give up his superficial affair with a sexy cheerleader and give in to the singer, his smarter, more substantial soul mate. "She wears short skirts, I wear T-shirts," sings Swift, who adds to the picture in the video by sporting Austin Powers style glasses and letting her usually pristine curls go frizzy. It's an argument for inner beauty, and certainly a more appealing take on the dump-your-girlfriend theme than other recent contributions, such as Avril Lavigne's spiteful "Girlfriend" or the predatory "Don't Cha" by the Pussycat Dolls.

Knowles is a few steps past the prom in "Single Ladies." She's up in the club, having a night out in celebration of ending an unhappy relationship. Enter the old flame; B gives him a show with her new companion, with the stated intent of making Mr. Formerly Right realize exactly what he's missing. While Swift laments male cluelessness, Knowles scorns male carelessness. Her edgy vocal performance and the impudently sexual dancing featured in the video gives "Single Ladies" its tingle of liberation. Girls this fierce can certainly do whatever they want. But what they want is to be treated as prized possessions. The song's ubiquitous refrain, "If you liked it then you should have put a ring on it," makes the point explicit: the ultimate satisfaction for this kind of lady is to be made into an object, a glittery "it."

"Single Ladies" and "You Belong With Me" are both outstanding singles that, like every great pop tune, can be taken on and examined for new meanings by their fans. At the heart of both is the desire to be seen in a highly competitive environment: to be able to step back from the exhausting sport of feminine allure (one that Swift describes as a losing game, and Beyonce presents as all-consuming) and simply be loved. But there's no getting around the fact that these songs imagine female self-worth solely in terms of male approval. And though in Beyonce's video, she's flanked by two female seconds, both hits also mine the energy of female competition, not solidarity. These sisters might be lovable and strong, but they're not doing it for each other or themselves.

Swift and Knowles know a lot about competition. They're pop stars, after all, paid millions to fulfill our fantasies of beauty, talent and personal power. But these young women also represent a new era of female self-possession within the entertainment industry; writing and producing their own material, supported by family and (in Knowles' case) strong mates, but publicly standing at the controls of their own careers. They inspire young women to do more than worry about whether a guy likes them. Reaching toward each other in the wake of West's cocky move, they reinforced that sense of female pride and mutual support. Now, if only their hit singles did the same thing.

-- Ann Powers

Photo: Christopher Polk / Getty Images

Comments () | Archives (37)

I think Kanye's problem is he actually believes it matters who wins an MTV Video Award!

Excellent article with some very good points made, particularly about the elements of female competition found of both these young women's current hit songs. The only thing I would add is that "jerkiness" is clearly not the exclusive domain of men. I have met many a female jerk in my life. The skunk-like scent of the deeds of the jerk is just as pungent regardless of the gender of the jerk in question.

Chivalry gone horribly wrong? Try an ego gone horribly out of control for the umpteenth time. As a music producer who loves all kinds of music... jazz, blues, hip hop, rock, pop, country, the racist tones of Kanye's too-frequent outbursts have no place in music.

Nice try to spin Kanye's tirade as something more respectful than it was.... but I am calling for everyone in the industry to stop feeding this destructive ego by producing his recordings or inviting him to award events.

There are plenty of homeless alcoholics who can stand on the red carpet waving around a bottle of booze as well as Kanye but able to be far more respectful of world-class award winners like Taylor Swift (whether you like her music or not), Beyonce, and all the artists who beat out Kanye when he pulled the same immature stunts in the past.

Screw him. There isnt a room big enough for his potential awards and his ego. If he ever realizes that he might be something

Yes! "IF ONLY their hit singles" reflected "a sense female pride and mutual support." I'm so glad someone with access to a broad audience has said it.

I generally appreciate Beyonce but the minute I heard "Single Ladies" I really disliked the song because a woman should never be referred to as "it."

Thanks for your Blog.

couldn't believe the bullyboy tactics of kanye. and well done Taylor for being gracious enough to join in damage lumitation with Beyonce

Who cares that he started with "I'm sorry, Taylor"? Read any comments thread on the internet begin with "I'm sorry, but ..." or "I don't want to be rude but..." or gratuitous use of terms that would otherwise be friendly, like calling someone "dear." It's not possible to apologize enough because I can't believe that a person who honestly thought that was OK suddenly understands why it wasn't the next day -especially when he's ALWAYS acting like this. He just shouldn't be invited to these things anymore.

Good article with insightful comments. Your careful comparison of the two "singles" makes me think that you may be aware of Ms. Swift's other songs many of which contain either messages or examples of female integrity and empowerment for young girls. I wonder, however, since the awards were about videos, whether you considered the irony of Ms Swift playing both the stay at home and the sexy cheerleader in her video. I think that it reflects on the no place like home theme and I wonder if in planning the video it was Taylor's idea, since so much of what she does comes directly from her. I would love to know.

It also unlikely that the interruption of her acceptance speech was in anyway planned with her knowledge, she would never have allowed it.

A BIG salute to Beyonce and Taylor! Shame on Kanye, espececially after the moving tribute to MJ just moments before his inexcusable antics! I doubt that MJ or his family would be amused by what Kanye did, not that anyone was anyways.

