Friday, March 02, 2007

Parallel Lines: Ciara vs. Beyonce

Two of the reigning kings of hip-hop and r&b release gender-defying videos in the same week, both songs are street-pop gems, but only one has the guts to truly tackle what it means to act "Like a Boy"...

Ciara "Like a Boy"

dir. by Diane Martel

Beyonce ft. Jay-Z "Upgrade U"

dir. by Melina/Beyonce

"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"

Beyonce ft. Shakira "Beautiful Liar"

dir. by Jake Nava

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.


Anonymous said...

both vids (beyonce/ciara) are rather boring and the visuals let down the songs. ciara's track is hotter than b's but the more entertaining promo is beyonce's.

ciara's says/does nothing new after 45 seconds and while beyonce's recycles its imagery it at least shows some progression. i'm not sure if most directors nowadays feel crippled by the constantly falling budgets but the work looks lazy. sure the quality of the image - beauty work/lighting/composition - shows evolution but the content of promos has taken several large steps back. (and what's with the fascination of shooting in empty studios?)

anonymous content

Anonymous said...

great post obtusy.
a minor facet (but one that keeps coming back to me): the use in both of the throne-like seat fits with my african kings theorem.

Imran said...

i hadn't thought of the african kings analogy but it seems to work well, especially because it's such a masculine image.

Toddy said...

While the Beyonce video flits around in a kind of hip hop fade to black extravaganza, the Ciara video actually integrates the idea.
By the end, while an androgenous Ciara dances in the giant X (nice, if in-your-face touch) the idea is totally extended.

Nice edit, nice choreography, nice treatment on that Ciara vid.
Nothing of the sort on that flat Beyonce vid.

Anonymous said...

I disagree I love both of Beyonce videos and they are not boring at all. How in the hell is beyonce videos boring..I certainly enjoyed both..if its gonna get me up and dancing its a great song. I like ciara's video dont care much about the song though..I dont want to be a boy I love being a woman and lady.

Anonymous said...

I actually like both videos. It was obvious that Ciara was going to have the whole role flipping thing because the song is about wanting to be a boy. However I do not like Ciara's voice. I do give it to her though that she has come a LONG way, but still some room for improvement. To me the screwing of the music was ok the first and second time but after that it was evident that who ever had that BRIGHT idea was trying to hard. Of the whole thing I like the part where she was dancing in the dress the most.

I find Beyonce's videos to be more pleasing to watch. Upgrade U is about getting a person that compliments you to be a better person and be at a higher status. I truly believe that the parts where Beyonce is acting/rapping Jay Z's parts was just something to give it a little something extra. It just so happens that Ciara has an entire song about that same thing.... With Beautiful Liar I actually like it because the video is very sudective. But then again I believe that has to do with the actual song. I do have to agree, when I saw it I thought at first OH Wow, but by the second verse I was like: Dang this "could have been" hotter. I think they just played off the the fact that both can wine (a certain type of rotation of the hips) and kinda look a like. Well at least know we know it for sure thanks to the video. But I am happy that Shakira now has something else to perform because it seemed like that song with Wyclef was out forever. But of course of the three Upgrade U deserves best video.

Anonymous said...

I couldn't watch the beyonce video because it was the one that was boring but ciara's song has a really good beat and lyrics. I can't stand watching her act like a guy though so I just listen to the music, its really good.

Jessie said...

I'd love to see beyonce and ciara make a video. it'll be the bomb! =D

Anonymous said...

beyonce is a stronger singer, no question but ciara is more innovative, creative, of a performer, and a showmen. and ciara constantly improves.

i've seen about 15 videos of beyonce since august when her 2nd cd was released last year and i can unequivically come to the conclusion that not one of them compares to the two videos ciara has released for her 2nd lp.

the like a boy video is conceptually, artistically, and performance wise brilliant. upgrade you is glitzy but cheap and thrown together. she looks beautiful though

Anonymous said...

ciara hands down

Anonymous said...

You know what i think that beyonce do have the bigger vioce but she can not dance better than ciara I repeat beyonce do have the better voice but she can noy dance better then ciara

Anonymous said...

beyonce is very sexy and a far better singer than ciara,however,i respect ciara more because she is far more beautiful than beyonce and she is very talented,much more than beyonce.ciara is a great dancer and i love her nice soft voice.

Depth of Focus Videographies: Radiohead / Bjork / Michael Jackson / Bowie