Earlier this week, The Beyoncé tumblr went live. And there was much rejoicing: across the web, gossip sites and news organizations alike trumpeted her decision to cultivate a web presence. Various articles figure the "release" of the site in vaguely mystical terms: Beyoncé celebrated her fourth anniversary with Jay-Z on April 4th (4/4); she was "born" onto the web on 4/5.
But the internet wasn't just flipping out over some new website. This was Beyoncé's website. Beyoncé, a fierce protector of privacy, the woman who, along with Jay-Z, rented out an entire floor of a hospital to avoid coverage of her daughter's birth. The two are reigning royalty of the music world, in part because of their tremendous talent, but also because of their substantial media savvy. Instead of fleeing paparazzi hungry for a shot of daughter Blue Ivy, they posted a set of frankly adorable pictures to helloblueivycarter.tumblr.com, paired with a note, written in what we are led to believe as Beyoncé's handwriting.
That's even more savvy than Gwenyth Paltrow, who decided to push the market down for shots of her son, Moses, but simply stepping outside and letting every paparazzi take a picture of her. (It's not a coincidence that Paltrow and husband Chris Martin are friends with Beyoncé and Jay-Z, as evidenced by the tumblr).
The question remains: What is Beyoncé doing? No web presence for so long — why now? And what exactly is going on in this tumblr that makes it so compelling?
One at a time:
What is she doing?
She's refining and reinvigorating her image. Not that she exactly "needs" it — because she's a private person, and because she's married to an equally famous person, information about her will be in demand for the foreseeable future. But as little as we know about Beyoncé, we do know that she likes control — and by releasing information herself, she's controlling the conversation about her. Every celebrity (and his/her publicist) attempt to do this; some are just better at it, or have a more interesting conversation to make. Lindsay Lohan is bad at controlling the conversation. Angelina Jolie is, in truth, only okay, and seems to care less and less about whether that conversation is negative or positive (thus the increasing skeletor conversation — if she really wanted people to focus on her films and philanthropy, she'd figure out how to put on some weight, just like she's been able to figure out how to bulk up for action roles. I'm not kidding). Gwenyth seems less and less adept at controlling the conversation, in part because Goop allows so many refractory points. Her image may be stable as that of an ice queen, but every newsletter allows people to take her words differently than she intended. It's really a bit of a trainwreck.
Point is: Beyoncé is re-sparking conversation about her, but only if it's on her terms.
But why on the internet? Why not release photos to a magazine, or sit for an extensive profile with Vogue? No web presence for so long — why now?
Because it's the only way. If Beyoncé wants to truly start a conversation about herself, she has to release information digitally. While a lengthy profile — and gorgeous, high-quality photos — would have been excerpted and linked all over the internet, it would still lack the potency of a single site. Sure, aggregators and gossip sites are taking single photos from the tumblr, but all traffic is directed back to the single, entirely controlled site.
Despite the fact that Beyoncé's image is that of a artist on the vanguard of innovation — especially in terms of music and fashion — she's been an analog star in a digital world. She's old-fashioned in the way of stars twenty years her elder. She has a Twitter account but, until Thursday, had never posted a tweet (The tweet, of course, announced the launch of her site).
Whether Beyoncé herself is "old-fashioned" or even a naturally private person is really beyond the point. Her image has acquired a gloss of privacy, and in today's media environment, saturated with celebrity disclosure, it renders her unique. Information about her is rare and, as a result, far more valuable. You don't see the launch of a reality star's tumblr burn through the internet like a forest fire.
But even the most exclusive clubs sometimes need to let someone in the door — otherwise there's no one to buzz about how exclusive the club is. So Beyoncé has to release some material, lest she disappear from discourse entirely. As foreshadowed by the tumblr for Blue Ivy, she and her team have decided that a tumblr-like site is the best way to enact this strategy. My guess is that she still steers clear of Twitter — it's just a bit too direct of a conduit. I'd even be surprised if the tumblr is updated more than a few times a year. But time will tell. For now, it's a brilliant strategy for reactivating yet controlling the conversation about her between albums/tours.
But let's get to the good stuff: what makes this tumblr so compelling?
