Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Food For Thought - Beyoncé's "Countdown"

It seems that Mrs. Beyoncé Knowles-Z has decided that her entire career is going to be dedicated to providing fodder for my blog posts. I don't have a problem with that, I'm just sayin'... This time it's her new video for Countdown:

For me, the most obvious inspiration is right here:

Yes, everyone remembers that famous Gap commercial that features Audrey Hepburn dancing (but not wearing Gap clothing). Fewer people remember where that footage of Ms. Hepburn came from:

That dance comes from Funny Face, one of my all-time favorite movies, and clearly also one of Beyonce's, as she's drawn inspiration from it before. The outfits of the musicians match those of Hepburn's backup dancers, and even the layout of the bandstand shots mimics that of the nightclub set from the movie. The dancing, however, doesn't match. It clearly took me too long to write this article because just in the week or so since I began researching this article, there has been an explosion of press regarding similarities between "Countdown" and the choreography of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker. To see a side-by-side comparison of De Keersmaeker and the music video, click here.

"Achterland", left, "Countdown", right.
Left and right, Beyoncé is being accused of stealing the choreography from De Keersmaeker. So much so that Knowles decided to release an alternate version of the video that excluded all of the controversial footage. Even De Keersmaeker herself had some things to say  about the music video, though she seems kinder than most. This is similar to the criticism rained down on Lady Gaga every time she does anything that even remotely resembles anything Madonna has done. Because Madonna has never, ever imitated anyone herself, right?

If you're like me, you were incessantly lectured about plagiarism in school (if you're really like me, you worries about being accused of plagiarizing even after taking every precaution to avoid it). What were the things we were told to do to ensure we weren't plagiarizing someone else's work?
  • Re-write the information in your own words.
  • Use multiple sources.
  • Credit the author(s) of the work.
Knowles has done all but one of those things- she took the parts of the dances she liked and changed the context; she set it to different music and put different bits of the choreography together. De Keersmaeker has pointed out that even though they are performing the same dance, what Knowles and her dancers are doing is distinct from the films they mimic because of their context:

"In the 1980s, this was seen as a statement of girl power, based on assuming a feminine stance on sexual expression. I was often asked then if it was feminist. Now that I see Beyoncé dancing it, I find it pleasant but I don’t see any edge to it. It’s seductive in an entertaining consumerist way."

"Countdown", left. "Rosas danst Rosas", right.
Knowles also took inspiration from all kinds of other sources: Op art, Pop art, Mary Quant, Whtiney Houston... even Gap commercials! All of these things together created a unique work that is separate from all of its inspirations yet tied to them at the same time.

Now, I do believe Knowles and her team should have credited De Keersmaeker since they did borrow so heavily (and directly) from her, especially since they credited Boyz II Men after sampling from their song "Uhh, Ahh". However, according to a GQ interview with the video's director, Andria Petty, it was the team's intention to credit her but they overlooked this due to the tight deadline.

Can you say Andy Warhol?
This isn't the first time Knowles has borrowed heavily from others, nor will it be the last. This is also not the first time this sort of happened in the music video industry, nor in the music industry at large. Paula Abdul's "Rush Rush" is basically "Rebel Without a Cause", and Madonna's "Express Yourself" is basically "Metropolis". Music sampling has existed for decades. "Ice Ice Baby" sampled from "Under Pressure", "Rapper's Delight" sampled from "Good Times", "U Can't Touch This" sampled from "Super Freak"... The list goes on and on... If artists can't borrow from each other or imitate or build upon the work of others, then art cannot advance.

Knowles in Thierry Mugler
In addition, Beyoncé used the choreography to a different end than De Keersmaeker. The original footage was a work of choreography. It was a dance film. Knowles was presenting a video for her song. She was not presenting a dance, she was presenting a music video.

Finally, I think this whole climate of ideas as property contributes to rise of dangerous legislation such as CISPA. If we continue to consider artistic ideas as property in every context then we will be left with major corporations holding a monopoly on creativity because they're the only ones with the money to consistently defend "their" properties. We need to chill out about these kinds of things and start worrying about bigger problems.

Hope I haven't completely chewed off your ears!

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