Beyonce showed so much class in bringing Taylor on stage during her own moment. I have always respected Beyonce as an artist and a person as I have Taylor, but my respect for how they both dealt with the whole situation has made it even more so.

As a single father with four children, three of whom are young women, I try to raise all of them them with a strong sense of self-esteem, empowerment, etc. I am glad that there are some very positive role models such as Beyonce and Taylor for them to respect.

Dear Ann Powers,
This blog is beautifully articulate and your clarity and purpose are refreshing and poignant.
Brava, sister!!!

"You Belong With Me" is a REALLY well-made video. I love the storyline and the emotions that come with it. It's much better than her "Love Story" MV. I think Taylor definitely deserves her award.

To be honest, I don't see how "Single Ladies" can win Video of the Year ... -_-

Heck, I don't even feel bad that Katy Perry didn't win for her Hot N Cold. Matter of fact is ... "You Belong With Me" music video is THAT GOOD.

How ignorant and arrogant can one get. Kayne was completely out of line and as a result she be reprimanded accordingly. For some odd reason He's compelled to put his 1cent when needs to sit down and keep it shut. I felt quite a bit of sympathy for him when his mother died. I often prayed for his strength and "swift" recovery. I didn't expect it to be this swift.

West has not apparently had the appropriate upbringing required for his current postion in life. He cannot even be classified as a thug, as respected "gangsters" have an unwritten code of ethics. (An "all hat, no cattle" theory). Before the incident with Ms. Swift, I never even heard of him. The only reason he has apologized is because his attorney probably informed him that he could be held legally accountable for his rude behavior, and the fact that he touched Ms. Swift without her permission. He further used slang in what was supposed to be an apology, to gain his fifteen minutes of fame. Am sure West will use some sort of an excuse and will never actually take responsibility for his actions, which is typical for someone of his low class...err...NO CLASS. It would take a REAL man to achieve such a feat. It would be wonderful if Ms. Swift pursues him legally, then donates the funds to an organization to prevent violence against women. Take him to the mat!

Though I do agree that the meaning of this song is problematic, I believe it is not necessarily to be objectified - at least AS a ring. I would rather say that it takes the positive connotations of "wifery" - if you wanted "it" ("it" being, ostensibly, Beyonce though "it" could represent any number people, passions or ideas) so badly, you should have made a long term commitment. It is a metaphor that ignores the issue of connecting value and commitment to marriage and all of those things to the giving of jewelry.

I fully agree about West's stupid actions, but while the article celebrated 2 strong females, it was also laced with needless sexism.

I think Beyonce was rude with that smile on her face when Kayne was showing his butt. Then she knew she had to do damage control so she calls Taylor up when she won her award. When Taylor thanked her brother's school for letting her use the facility for her video Beyonce smirked and made a face behind her back. I have no use for Kayne or Beyonce anymore.

Screw Kanye! Beyonce & Taylor all the wayyyyy! ;)

I believe it was really dumb that you said beyonce's video was clearly better then taylor swifts. your just as dumb as kanye

Taylor needs to decide if she is country or whatever. I personlly think she is a disgrace to country music maybe she needs to rethink things.

To B,
Just wanted to say...you make me proud. You and you husband are a real class act. Thank you for having dignity and pride. One question...why did You and Taylor both have on red dresses. Please don't tell me this was a set up like the MNM and Sasha skit.

I dont like mainstream music, but I was happy for Swift, as MTV almost never recognizes a Country Music artist- not even a Country Poppish singers such as Taylor Swift. They only seem bent on Hip Hop or Rock genres. Its nice to see someone from the Country Music corner finally be allowed to have the honor, and Taylor Swift is gifted and writes her own songs. I think she had it all over Beyonce Knowles, but thats the politics of MTV.

Ms. Powers, your idea of chivalry is warped. There was absolutely nothing at all chivalrous or valiant about his behavior. It was the most disgusting thing I have ever seen. Also, please don't conflate his actions with the tendencies of all men. I was sickened by it.

Saying "I'm sorry" in advance doesn't excuse it... he doesn't own the VMA. Even if B's vid is 'more memorable', there's no reason for the performer to win both awards... Swift is entirely entitled to Best Female Vid when Beyonce is getting Vid of the Year. West is a grandstanding I-own-the-moment and everything else fool. It's not chivalry to put someone else down on a racist agenda... sticking up for his sista who been wronged even though she was still up for Vid of the Year... that's called jumping to conclusions, having a thin skin, and a hair trigger. Grow the h up... and stay off the stage when you've no reason to be there. The awards shows are a lame joke anyway... politically and biasedly voted/run/whatever. West should be banned from the VMA for a year.

It's funny how people are more prone to commenting on controversy but when an article like this, so brilliantly written, comes around, no one seems to really know what to say. It doesn't break the event down solely into "good vs evil" or go for the cheap, "female vs male" dichotomy, it's just a darn good, insightful, yet simple, analysis and, frankly, I really miss stuff like this.

Please, keep writing!

Sam Freedom

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