Because here's the honest truth: I like, but don't love Beyoncé. But I could look at this tumblr all day.
I'll divide the appeal into three categories:
The tumblr is compelling because we know it is Beyoncé. I realize this is fairly obvious, but in an age of photoshop, Twitter hacking, and other forms of image manipulation, it is absolutely essential that this tumblr is "the work" of Beyoncé. This isn't a fan site; this isn't a gossip site. This is her site, that is her husband, that is her sister, this is their tropical vacation. (Which isn't to suggest that older stars were somehow "more" authentic because their images circulated in a pre-digital-technology world. They had their own issues with image manipulation, and tried to add authenticity to their images through various means, the most popular of which might have been the magazine byline. ["My Story" by Marilyn Monroe, etc.] Of course, such stories were almost always penned by press agents. Manufacturing authenticity is an ironic thing.)
Beyoncé further authenticates the site through her "analog" signature. Look, it's her handwriting! (Or, perhaps, a font modeled after her handwriting!) No matter: handwriting is one of the ways that we authenticate identity, and this handwriting matches the previous note on the Blue Ivy tumblr. No doubt: it's B. Plus she testifies that "this is my life, today, over the years, through my eyes." That's a promise: this is me.
When it comes to celebrity images, intimacy and authenticity go hand in hand. The more intimate the information appears, the more authentic it seems.
Here's where the choice of a tumblr as her main form of web presence (I realize there's a larger site, beyonce.com, but the tumblr is the real meat) is so effective: it's all images. Apart from the above welcome, there's no explanations, no distracting words. Just a waterfall of images — a virtual scrapbook.
Of course, not all photos connote intimacy. Beyoncé's Vogue cover, for example, is the antithesis of intimacy. I mean, she's separated from us by actual text! Vogue has also posed her like a mannequin, and everything about her dress, her hair, even her make-up and half-smile scream at a remove! Not friends with you! She's beautiful, she's exquisite, but she's miles away.
Compare this shot with those on her Tumblr, like the one at right. No make-up. No make-up equals authenticity AND intimacy. If you look closely, you can see that she's wearing a strapless top of some sort, but at first blush, she looks naked — bare — the very apotheosis of intimacy. Plus she's smiling, and there's an inherent warmth to the aesthetic and emotional tone of the photo. She looks relaxed, and people only relax with intimates. You're invited to her private party — a theme that structures the majority of the photos.
This photo is goofy, but it's also unflattering, and therein lies its power. Intimacy means seeing someone at their best and worst, and here you go: Beyoncé with a snorkeling mask on her face, not looking at the camera. Granted, she's wearing a beach shift that probably cost $5000, and the ocean looks gorgeous, but look, goggles distort even the most beautiful of faces! Unkempt, unflattering, in a shot that would have been otherwise discarded — it's as if we have access to the Beyoncé "between" the best shots, and we all know that's where the "real" self lies.
Beyoncé also has several "Instagram" style shots on the site. This photo in particular seems to catch Beyoncé in a private moment (waiting to take a helicopter ride? More on that below), and her positioning in the corner of the photo, glancing down, strapped in, creates a feeling of vulnerability. The photo's Instagram-ness, for lack of a better word, suggests something even more intimate: the photo was taken on a cell phone. But someone who was close to Beyoncé — someone who also got to go on that helicopter ride. The insinuation, of course, is that it was taken by Jay-Z. (The aesthetics of Instagram only add another layer — a sort of analog, fuzzy, soft intimacy that even the crisp photography from above lack).
This triptych of photos, seemingly taken at the magic hour, offers a similar warmth, but at the same time, the POV of the viewer is clearly that of the cameraman. Beyoncé vamps for the camera, cracks up, and poses again. The person behind the camera — whose place we take, even for just an instant — is clearly the cause of her glee. In this moment, we make her perform; we zoom-in for her reaction. You probably don't think of this consciously, but that's the effect of the close-up, that's why they included all three images instead of just one: she looks at the camera, but really, in this moment, she seems to be looking at you. Or, alternately, you feel you are privy to an interaction between her and Jay-Z: in this moment, you are inside their marriage. At first glance, they're just a set of silly photos — but the effect is stunning. Granted, there's no way to know who took the photos. For all we know they hired a professional photographer to accompany them on this trip and create a set of images that connoted intimacy. But for a fan (or journalist) to suggest as much makes him/her look cynical, and read constructiveness into a set of images that suggest a holistic sense of intimacy. There's no question that the choice of photos adds up to to a construct. But you can't see the seams, and that's why it works so well. Whatever they did, they did it right.
