joon oluchi lee

Fleshing: I Woke Up Like This Goddamn Goddamn

I love this this new Beyoncé “visual album,” but lordy, why she wear so much goddamn jewelry for?  In all seventeen videos, she’s loaded with metal: hanging off her earlobes, choking her neck, through her navel (an inny) and round her waist, bracelets and bangles stacked on her wrists, and rings, down to her wedding ring and up to her fingernails, so many goddamn rings!  So much metal on her makes me feel nervous for her body.  Not just the possibility of metal injuring the flesh (especially those weird chandeliers creeping down her butt crack—actually, let’s say “butt partition”—in “Partition”) but the weight of all that metal dragging her flesh down to an unknown and godforsaken place.  But at the same time, because the videos are so full of her sexualized flesh, the hard, cutting heavy metal comforts me too, because I know it’s also armor, a moat that protects the enclave of her central, truly sexual (rather than sexualized, for commercial purposes) personal flesh from the necessary gazing of her iTunes customers.  It makes me appreciate the delicacy of sexual flesh in general, even the failsafe flesh of a toughie like Beyoncé. 

The jewelry, like the album itself, telegraphs a desire in this woman to stretch past her organic skin, which she seems to find increasingly inadequate.  In her new work, Beyoncé doesn’t so much perform as fleshify ideas.  This is a trajectory that she’s been on ever since she combined upon her body Brigitte Bardot, Josephine Baker, and the Riot Grrrls for her B Day album back in 2006.  I guess she is technically performing since her trade is technically that of a performer, but it feels insufficient to describe as performance songs and videos that contain what one assumes are fictional accounts of heartbreak and cheatery which are then seamlessly fused to the marital, maternal, and material bliss of a woman and fellow Virgo named Beyoncé Knowles Carter.  This kind of work I have described, with my colleague Tracy Steepy, as “fleshing.”  The clumping of fact and fiction in turn clumps with the clumping of song and video, giving a pointedly fleshly weight to a “body” of sonic-visual-digital work named simply for the name of the woman.  Specific ideas are not simply symbolized by the female flesh, but the process of embodiment creates new mutant epistemologies.  In Beyoncé, there is a clumping and lumping together of concept, genre, content, emotion, and body.   Fleshing is a process, an action, an idea that measures the relationality between the body and its representations and performativities. The body is not a conduit of conceptualization, it is the result of conceptualization.  The consumers of such a “performance” may begin to feel less like they are witnessing a person showing off (performing) and more like coming into close encounters with a new kind of flesh.  (Perhaps digital flesh?) 

Beyoncé is a flesher.  In “***Flawless,” she moves from crankily yelling “bow down bitches” to coaxing them to join her in the chorus: “Ladies tell them/ I woke up like this/ I look good tonight.”  As a song, it’s familiar group therapy anthem of female empowerment.  But as wonderful as the video is for its nouvelle-grunge aesthetic (makes me want to wear heavy raccoon eyeliner AND dark lipstick AT THE SAME TIME), I am fixated on the line “I woke up like this.”  “I woke up like this” is a good, rigorous, riotous revision of the sad appeal to biologism that is “I was born like this.”  While historically productive for various groups marginalized by white patriarchy (“Black Is Beautiful,” “I Was Born This Way,” “I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar”), the appeal to biologism feels, in 2013, not only old-fashioned but a bit pathetic.  I like “I woke up like this” as an alternative anthem of the political self because unlike “I was born this way,” it prioritizes agency of the incomplete self, rather than that of your parents or, God forbid, “nature.”  But like “I was born like this,” it addresses the primacy of the physical body.  The ontology of “I woke up like this” still employs the rhetorical function of inevitability, but it is giving justifying power to the inevitability of the passing of days that defines living flesh, rather than the congealed ancient moment of physical birth.

I really hope Beyoncé (and not her co-writers) thought up “I woke up like this.”  But Beyoncé is a performer/ flesher and not a novelist, so who cares.  What gives “I woke up like this” its ontological and epistemological power is not only its textual components, but Beyoncé’s fleshing of those words.  The notion of waking up in some new or unexpected state appears a few times on the album, most notably in “Drunk in Love,” in which she wonders at her lover/ husband: “We woke up in the kitchen saying/ ‘How the hell did this shit happen?’”  The continuity between the two scenes of waking up is necessary because in “***Flawless,” Beyoncé is not using the chorus as smug rhetoric, but a dialogue with herself, a true exclamation.  To hybridize the lyrics: “I woke up like this…how the hell did this shit happen?”  It makes you think of all those nights you blacked out on tequila and bourbon and red wine and woke up in bed with a stranger: it’s fun and or scary.  So “I woke up like this” is not saying that the speaker is so fine all she has to do is tumble out of bed to look beautiful, but rather, she tumbled out of bed looking beautiful and she is shocked and amazed at the discovery.  This ethos is confirmed by her bodily arrangement as she lip-synchs the line: eyes crazy wide, mouth in an O or surprise, the herky-jerky dance expresses confusion, bewilderment, and wonder.  This is also why she exclaims, “I woke up like this/ Goddamn, goddamn, goddam!”  So shocking is this new self-pleasing self that even the usually god-fearing Beyoncé just has no recourse but to take the lord’s name in vain. 

“I woke up like this” describes the process of discovering and repeatedly re-discovering the self, the addictive affect of constant self-amazement.  This method of self-making is the opposite of narcissism.  Narcissism (in the colloquial, not Freudian sense) is the foreclosure of defamiliarization with the self: narcissists have a very fixed idea of who they are—and they love it!! (And you better love it too!)  “I woke up like this” speaks not to narcissism, but auto-intimacy, bound by moments of finding oneself a stranger to oneself.  Furthermore, it is the creation of the self not as performance, or performative in the old queer theory sense, but constant and ever-shifting modes of autoeroticism, of intimacy with oneself, the scene of which the audience is merely a privileged but accidental peeper. 

Portions of this piece appeared previously as my Tweets, @girlscallmurder.  Special thanks as always to my partner Roddy, who alerted old oblivious me about this album in the first place. “Long as you know who you belong to.”