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…music reviews: Who Run the World? B

May 27, 2011

“Run the World (Girls)” Beyonce (Billboard Hot 100 #50, Week of June 4, 2011)

Today’s review is a skip-ahead for sure.  Usually I work my way down from the top of the singles chart, but I have granted myself the latitude to fast-track singles that are true game-changers or otherwise noteworthy.

“Run the World” is my favorite type of discovery.  Upon first listen, my reaction was what-the-hell.  Upon second listen, I started putting the pieces together.  After several more listens, in addition to watching a couple of live performances and the music video, I get it.

Unfortunately, now that I get it, I have no patience with those who don’t.  My review today comes as an almost visceral reaction to the negative critiques and lackluster chart performance I’ve observed.  One writer is already eulogizing the record:

A Post Mortem For the Failure Of Beyonce’s “Run the World (Girls)”.

How dare he.

Rarely does a record win me over so completely that I feel compelled to campaign for it.  This is one of those cases.

Let me first address straight-on what I think bothers most people about the song: it’s too cacophonous.  We hear music as music instead of noise because of the way we train our ears to put the different parts together.  Beyonce and her fellow songwriters and producers have slapped some elements together in an initially disconcerting way.

The base track here is 2009’s “Pon de Floor” by club/dancehall duo Major Lazer.  Lest we jump on the familiar, “Oh my gosh, this big star totally stole someone else’s beat” bandwagon, keep in mind that Major Lazer member Switch co-produced “Run the World,” so it would be more accurate to say he recycled his own beat for use on this record.

The beat itself is crazy, in both the colloquial and literal use of the term.  It’s wild and unsubtle.  Much like Beyonce herself.  (More on that in a following post.)

So what does Beyonce do?  She talks back to the beat.  She mimics it, runs on a roughly parallel track to the beat, belting out an overt, aggressive female empowerment message.  And except for the more melodic refrain and  bridge, that’s the whole record.  Beyonce and a beat, talking back to each other.  I imagine the beat is the Everydude she’s taunting and telling off.

And really, on a pop record you don’t do that.  The beat keeps time and you sing over it, almost as if it’s not there.  What B does here is somewhat akin to breaking the fourth wall of a film and acknowledging the audience.

Once I as a listener understood that dynamic, I was sold. Hook, line, and singer.  It makes the record exhilarating in its boldness, and not just a bunch of noisy girl-power declarations.  And it makes me wanna take a Q-Tip and clean out all the ears that don’t hear it the way it was intended.

I shouldn’t be surprised, though.  These are probably the same folks who whined about how weird “Ring the Alarm” and “Diva” were.  Beyonce is no stranger to the edge of the envelope, and she has suffered other chart losses because of her innovations.

Also, not to be anti-American here, but we gringoes have an awful track record when it comes to sonically game-changing tunes by our favorite divas.

Case in point: “I’m a Slave 4 U,” now widely considered to be Britney Spears’ shining artistic moment, peaked at #27 in the U.S. while blowing up charts in the rest of the world.  Exhibit B: “Dirrty” by Christina Aguilera.  A top 10 smash in at least 16 countries, but only peaked at #48 in the U.S., hounded by dreadful reviews and outright ridicule.

So even if “Run the World” runs no further up the chart, it’s in good company.  The impact of a record is more than the chart position it attains.  Let’s check back in 10 years and see whether “Run the World” or a chart darling like Katy Perry’s “E.T.” is better remembered.

I like chart darlings, too, but I’m just sayin’.

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