3. Conspicuous Consumption
Conspicuous consumption, according to Richard Dyer, is the process by which the wealthy display that they are wealthy. It does not have to be garish — it's not simply something Jay Gatsby would do. Indeed, conspicuous consumption doesn't necessarily mean diamond rings. It also manifests depictions of leisure: of people doing little more than not working. At least 2/3 of the pictures on the tumblr were taken on some sort of tropical vacation, exact location uncertain. But this isn't some getaway to a Mexican mega-resort. They're on vacation in some place where no one bothers them.
That sort of privacy costs a lot of money. In this way, their conspicuous consumption is, in fact, an absence — the absence of people, the absence of paparazzi, the absence of distractions. This vacation at its most pure, and its filled with snorkels, deserted beaches, and tubing behind a speed boat.
In this video, for example, Beyoncé (addressing Jay-Z, behind the camera, intimacy yet again!) tells the unspecific audience that they woke up, "took a nice little walk," and found a tree with blue ivy.
No big deal, right? Only it's leisure. Lots and lots of leisure. This is conspicuous consumption done right: it doesn't make you resent them, it just makes you want to join them. We all know that both Jay-Z and Beyoncé do, in fact, work hard. Touring, appearing in public, writing songs — it's certainly exhausting work, even as they work to elide that work. But we see very little of that difficulty here. Even the images in which Beyoncé is obviously preparing to work, such as this one, when she's in full, intricate make-up for some sort of performance or photo-shoot, do not emphasize labor. The shot is gorgeous, but it's also included to emphasize the in-formality of the other shots.
Take a look at its positioning on the home page (the shot is in the lower left hand corner). Beyoncé at "work" (black and white) makes her at "play" (the vibrant color) all the more compelling and authentic seeming. The shot on the left is Beyoncé-as-Image, while the rest of the page reads as Beyoncé-as-Real (which, again, is also an image, but that image is "realness.") Being a top pop star may be hard work, but we see very little evidence of it here — just the benefits she reaps from that work. (She does seem a bit exhausted in this photo with Paltrow — but again, black and white is for "work," color is for "real.")
The tumblr is also filled with less discrete examples of conspicuous consumption. Beyoncé with a wall of champagne, for example, or a shot from a yacht which must, by dint of its white leather and positioning with the skyline, be expensive.
In general, however, Beyoncé is more circumspect. Nothing too conspicuous — nothing that would be dissonant with she and Jay-Z's collective image of class and sophistication. (See: every lyric on Watch the Throne). Since the 1920s and the rise of the "idol of consumption," we've looked to stars and celebrities as aspirational consumptive models. They show what leisure looks like; what consuming often and well looks like; what American capitalism taken to its extension looks like. They're what make us keep working so as to keep spending. It's a weirdly cyclical process: we consume (their CDs, their clothing lines) so that they may consume more and, in turn, inspire us to consume more. Late-stage capitalism makes my head explode.
Take a moment and think about your reaction when you first saw these photos. Were you a) pissed; b.) jealous; or c.) just wanted to join the party? If your answer was a.) or b.), please, I beg you, tell me why in the comments. But if it was c.), which was definitely my reaction, then welcome to the party: we're reacting exactly how Beyoncé and her team would like us to.
The Beyoncé tumblr is a public relations triumph, emphasizing that while Beyoncé may not "run the world," as one of her most famous songs suggests, she certainly runs her own image. In a time when image control is increasingly elusive, it's a feat worthy of praise. And while Beyoncé has worked hard to elide the tremendous labor required to construct such an image, my hope is that I've helped make that labor — and the discursive and semiotic layers that fuel it — visible. Making things visible doesn't mean killing the pleasure they evoke, it just makes them more nuanced. I can still look at those photos and want to hang out. But now I don't feel nearly as bad that I can't.