Monday 15 July 2019

Is Beyoncé really an Existentialist?

Glamorous, yes. But is this what an Existentialist couple looks like?
Posted by Martin Cohen

There are many who claim to be existentialists, but few of them seem to be following the same path. Perhaps that is because existentialism is supposed to be all about individualism. Here is one such recruit to the philosophy - Beyoncé - of whom we are assured ‘writing existential songs that move millions is kind of her thing’. Her performance of her song ‘I Was Here’ at the United Nations World Humanitarian Day in 2012 was epic.
‘The song is so powerful, so true. It is existentialism in it’s purest form: I was here. “I want to leave my footprints on the sand of time/ Know there was something that, something that I left behind/ When I leave this world, I’ll leave no regrets/Leave something to remember, so they won’t forget.”’
So writes Kari. Who is: a ‘vegan, breastfeeding, baby-wearing, yogi-mama that also loves to binge watch Netflix whilst eating an entire bag of potato chips’. So she ought to know!

But is it really existentialism as philosophers see it? Indeed the word has often been misused, but hen it is a term poorly defined even by the great existentialists like Jean-Paul Sartre. Instead, we are left to guess at its , ahem, ‘essence’.
‘I was here, I lived, I loved, I was here. I did, I’ve done, everything that I wanted.’
Beyoncé Knowles is in many ways a remarkable figure. Born on September 4, 1981, in Houston, Texas, to parents one of whom worked as a hairstylist and the other was.. a manager in the record industry. The advice and skills of the two were both doubtless of later use. She somehow managed to become one of music’s top-selling artists with a net worth of around $300 million, only slightly shadowed by the assets of her partner, the rapper, Jay Z, who wears his cap back-to-front and T-shirts with slogans like ‘Blame Society’ and is is sitting on a pile of $500 million. Is there not something inauthentic, even contradictory about that? Maybe, but then… ‘Blame society’.

As a young girl, Beyoncé won a school singing competition with John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’. But it’s not what Lennon probably imagined as the good life, even if it is highly idiosyncratic. To be fair, she does do some ‘good works’, with charities including Chime for Change, Girl Up, Elevate Network, International Planned Parenthood Federation, Girls Inc. of Greater Houston, and I Was Here cited in her publicity. Beyoncé also joined former Destiny’s Child bandmate, Kelly Rowland, to create the Survivor Foundation, which provides relief to victims of natural disasters. This is all very fine  - but it is not the stuff of existentialism, which is at heart a selfish doctrine born of elitism.

But back to the main question: is Beyoncé really an existentialist? And I don't think so… After all, whatever else he may or may not have been saying, Sartre openly derides those who act out roles: the bourgeoisie with their comfortable sense of ‘duty’, homosexuals who pretend to be heterosexuals, peeping Toms who get caught in the act of spying and - most famously of all - waiters who rush about. All of these, he says are slaves to other people's perceptions - to ‘the Other’. They are exhibiting mauvaise foi - bad faith.

This is a common flaw, and as the psychologists say, in choosing this fault to condemn in others, Sartre tells us a little about himself too. But isn’t it a popstar who dresses a certain way, adopts a certain hairstyle, away of speaking, of walking, that Sartre should really mock for their pretending and posturing to the audiecne and promising to be something that they are not really…?

Surely Beyoncé should find another label than that of ‘existentialist’ to attach to herself.


Keith said...

Enjoyed this post, Martin! Though I fess up: I must have been living under a rock all this time, as I’ve never heard the words ‘Beyoncé’ and ‘existentialism’ spoken in the same sentence before. (So much for my knowledge of popular culture.)

Here are Beyoncé’s lyrics, from the essay: ‘I want to leave my footprints on the sand of time / Know there was something that I left behind / When I leave this world, I’ll leave no regrets / Leave something to remember, so they won’t forget’.

As to the essay’s central question, then, no, those words don’t sound existential to me. They confirm we search for meaning, with high expectations and the belief the journey’s worth it. The words have no ring of cynicism or defeatism or hopelessness.

Yet, I suggest some people might submit that the real existential kicker is this: The waves do indeed erase our footprints in the sand; time shrugs indifferently to our purported pretenses; there’s a six-sigma certainty no one dies without some regrets; what’s left eventually fades to black.

To me, anyway, here’s one takeaway from Beyoncé’s lyrics: That despite the preceding existential realities of erasure, people nonetheless swim against this existential tide, clinging doggedly to hope. Believing that they’ll indeed leave behind a timeless thumbprint. That somehow they’ll be the exception to the existential rule.

So, doesn’t clinging to these expectations point to the remarkable indomitability of the human spirit? Isn’t that why people still try? Isn’t that why people continue to work at advancing humanity’s lot, convinced (even if illusorily) that it does actually matter? And doesn’t that very indomitability cancel out existentialism?

So, no, to my mind, and based on her lyrics, Beyoncé is not an existentialist. Quite the opposite, I’d say.

docmartincohen said...

Thanks, Keith, pleassed that you found something to think about in all this! To me, though, as I suggest at the end of the blog, existntialism is not about what toher people think - either our contemporaires or those who follow us. Isn't part of it about living for yourself in the present?

Tessa den Uyl said...

And to think people say philosophers are out of reality!

Keith said...

‘Isn't part of it [existentialism] about living for yourself in the present?’ Yes, Martin, I certainly agree. To my mind, though, the added complicating dimension of someone like Beyoncé is that she has to nurture both a public persona and a private persona. The Beyoncé that performs, or even casually appears, in front of the public is very much, as you say, self-conscious, engaged in ‘role-playing’, if you will, that’s tailored to what she perceives as responsive to fans’ expectations. That’s perhaps normal.

As such, the public persona needs genuinely to be concerned about what others — her devotees — think. Those fans, after all, are who help amass Beyoncé’s personal fortunes and keep her career on track. Aspects of the public persona are therefore arguably intentionally taken to the edge, to entertain by exhibiting a life of exoticness and exorbitance. A lifestyle that’s out of reach by her followers. I would agree that in that capacity, existentialism cannot survive.

However, perhaps the private Beyoncé — the persona behind closed doors (out of the public’s eye) — may be far more about, as you say, ‘living for [herself] in the present’. I suggest that the latter might make room for existentialism — though whether existentialism actually characterizes even the private Beyoncé’s personal philosophy remains known, I suggest, only to herself (‘living for [herself] in the present’) and to her family and friends.

docmartincohen said...

Thanks for your kind words for the philosophers, Tessa! But as to Keith's 'bifurcation' of the question, isn't one of the points of existentialism that there should be only one character or personality, not a private persona and a public one?

Thomas O. Scarborough said...

Good that Beyoncé is keeping the word 'existentialist' alive, and fashionable. The existentialists seem to me to be to philosophy what the Pentecostals are to theology. They just bypass all the rest. Anyway, the post is a welcome reminder of existentialism, even if Beyoncé is a somewhat 'conflicted' existentialist.

docmartincohen said...

Just a final thought, how come they have the Mona Lisa in their house..?

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