It’s the great dilemma of the visual artist in the twenty-first century: In a culture saturated with so much distracting content, via YouTube and Tumblr and AT&T U-verse, how do you conjure up images that become iconographic? Yet that’s just what Beyoncé Knowles managed to achieve with her video “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” directed by Jake Nava. Wearing a black bodysuit and a futuristic metallic arm glove, the Houston-born singer—flanked by two dancers and filmed in shimmering black and white—audaciously reinterpreted a Bob Fosse–choreographed routine called “Mexican Breakfast” from 1969.
Within days of its release, in October 2008, this wicked celebration of female solidarity went viral. Diapered babies danced along to it. Expectant mothers created response videos (“All My Pregnant Ladies”). In November Justin Timberlake, Bobby Moynihan, and Andy Samberg offered up a male version of the number on Saturday Night Live, a parody that became almost as instantly legendary as the original. The following year, Kanye West cemented the clip’s celebrity by interrupting Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech after “You Belong With Me” beat out “Single Ladies” for the MTV Video Music Award for Best Female Video. “Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time,” West proclaimed—and what was really crazy was that the loose-trigger rapper actually had a point. (“Single Ladies” did go on to win Video of the Year at the VMAs, a detail that got obscured by the Swift-West imbroglio.)
Now, a few years later, Beyoncé faces another dilemma: When you’ve created a cultural touchstone, what do you do for your next act? Early this month, the 2011 VMA nominations will be announced, and Beyoncé will likely be a contender once again. In May she released the video for “Run the World (Girls),” directed by fantasy filmmaker Francis Lawrence ( I Am Legend, Constantine ). The setting was a Road Warrior–ish desert scene complete with hyenas and a lion—precisely the sort of stylized vision that’s catnip to the folks behind these prizes (the ceremony will take place on August 28). And yet the video felt like recycled goods, another dance routine in praise of girl power, without any of the wit or exultance of “Single Ladies.” Meanwhile, a new set of pop stars have been nipping at her heels: Lady Gaga, Rihanna, and Ke$ha, all of whom owe a considerable debt to Beyoncé’s postfeminist sensibility. To maintain her rightful place at the front of the pack, the singer, whose new album, 4, was greeted with mixed reviews in late June, might have to think about taking a few radical turns.
For an artist who, since her days in Destiny’s Child, has worked at constructing a singular visual identity, that’s perhaps easier said than done. In the video for “Bills Bills Bills” (1999), for instance, she played a beautician who leads an entire salon in a dance deriding their no-good boyfriends. In “Say My Name” (2000), the images alternate between four color-coded sets (red, orange, blue, and white) as the three Destiny’s Child singers are pitted against a sole male dancer, the representative “player” who refuses to remember his lovers’ names. Blazingly confident for the camera, Beyoncé portrayed herself as a woman burned too many times, a theme she carried with her after leaving the group. In her first few solo videos, she sometimes wavered between owning her sexuality and selling it for cheap; both “Baby Boy” (2003) and “Me, Myself and I” (2003) show her arching her back and poking her butt in the air, a pose perhaps not as self-confident as Beyoncé might think. But eventually she found a balance, in clips like 2004’s “Naughty Girl,” a sensual pas de deux with Usher, and 2005’s “Irreplaceable,” where she plays a woman who blithely files her nails as her boyfriend moves out. With the release of her 2008 album, I Am Sasha Fierce (named for her onstage alter ego), and the videos for “Single Ladies” and “Diva” (in which she haughtily waves a Chinese fan made of $100 bills), the picture was complete: Beyoncé managed to be at once erotic and intimidating, relationship-minded yet independent, the ultimate obscure object of desire. She extended that vision with 2010’s “Why Don’t You Love Me,” presumably inspired by photographer Cindy Sherman’s Untitled Film Stills series, where she appears in a Bettie Page getup, as a fifties-era housewife, and as a mascara-smeared, martini-swilling unholy mess. She was gorgeous, funny, and gloriously unhinged.
By contrast, the Beyoncé of “Run the World (Girls)” comes off as boring, not to mention strangely behind the times. Indeed, it’s been an entertaining couple of years for female pop artists toying with gender and sexuality, and you can’t help but wonder if, in launching her new album with such a lackluster song and video, Beyoncé let down her guard against the competition. With the deliciously brainless videos for “TiK ToK” and “We R Who We R,” Ke$ha has created a witty postmodern persona, a trash queen who parties much harder than the boys. In her clip for “S&M,” Rihanna uses a recurring image of news reporters in BDSM gags hurling objects at the singer; you don’t quite know what you’re watching, but you know it’s something dirty. And then there’s Lady Gaga, the new princess of iconographic imagery, and her two epic videos about the misadventures of a murderess: “Paparazzi” (2009) and “Telephone” (2009), the latter of which co-stars Beyoncé as Gaga’s lesbian lover. They are the most original things to come out of the music video world since, well, “Single Ladies.”
The thing is, Beyoncé shouldn’t be allowing these other women to surpass her, not when she’s been doing what they do for years, and she certainly shouldn’t be anyone’s supporting banana. (It’s worth noting that when Gaga turned up in Beyoncé’s 2010 clip “Video Phone,” the result wasn’t nearly as memorable.) So what’s an image-conscious female artist to do? Back in MTV’s halcyon era, Madonna would disappear for a year and return with a new hair color, new outfits, and