Pop Music as Critical Text

Is Beyoncé—or any pop culture icon—someone we should discuss with our students?

2013 was a big year for Beyoncé. She sang the National Anthem at President Obama’s Inaugural Ceremony, headlined the 2013 Super Bowl halftime show, starred in and produced an HBO documentary, started a World Tour, and released a surprise album (BEYONCÉ) that sold 1 million downloads during its record-breaking first week. She embodies an image many young girls look up to. Still, the debate as to whether or not Beyoncé is a feminist rages on, with some feminists citing her clothing/sexuality and her decision to title her World Tour the “Mrs. Carter Show” as reasons she is undeserving of the title.

Considering all of this, is Beyoncé—or any pop culture icon—someone we should discuss with our students?

Many of our students look up to Beyoncé as a heroine of sorts. Her status can provide valuable leverage when teaching literature—and media literacy—from a feminist perspective. One objective of feminist teaching is to increase awareness of the sexual politics of language and style—politics that can be explored through discussion and analysis of Beyoncé’s lyrics, costuming choices and world tour title.

BEYONCÉ seems to be the singer’s direct response to the debate as to whether or not she is a feminist. Songs like “Pretty Hurts” and “Flawless” (and their respective music videos) criticize suffocating beauty standards and triumphantly assert the inherent perfection of all women. But amidst the celebration of female empowerment and sexual agency are subtle and not-so-subtle reminders that we live in a hetero-patriarchy that even a super star like Beyoncé cannot escape. For example, the director of one of her new videos (“XO”) is photographer Terry Richardson, an alleged sexual predator. In one of her tracks (“Drunk in Love”) Jay Z likens his sexual prowess to Ike Turner beating Tina Turner.  

Whether or not we think Beyoncé is a feminist, our students need information and opportunity to arrive at these conclusions for themselves. How can we use critical thinking to analyze the praise and criticism Beyoncé receives and consider her identity as both a human being and a nuanced performer?

One way to cultivate these critical thinking and listening skills with students is to use song lyrics and music videos in the classroom. Consider the song Pretty Hurts.” The video begins with Beyoncé in a beauty pageant answering a question about her aspiration in life. “My aspiration in life?” she repeats nervously, “My aspiration in life would be, to be happy.” After answering this question in the music video, Beyoncé violently knocks her childhood pageant trophies off their shelves, leaving only baby and childhood photos. We then see scenes of eating disorders: Beyoncé purges in a bathroom stall while another contestant (the pageant winner) dips a cotton ball in juice and eats it. Beyoncé eventually loses the pageant to a woman with lighter skin and lighter hair (“Blonder hair/ flat chest/ TV says bigger is better/ South Beach [diet]/sugar-free/Vogue says thinner is better”). The lyrics and video together expose the un-pretty aspects of beauty pageants and standards of beauty more broadly. Towards the very end of the song she sings, “The illusion has been shed.”

Consider doing a critical read/listen of both the lyrics and video for “Pretty Hurts” (or other songs on BEYONCÉ) to spark conversation about modern definitions of feminism and what they mean within the larger context of the feminist movement.

1. Download and make copies of the lyrics to “Pretty Hurts.”

2. Download and make copies of the Critical Listening Guide sample. Consider adding these questions:

  • Why do you think Beyoncé made this video?
  • How do the lyrics and video represent historical events?
  • How do the video images influence our understanding of the lyrics?
  • Which characters, if any, are playing into any known stereotypes?
  • Which characters, if any, are empowering the audience?
  • Why do you think someone would go through so much torment to be perceived as beautiful?

3. Round 1 (first listen): Have students listen to the song all the way through without the transcript and without stopping. Allow students to briefly discuss their initial reactions to the song.

4. Pass out the transcript and Critical Listening Guide. Go over each question. A mini-lesson may be necessary to define context, audience, purpose and style.

5. Round 2 (close listen): Have students listen to the song with the transcript and guide in hand. Pause the audio to discuss key features of the text, using the Critical Listening Guide to structure the discussion. Students can annotate their transcripts using thinking notes to mark the transcript in places related to context, audience, purpose, values and style. Build in wait time for students to write their responses to questions on the Critical Listening Guide.

6. Round 3 (reflective listen): Have students listen to the song all the way through without stopping. Allow time for students to complete their Critical Listening Guide responses.

7. Ask students to share how their interpretations of the song may have changed or deepened since the first listen.

8. For classes in which students have been studying feminism, ask the concluding question, “Does wanting to be ‘beautiful’ exclude someone from being a feminist?” Note: Because critiques of Beyoncé often target her—and some even exclude her from being a feminist—on the grounds that she embraces both female empowerment and sexual agency, be aware that these themes may arise in your discussion; they could be considered the “dominant reading” of a female performer who dances provocatively and wears limited clothing. Offer the point of view that such criticisms seek to control Beyoncé’s body—and that controlling women is actually the opposite of what feminism seeks to accomplish. This non-dominant reading of pop music may be new to some students.

For young people who are beginning to explore and question their own sexual and gender expression, thinking deeply about the feminist controversies surrounding Beyoncé and other pop culture icons can equip them with skills to draw conclusions about complex messages society sends about who they are and what they can become."

Editor's Note: Critical Listening Guide was adapted from Perspectives for a Diverse America, Teaching Tolerance’s Common-Core aligned, literacy-based, anti-bias curriculum. 

Jasmine Lester founded and directs Sun Devils Against Sexual Assault at Arizona State University, and has published on intersectionality and children’s literature.

Wicht is the senior manager of teaching and learning for Teaching Tolerance.

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