The difficulty in booking an act for the Super Bowl Half-Time Show is finding a performer whom 108 million American viewers will not find controversial.
In recent years, this difficulty has been surmounted largely by reaching into the annals of American music lore and resurrecting long-passed stars who seek to reignite their formerly-avid fan base with morsels of their former glory packaged in coruscating lights and overwhelming pyrotechnics. Watching these undead performers is as strange as it would be to watch now-Pope Benedict XVI lead Christmas Mass this coming December: they perform their desired roles in all the right ways, but they are just no longer the right people for the performance.
This year, the coveted invitation was extended to Beyoncé Knowles, who took the opportunity to sing and undulate her way through several of her recent hit singles and to spotlight the temporarily reunited band Destiny’s Child. I found the event most striking, though, not for what Wesley Morris of Grantland calls Beyoncé’s “power — power singing, power walking, power posing, … power hair,” but for the selection of Beyoncé in the first place.
After all, Beyoncé is no long-passed undead star. Although seven of the past eight years of Super Bowls have featured artists who achieved prominence before 1985, Beyoncé’s stardom did not commence until the late 1990s, and her most popular years have been over this past decade.
However, the choice of Beyoncé is also not comparable to the one recent exception to the Undead Star Rule of Super Bowl Half-Time Shows: 2011’s Black Eyed Peas. The Black Eyed Peas had had six top-10 singles over the two years prior to their Super Bowl act, and were performing at the peak of their international popularity. Beyoncé, on the other hand, has not had a top-10 single for over two-and-a-half years. The Black Eyed Peas represented the New Guard in the same way that Tom Petty or Prince or Bruce Springsteen represented the Old Guard, but Beyoncé does not fit neatly into either category.
This places Beyoncé into the strange middle category of “Old Guard Who’s Still New” or “New Guard Who’s Sort of Old,” a category largely filled with the irrelevant and the hokey. But Beyoncé is anything but irrelevant and hokey, as her stunning and seriously sexualized Super Bowl performance, coupled with her singing of the National Anthem at Barack Obama’s inauguration ceremonies two weeks earlier, proclaimed to any possible naysayers.
The confusing question, then, is this: if Beyoncé is not Old Guard, and she is not New Guard, then who likes her? After all, traditional wisdom states that there are two kinds of music-lovers out there. There are those that are into the next big thing, where big might mean “popular” or “can-be-danced-to” or “sounds-like-the-blues” or “can-be-turned-into-killer-a-cappella” or hundreds of other things. And then there are those that like the classics, the music of their youth or of their parents’ youth, the music that’s woven its way into human history, as well their respective histories. Just like there is Old Guard Music and New Guard Music, there are Old Guard listeners and New Guard listeners, and neither type ought to be very interested in Beyoncé’s music, which is neither new enough for the New nor old enough for the Old.
Beyoncé’s success at the Super Bowl provides a challenging example to the aesthetics of 18th century philosopher David Hume. Hume, too, claimed that there were two kinds of people in the world: people with taste and people without taste. Those without taste can always attempt to attain taste, of course, and some are able to succeed — nevertheless, at any given time, each person either has taste or doesn’t have taste. Those with taste are able to identify objects as being beautiful and can properly value those objects for their beauty; those without taste can only think that they are identifying objects as beautiful and can never properly value the experience of those objects.
Within the realm of mainstream music, Hume’s divide can be seen in the Old Guard – New Guard distinction that I drew above, with the Old Guard serving as taste arbiters disdaining the profligate, ear-pounding musical preferences of the New Guard. This incites a kind of standard disagreement of artistic value, with the Old arguing that the New’s music is in bad taste while New argues that the Old’s music is boring or out of touch. Everyone is familiar with this kind of argument of taste, the kind where one side leaves feeling offended and rebellious and the other side leaves feeling superior and cynical about the future.
But Beyoncé’s success points to a flaw in the very premise that founds such an argument of taste. Hume only has two ways of justifying artistic success: either those with taste made it happen, or those without taste made it happen. There is no such thing as compromise in Hume’s model: either you have taste or you do not have taste (in Hume’s words, there is the tasteful critic who is able to “preserve his mind free from all prejudice”, and there is the man without taste for whom prejudice clouds all judgment).
Beyoncé’s success does not come from those with ‘taste:’ her youth, sexuality, timeliness and relatively short duration of fame prohibit her approval by ‘taste’ arbiters. But her success also does not come from those without ‘taste:’ her lack of recent Billboard singles success, her focus on high-paying private concerts and her divergence from music into fashion and politics suggest that a large number of other artists would have been honored above Beyoncé in the role of Performer of the Year. Beyoncé is a magnificent artist and has found success in her magnificence, but her success is unrelated to her status in ‘taste’. Therefore, Hume’s framework, and the argument of taste in general, is empirically flawed, failing to map to the real world of music.
Beyoncé does not transcend taste. She undermines taste as a meaningful concept.