Let me preface by saying three things:
1. I have read a zillion essays about Beyonce’s new album, Beyonce. Especially this one (Nico Muhly), this one (on bottom bitch feminism) and this one (New Yorker). I have also had many conversations about it with people who know a lot more about hip-hop, music history, black feminism, and other relevant topics than I do.
2. I really, really love the new album from a purely “this is my jam and it feels good in my ears” perspective. I have listened to very little else since it came out, and I find it is the perfect gym accompaniment. Also the perfect cleaning accompaniment. Also the perfect putzing around my apartment accompaniment. It is not good for watching TV, but otherwise, it satisfies most of my musical requirements.
3. I don’t really have any answers to the question below, but I have a few ideas. What I am hoping will happen with this post is that one of you people will have much better ideas than mine and you will write them in the comments and all will be clear. So, what is the question:
What is up with the “Anna Mae” reference?
For background, in the song “Drunk in Love,” Jay Z (Beyonce’s husband and mega-mogul musician, for those of you dwelling under boulders the size of New Zealand), jumps in with a few lines, among them, this section:
Catch a charge, I might, beat the box up like Mike…
I’m like Ike Turner
Baby know I don’t play, now eat the cake Anna Mae
Said, eat the cake, Anna Mae.
“Eat the cake, Anna Mae”, is a reference to the Tina Turner biopic (she was born Anna Mae) about the abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband Ike. In the movie, What’s Love Got to Do With It, Ike forcefully shoves cake in Tina’s face at a restaurant and than hits her, knocking her to the floor while their friends and other diners look on. Watch the scene here, if you feel up to it.
So. Why does Jay-Z rap a violent, misogynistic lyric about the other most famous black musical couple in the middle of his wife’s triumphant (and explicitly feminist) new album? I don’t know, but I know it makes me really, really uncomfortable. Here are a few possibilities:
- The If-it-walks-like-a-duck… theory: What do I know about the inner workings of Bey and Jay’s relationship? Nothing. If you take him at face value, Jay’s line is bold, in-your-face power move. She may have the fastest selling iTunes album of all time, but in their world, she’s still just Anna Mae. It’s a put-down, and a masterful one because it’s right in front of us and we just go on giving her feminist props. How much more belittling could you get? With one line, he undermines every girl power-laden “bow down, bitches,” she issues. She ain’t got nothing on him, record sales be damned.
- The Y’all-know-nothing-about-us theory: Sasha Frere-Jones for The New Yorker writes, “I won’t pretend to know how this potentially ugly reference works between Jay Z and Beyoncé, but it’s her album and they look pretty happy on the beach, so some sort of inversion is at work.” Now that’s bold. To flaunt a famous instance of another woman’s abuse in your sexy beach video with your husband is to say you’re so far above that shit that you can joke about it. You are so far removed from that life and those problems that you get to make “Eat the cake, Anna Mae,” mean whatever you want.
- The Watch-what -I-can-do theory: If you are the queen of the universe, like Ellie Torres on Cougar Town, words do not define you, you define words. If you say that “Eat the cake, Anna Mae,” is not, in fact, a repulsive piece of misogyny, but is rather a love poem, then so it shall be. Change approved.
- The Pay-closer-attention,-bitches theory: Really masterful fiction writers sometimes shake up a sentence just to make sure you’re still on your toes. They invert a verb, or select an off-putting word that catches in your throat as you murmur to yourself, just to make you wake up and pay closer attention to the language that they chose so carefully. It’s a wake-up call to the reader to signal that everything shouldn’t be taken at face value. Early in the album, “Drunk in Love” could function as the wake-up call to listeners. Lest you glaze through the dramatic feminist acrobatics (see the Adichie TED talk featured on “Flawless,”) Bey complicates the album up front with the Anna Mae reference to make you attend to the lyrical layers that much more carefully. Feminism is not simple, marriage is not simple, race is not simple, sexuality is not simple. “Anna Mae” reminds us of all of those things, and consequently casts a complexity on the album that might otherwise be deemed froth. Do we think she’s that masterful?
What else you got? I’m kind of at a loss.
Related Post: My Role/Reboot on Beyonce’s Superbowl performance.
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