"Ladies I think it's time to switch roles"
The crucial moment of Ciara's "Like a Boy" video comes 40 seconds in. Ciara the boy and Ciara the girl share the stage at the same time, each decked out to look like the extreme opposite of the other. While one seduces in a short slinky dress, the "boy" impresses in a sharp pin-stripped suit. A hat is passed between them, both played by Ciara, as if to suggest a unity between the two. Is the only difference between men and women then, beside certain body parts, a choice in attire?
Well there's also that tiny imbalance in the way each is treated and represented in society. Beyonce's "Upgrade U" wants to tackle that first issue of treatment by playing with ideas of representation similar to Ciara's. The irreplaceable diva not only dresses the part here, but mouths the verses of male counterpart Jay-Z as well. Yet while this shows off Beyonce's growing acting ability, it proves to be the only real risk taken in the video.
The piece would be improved ten-fold if there were but one cut back to "male" Beyonce during her verse that begins "you need a real woman in your life," but instead we are left with typical shots of what a "woman" is supposed to look like. Or perhaps it would have been even more fun to see Jay-Z in the role of his girlfriend, thrusting his hips to the beat while singing lines like "ran by the man, but the woman keep the tempo." Yet for some reason female cross-dressing is considered sexy, but male cross-dressing is not (though those eye-liner wearing emo-kids are aiming to change that).
But in truth Beyonce's song isn't all that empowering to begin with, and the video only makes matters worse. Yes she is suggesting that her presence would improve the social stature and overall quality of life for her "partner," but the reasoning behind why it would be an upgrade is somewhat troubling. Her main point revolves around wealth, which is important considering Beyonce is a woman who makes more money than 90 percent of the men out there. The video consequently showers her in gold and platinum to prove how much she is "worth." There is also a very effective scene in which Beyonce fearlessly tames a passing phallic lizard (reminds me Bjork's "Alarm Call"). Yet at the same time she speaks of hustling to "keep" and "feed" her man, which suggests that she is still in a submissive position seeking approval. She also describes herself as a complimentary piece to an already formidable puzzle, rather than an equal part of the structure. More like a shiny diamond necklace than a full-on entertainment empire (which is something Beyonce can actually provide).
The song begins with Hova challenging Beyonce to prove to him what she can offer, "how you gonna upgrade me?" The fact that Melina puts these words in the mouth of the female is a very effective way of mocking Jay-Z's trademark bravado. But the director goes on to put a lot of other suggestive things in Beyonce's mouth (from a whistle to a chain) that really negate that opening position of power. Rather than taking this opportunity to mock the problematic points of male hip-hop culture, Beyonce bows down to it, offering up cars, jewelery and her own body as proof of her worth within the system.
By the end of the video she's back sitting on Jay's lap while he casually confirms his position of superiority. And if we take another look at the gender-bending scene itself, Beyonce is wearing huge hoop earrings the whole time anyway. On the other side Ciara actually inhabits her male persona. She grabs her crotch, shows off some excessive tattoos and even busts out dance-moves JT would die for. She puts her foot on the squatting male version of herself, and proudly displays her tight abs and over-sized boxers.
Director Diane Martel creates an environment of constantly shifting gender where half-way through it no longer matters whether Ciara is a boy or a girl. This is paramount to the idea of equal treatment (as if it were some "theory") because it establishes the hypocrisy of our gender standards. When you walk down the street and whistle at a lady in a skirt and respectfully ignore a man in a suit, you don't have the opportunity to actually see what's under those pants. We treat people kindly or offensively, sometimes based only on their choice of attire or how they wear their hair.
From every perspective Ciara's song is far more serious than Beyonce's. Even the soaring strings and screwed vocals add a menacing mood to the track. But the video succeeds, despite the inclusion of some overwrought dance sequences, because it is a striking attack without being angry or too aggressive. The final shot of the all-female dancers is of them pointing at the screen, as if presenting a challenge to the audience and male portion of the hip-hop community. But this is immediately followed by Ciara planting a playful kiss on her boyfriend. She doesn't hate men.
She isn't asking a revolutionary question either, but simply pointing out a double-standard that we all know exists but choose to ignore. Ciara doesn't really want to be a boy, she just wants to be treated and respected like one. She also knows that being a powerful woman does not mean rejecting all things "feminine," but requires the guts to stand-up to a system stacked against you. Though Beyonce's video might end-up getting more play and kudos for its flashy visuals, Ciara's - for at least 3 quarters of the time - is one of the more gutsy and powerful mainstream releases of the year.
BONUS VIDEO: Beyonce ft. Shakira "Beautiful Liar"
As an added, umm, "bonus" here's yet another new Beyonce video (over-saturation? naw, it's Beyonce!). This time she duets with that other famous hip-shaker, Shakira, and the results are less than you'd expect. Though the song nearly matches that great "Baby Boy" single, the video looks very 80's (which is not a compliment).
It's nearly unimaginable that someone could make a boring video starring Shakira and Beyonce, but the director manages to do so. Most of the blame falls on the lack of creativity in the set design, and the overall cheap look of the project. It opens promisingly in the smokey haze, and later there is an interesting sequence of bamboo-pole dancing, but half of the thing looks like it was shot in one of those family portrait studios. The midriff-baring duo looks great bellydancing in black, but that scene appears too much like a strip-club inside of a pyramid to be taken seriously.
Much like the latest Timbaland collaboration, it seems the director and artists spent little energy on making a decent video for what they knew was already a sure-fire hit. Disappointing to say the least.