“***Flawless” might be the core text of Beyoncé: a show of rage disguised as pop, a triptych of pieces about femininity, femme, race, and womanhood, seemingly lacking in coherence but expressing a plurality of voices. The first part begins with the artist singing to her fans and followers: “I know when you were little girls / You dreamt of being in my world / Don’t forget it, don’t forget it / Respect that. Bow down, bitches.” After this declaration of matriarchal dominance, the song slows into a tense quiet as a sample of Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche speaks of the inequalities of expectation and socialization put upon women, in which women are taught to be less sexual, less ambitious, and less competitive than men; any competition occurring between women for marriage partners. After Adichie declares a feminist as one who believes in the “social, political, and economic equality of the sexes,” the song shifts into a series of chanted pro-femme mottos: “I woke up like dis / We flawless / Ladies, tell them say / I look so good tonight.” The artist almost frantically honors the gifts offered by each member of her family; the confidence, courage, and validation.
All of this is bookended by clips from the artist’s appearance on Star Search as a member of Girls Tyme competing against an all-white, all-male, rocker-looking group Skeleton Crew. The audience is aware of the dramatic irony that Skeleton Crew wins with four stars over Girls Tyme’s three stars, given that we have no idea who these guys while the artist continues her media domination.
As an anthem, the call outs “I woke up like dis” and “I look so good tonight” are spells of femme empowerment. Self-validating, these words declare one’s self a preternaturally beautiful and flawlessly put-together being while masking the labor and heartache that goes into one’s look. Within the larger context of the artist’s surrender of perfection, flawlessness becomes less about external standards and more about an attitude, a style of being and confidence that owns its own space. Adichie speaks of the messaging that teaches “girls to shrink themselves, to make themselves smaller,” and this is the artist’s answer—to become bigger, to demand space, to insist on her own excellence.
This pro-femme anthem seems contradictory to the song’s initial declaration of hierarchy, the artist commanding respect and submission from all would-be competitors who are growing up and thinking of taking on the Queen against her throne. Adichie’s bridge offers a context that broadens the scope of the song’s message. She speaks of socialization compelling women to vie for male attention “rather than jobs or accomplishments, which I would think a good thing.” She further asserts that are taught, “you can be successful, but not too successful, or else you’d threaten the man.” Part one of “***Flawless” keeps competition within the realm of women, the artist presumably speaking to other female artists to pay homage and respect. This occurs within the wider media culture that pits women artists against each other and isolates music within gendered scopes, echoing back to the 1994 Q Magazine interview with Tori Amos, PJ Harvey, and Björk, in which Amos says:
It’s funny for women because journalists pit women against each other. If you think about Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page and Eric Clapton they were all much more similar to each other than we are. We have tits. We have three holes. That’s what we have in common. We don’t even play the same instruments. It really disappoints me when some sort of competition has to be manufactured for their little minds and fantasies.
Anger toward the patriarchal restrictions that narrow women’s opportunities to a gender-segregated channel seems to simmer within the context of the song. The video itself shows the artist participating in moshing, posturing with ferocity, giving her best femme daddy.
Returning to the Star Search bookends, the three asterisks in “***Flawless” call back the three stars given to Girls Tyme. The song allows us to sink into its anger, its pride, its fierce declaration of the power of women, and then take in the reality that no matter how flawless they are, Black women only get three stars in a culture that awards White men four stars as a matter of course.
In this way, the song is a journey of expansive consciousness, starting from thinking from a place of power scarcity, in which women have to compete for what limited power is available, moving through feminist analysis, and emerging with this sharp-edged honing of identity and exaltation of femme consciousness. This may point toward the direction this evolution will continue with the artist as she moves from five, the experimental expression of self-actualized energy, to six, the meeting of new opposition. The individualizing being, increasing in confidence and a greater sense of purpose, must continue to expand in scope and capacity, meeting and defeating all oppositions. As she was able to divest herself of the limitations of perfectionism, her next step might be well to take on the larger social barriers that inhibit her success and creativity.
Complete Jungian readings of Beyoncé’s work: