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

September 14, 2009 |  4:18 pm

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

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