Features | Awards

The Gives New Meaning to Guilty Pleasure Award

By Conrad Amenta | 12 December 2011

Beyoncé :: “Countdown”
from 4
(Sony, 2011)

I’m so torn by this. On the one hand you have one of the most dynamic pop songs of the year. Something that roars with polyphony. One listen through and you feel like you could live in this shit, Matrix-like, deluding yourself in its universe endlessly. And on the other hand you’ve still got Beyoncé’s mind-numbing conflation of feminist empowerment with consumerism and a conveniently male-approved sexuality. So, yeah. I’m torn.

Let me admit that I listen to “Countdown” almost daily, and the virtuoso songwriting on display here still gives me chills. The marching band polyrhythm; the packed vocal arrangements (“when does she breathe?”); the fluttering, ecstatic, blink-and-you-miss it bridge; the descending and ascending melodies, counter-posed rhythmically so that the song has the feeling of crescendo after crescendo; the swell in the back half of the chorus, emulating the inspired vacuum cleaner whooshing from “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It).” Even the video’s choreography, along with the variety of iterations to Beyoncé’s hotness, floored me.

I’ve felt this kind of rush before, when listening to Beyoncé’s own “Crazy in Love.” I was working at a record store, surrounded by people who prided themselves on the obscurity of their free jazz collections, and the song decimated that little community of would be aficionados. Just a few years later I can’t even listen to it: Beyoncé’s confidently-delivered but tonally naïve ode to total dedication is met by Jay’s agreement that he is, indeed, the best. The love testified to in the song, one everyone knew to be their own, was held up as evidence of something transcendent of the individual by Beyoncé, and as yet more evidence of the individual’s dominance by Jay. It’s not Love that is singular and magical, but Man as the object of Love, be it Jay or any other man making claim to such unique value.

So there’s something cold and, well, icky about “Countdown.” Love manifests, when sung by a woman like Beyoncé, as dedication, and that’s one thing. But it’s also problematic that she’s always adopted the role of advice-giver, some sage-like guide to Information Age Feminism. “Ladies, if you love your man show him you the fliest,” she advises, then, “Grind up on it, girl, show him how you ride it,” and “Yup, I buy my own, if he deserve it, buy his shit too,” defining dual paths to emancipation as putting out and paying cash. I get that sex and money can be empowering, but when it’s always cast as one facet of giving, dedication, and testament…like I said, I’m torn. When she says “All up in the kitchen in my heels, dinner time,” is this a classic inversion of the domestic relegation, or just new dress for the same chains?

There’s little denying the slick murderousness of those hooks, the efficiency with which “Countdown” kills me and drags me back to its cave. This thing is like a snapshot of what music is going to sound like in the future, which is what the best of single-heavy hip-hop/R&B tends to give us. With Lady Gaga, you’ve got some interesting conceptual design paired with progressive politics and just fucking awful music. Beyoncé’s one of the most accomplished and incredible singers working today, but her lyrics are Neolithic. When they last worked together, LG actually had Beyoncé killing men for a change. Can we get these two back in a room together already?