The surprise release of Beyoncé’s new album last week was a marvel in more ways than its sudden appearance on iTunes. Besides being packed with songs that are explicitly seductive and sassy, the release was practically a fashion event, with a multitude of Beyoncé looks – playful, casual, couture and peep show – in the videos that accompanied each song.
Beyoncé knows fashion. The credits for her “Mrs. Carter Show World Tour” have included designs from Kenzo, Givenchy, Pucci, Gucci, Stuart Weitzman and many more, so it should be no surprise to see labels appearing in her new videos. The look throughout is aggressively, and occasionally gratuitously, erotic, with an apparently limitless supply of super-short jeans shorts, crystal corsets and swimsuits and lingerie that appear to be made of little more than a string of jewelry. So the fashion is giving the same message as the album. Beyoncé, as she herself attests, is a “grown woman,” one who takes ownership of her body and the power of her sexuality.
In a marathon viewing, I actually lost track of how many times the camera lingers on Beyoncé’s perfectly toned, flawless backside, whether in uncomfortable looking jeans shorts that veer dangerously close to the territory of dental floss, or in lace or jewelry thongs. But the point is, she’s Beyoncé. She doesn’t always have to wear pants.
There are many sides to Beyoncé on “Beyoncé,” including Grunge Beyoncé in “***Flawless,” Modernist Beyoncé in “Ghost” and Apocalyptic Beyoncé in “Superpower.” But her unabashed enthusiasm for fashion comes out most playfully in “Blow,” where she appears in a neon yellow Versace tiger-print mink coat over DKNY leggings. The video, set in a roller rink, is a romp through glaringly bright 1980s fashion, with an electric set to match.
Beyoncé does not sugarcoat the meaning of her social message, illustrating the dangers of a culture that often prizes beauty above health by appearing as a contestant in a stylized beauty queen pageant. “Perfection is a disease of a nation,” she sings between scenes of models in sequined bathing suits eating cotton balls, purging, spray tanning, applying Vaseline to their teeth. It’s a powerful song, and Beyoncé, as “Miss 3rd Ward,” uses fashion, including some recognizable Norma Kamali swimwear, to highlight the absurdity of such self-objectifying behavior. She competes in bunny ears and wears an over-the-top skintight sky-printed silk bodysuit to work out.
When Beyoncé sings “rock right up to the side of my mountain, climb until you reach my peak,” her meaning is pretty obvious, given that she mostly appears here in nothing more than half-removed lingerie or a wet T-shirt. Standing in front of a hotel window, like Michael Fassbender in “Shame,” she drops a white dress shirt to reveal her derriere in a thong. Still, it is less risqué than the crystal-embellished corsetry and panties-dancing of “Partition,” a burlesque number about limo sex that manages to use Monica Lewinsky as a verb.
The strongest, most parental-guidance-advisable images are found in “Yoncé,” which includes appearances by supermodels Joan Smalls, Jourdan Dunn and Chanel Iman, the latter seen crawling on all fours in a gray bandage top and black leather jeans. Beyoncé herself wears a black molded bodysuit with provocative anatomical details (YSL from the Tom Ford years) or a fringed bra top with lace pants, seductively singing in lipstick that looks as if it were made of patent leather. This is Beyoncé at her most sexually assertive, and it’s shocking enough to make even a Victoria’s Secret angel blush.