BEYONCÉ: I AM... SASHA FIERCE (2008)
1) If I Were A Boy; 2) Halo; 3) Disappear; 4) Broken-Hearted Girl; 5) Ave Maria; 6) Smash Into You; 7) Satellites; 8) That's Why You're Beautiful; 9) Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It); 10) Radio; 11) Diva; 12) Sweet Dreams; 13) Video Phone; 14) Hello; 15) Ego; 16) Scared Of Lonely.
Oh dear — here we have nothing less than a Rebellion of the Machine, carefully preplanned, orchestrated, and publicized: Beyoncé Knowles advances to the rank of Serious Artist! Introspective, thoughtful, and conceptual, the double shot of I Am vs. Sasha Fierce represents an elegantly split artistic personality, capturing the formerly straightforward entertainer at a spiritual crossroads. Will she take the path of the real Beyoncé, a sensitive, vulnerable soul dependent on male support and struggling to balance romantic ideals with the harsh realities of everyday life? Or is she going to take the proactive road of Sasha Fierce, a real hard-boiled party egg who always hides from trouble and suffering behind a wall of glitz, technology, and tough neo-feminist swagger? Intrigue! Excitement! Conflict! Critical acclaim!.. oh, wait a minute.
Songwriter Amanda Ghost, who collaborated with Beyoncé on the I Am... part, stated in an interview that "she /Beyoncé/ was ready to take risks and redefine who she is... to reach out for a wider audience, the people who buy John Mayer and Carrie Underwood records". As far as I know, little else needs be said — there is nothing wrong with that whole «crossover» business as it stands, but if your artistic ideal in a particular artistic genre is John Mayer or Carrie Underwood, this means that you cannot even properly set yourself the task of «getting higher», let alone fulfill one. But then again, why should you, if your very idea of «artistic growth» simply means «sell my stuff to more people by expanding into other markets»?
And one should not underestimate this «reaching out» strategy, either — Amanda Ghost goes even beyond that, pushing her client to grapple the people who buy The Three Tenors as well, by «re-composing» ʽAve Mariaʼ into an «accessible» pop version that decorates Beyoncé's newly-found spirituality with a touch of Schubert (or is that actually a touch of Disney?). It is quite unfortunate, really, that the Artist was not provided with an equally gifted and versatile aide-de-camp for the Sasha Fierce part — personally, I think that sampling ʽBrünnhilde's Battle Cryʼ for one of the «hotter» dance numbers would have made for an awesome contrast.
Irony aside (for a little while, at least), most of the hullaballoo about this album stems from the basic fact that most of the «softer» songs were placed on the first disc (I Am) and most of the «harder» tracks, assembled out of electronic elements around dance beats, made it to the second one (Sasha Fierce), with a whole puffed-up ideology concocted, brewed, and distilled around this simple division. Never mind the fact that, for instance, Rod Stewart had already masterminded this «separation» concept a long time ago, on his Seventies' albums like Atlantic Crossing and Night On The Town — and, much to his honor, I think, it never occurred to him that either one of these records should bear the title of I Am... Ivan The Terrible.
But I do admit that, from one point of view at least, the album was a bit of a surprise for me. With an announced contrast between the «introvert» and «extravert» parts, and armed with prior knowledge of Beyoncé's groove-based music, you'd probably expect that the first part would mostly suck and the second part would be more like the «technically acceptable» Beyoncé of B'Day. As it turns out (to my ears at least), the predictable prediction is wrong! Cheap cheese like ʽAve Mariaʼ aside, the ballads are really superior to the grooves this time — or, at least, superior when all the vocal overdubs find themselves in place.
Frankly speaking, the «dance-oriented» part of Sasha Fierce beats many a record of dumbness, sleaziness, and gimmickry that I have encountered in supposedly «high quality» mainstream pop muzak (we are not discussing the local Brighton Beach scene or anything like that). ʽSingle Ladies (Put A Ring On It)ʼ establishes the «aerobics-as-art» formula that would be even more succesfully milked with ʽRun The World (Girls)ʼ — undermining the «tough seriousness» of its «feminist» message with a backing track that should have never made it beyond the walls of your local gym (and the famous accompanying video only proves the point) — and it is probably the best song of the entire lot.
In general, it seems as if the sound was seriously re-routed here from the former target audience of «modern R&B» to a newer — indeed, wider — audience of crappy, generic techno (ʽRadioʼ, boasting the kind of sound that I normally hear only from Russian taxi drivers), as well as fans of technical gadgets (ʽVideo Phoneʼ) and silly vocal gimmicks (ʽDivaʼ, a bland rap piece on which «Sasha» is allegedly making fun of the Diva lifestyle while at the same time actively living it). ʽEgoʼ is, of course, the most «provocative» number on the record, since its chorus ("it's too big, it's too wide, it's too strong, it won't fit, it's too much, it's too tough") comes on before one gets a clear explanation of what the «it» in question is referring to. Naturally, it refers to Sasha's lover's BIG EGO, and what did you think?.. (On a sidenote, though, I used to always hear it as "He got a big Igor, such a huge Igor" before I paid attention to the song title, and it kept me wondering when and how did I exactly miss the point at which the name of Dr. Frankenstein's assistant had become one of the many euphemistic replacements for you-know-what).
On the other hand, the ballads on the I Am part seem to have been written with at least some intentional attempt not to reduce them to pathetic clichés. It does not work too often — the songwriters and producers are as constrained by the commercial requirements of the genre as a Peter Jackson or a Steven Spielberg are by the laws of Hollywood filmmaking — but every now and then, there is an interesting musical moment or two that briefly elevates the «soul sacrifice» of the first disc above elevator muzak status. This does not concern the title track, which does indeed sound very much like Carrie Underwood («take an old country-folk melody and arrange it with all the pomp of a 19th century opera aria»), but ʽHaloʼ has some fine vocal moves written into it (and it deserved a much better arrangement than those rotten synthesizers and drum machines), and so does ʽDisappearʼ, whose movement towards the chorus is melodically inventive (check out the modality shift from "you're nearly here..." to "...and then, you disappear" — they could have easily done without that, but they didn't, and I akcnowledge that).
That said, I have no wish to create the illusion that I Am, on the whole, is «vastly superior» to the silly dance part. Pulling ourselves away from the microscope and assessing the whole album as it is, both of its halves are really near-equal failures, and for a simple reason: it is all but impossible for a mainstream artist to try to go «wider» (embracing more styles and huger audiences) and «deeper» (trying to show the complexity of one's personality) at the same time. The stated goals stubbornly clash with the used means — and, for those of us who generally tend to avoid «mass muzak» but are still willing to give it an occasional benefit of doubt, may simply result in a feeling of being aurally and intellectually raped, or, at least, deeply offended. Not to mention all the unresolved questions, of course. Why «Sasha»? What's so «fierce» about her, except possibly the hairstyle? Why two discs and /as usual/ a swarm of different editions? If she were a boy and sitting in a record executive chair, would she be reasonable enough to save on plastic? Since we should hardly expect straight and honest answers to all these, I suppose that a thumbs down rating is the only way to go.
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