Adele Had the Best Worst Night at the Grammys (While the Grammys Just Had the Worst)

It takes guts to start a song over in the middle of a live Grammys broadcast, but Adele had the confidence to do just that. She sensed that she was off key during the first several measures of a tribute to George Michael, a slowed-down version of “Fastlove,” and she boldly stopped and started again, refusing to get things wrong in Michael’s memory.

Alas, it wasn’t enough to make it a great tribute. She sang beautifully, because she’s a beautiful singer, but everything about the conception was wrong: To honor a man who gave us rousing classics like “Freedom ’90” and “Faith,” the Grammys chose a slowed-down version of one of his lesser known hits, in the process stripping it of its campy fun—it is, after all, a paean to the joy of hookups.

And this moment wasn’t even the worst one for Adele during last night’s production. She seemed to be forced to shoulder the Grammys’ worst foibles, of which there were many: sound problems, ill-conceived productions, and, oh right, racism and lack of cultural relevance.

Adele’s most difficult moment of the night came, ironically enough, when she had to accept Album of the Year for 25 and Song of the Year for “Hello,” the biggest awards of the night. It should have been a triumph, but even she knew she didn’t deserve to beat Beyoncé in either category: Adele made a perfect pop album. Beyoncé made a tour de force in which she turned her personal pain into an allegory for the divisions of our nation. (Good to know the Academy refuses to learn from its mistakes despite a changing political climate; remember when Taylor Swift’s 1989, another perfectly beautiful pop album, beat Kendrick Lamar’s incendiary masterpiece To Pimp a Butterfly?) When they first announced this year’s nominations, it honestly felt insulting that Beyoncé would even have to “compete” with the likes of Justin Bieber (also a good album, but come on).

When 25 beat Lemonade last night, Adele graciously used her speech to thank Beyoncé (who had delivered yet another scorched-earth performance earlier in the night, baring her full, pregnant belly while dressed as a goddess, urging the nation toward healing with her songs “Love Drought” and “Sandcastles”).“I’m very humbled and very grateful and gracious, but the artist of my life is Beyoncé,” Adele said. “The Lemonade album, for me, is so monumental.”  She went on, acknowledging what the Grammys surely would prefer not to: that there was a racial element to this. “You are our light,” she said. “The way you make me and my friends feel, the way you make my black friends feel, is empowering. You make them stand up for themselves. I love you. I always have and I always will.”

Later backstage, Adele still couldn’t get over it. She even broke her Grammy in half to give a piece to Beyoncé: “What the fuck does she have to do to win Album of the Year?” Adele asked. Apparently Frank Ocean—who kept his music out of the running this year due to the ceremony’s “cultural bias”—was beyond right. And it’s time we state the obvious: Kanye, sorry. You were right, too.


Beyoncé, Hillary, and ‘The Good Wife’: The Power of Women Scorned

IMG_3270First, Hillary Clinton was talking about carrying hot sauce in her bag at the same time that “I got hot sauce in my bag” became a catch phrase, thanks to Beyoncé’s Super Bowl song, “Formation.” Then Beyoncé put out an entire album, Lemonade, about enduring a husband’s cheating and eventually, if very publicly, forgiving him.

Beyoncé and her husband, Jay-Z, have been prominent supporters of our current president—with whom Clinton worked closely during his first term, as she reminds us every chance she gets. But perhaps it’s Hil’s inauguration at which Bey should be singing. Beyoncé and Hillary have more in common than it seems on the surface: They both have deep southern ties (hot sauce in bag), they’ve both fought their way to immense power in the particularly sexist worlds of politics and music, and they’ve both now become poster women for sticking with a marriage after a partner’s infidelity. (We can debate whether Bey embellished or fictionalized for her art, but it doesn’t matter—this narrative is part of her image now.) But their spiritual similarity on that last issue goes one step farther: They have reached new, dizzying heights of power after, possibly even because of, their decision to “stand by” their very powerful men.

That said, their version of standing by is hardly the one espoused in the Tammy Wynette song. Their version flips the script on the trope of the pathetic doormat who suffers through her man’s infidelity silently. Granted, Hillary Clinton was forced by media coverage (to put it lightly) to face her husband’s indiscretions publicly. But her eventual ascent in politics on her own terms, while continuing to stay married to former President Bill Clinton, showed their partnership was based on more than monogamy. Was it, and is it, strictly mercenary and power-driven? We’ll likely never know. But there’s no doubt, when you see Bill campaigning for her now, that they’re true partners. Hillary is far from a sad, scorned woman. She is, in fact, likely to be our next president, the historic first woman to hold the office.

Beyoncé, for her part, has always signified power. Even as far back as her Destiny’s Child days, she was singing about “Independent Women” and “Survivor”s. Now, even on an entire concept album about a husband’s infidelity, her most vulnerable work ever, she has still managed to maintain the power position. In the full-length film version of the album that debuted on HBO last weekend, she smashes car windows with a bat and gathers powerful women around her constantly, as if men aren’t necessary. She’s clear that he—whoever “he” may be—is the idiot here. From “Don’t Hurt Yourself”: “Who the fuck do you think I is? You ain’t married to no average bitch, boy.” From “Hold Up”: “Let’s imagine for a moment that you never made a name for yourself … Never had the baddest woman in the game up in your sheets. Would they be down to ride?” And, true to her standard style, she gives us plenty of gloriously empowering catch phrases, and even physical gestures, that we can use to invoke our own power when we’re feeling wronged: “Boy, bye.” “Middle fingers up, get them hands high.” There are few better moments in pop music than when she spits, “Suck on my balls, I’ve had enough.”

The Good Wife will conclude in a little over a week with its May 8 series finale, and that seems suddenly, oddly, perfectly timed, given the ascent of Hillary and Beyoncé. Main character Alicia Florrick borrows liberally from the real life of Hillary Clinton: The show’s premise was inspired by the string of cheating scandals that has continued to bring down politicians since the Clinton-Lewinsky days. It imagines what happens when you make that wife, the one dutifully standing behind the disgraced politician, the center of her own narrative. We’re finding out, after seven excellent seasons, that Alicia is hardly the sad woman we may have imagined her to be if we’d never seen the story from her perspective. Even in the most recent episodes, when her husband finds himself embroiled in another scandal after she told him she wanted a divorce, we understand that when she agrees to “stand by” him as the news comes out, she’s the one doing him a favor. She’s the one with the power. Whether she stays married to him is her decision, and that decision does not change her status as a smart, successful, powerful woman.

Any chance of a joint Beyoncé-Hillary cameo on that series finale? Probably not, but I think those three would have a lot to talk about.

What Britney and Beyonce Taught Me About Being an Overachiever

In honor of the Skillshare class I just started about Finding Your Writing Voice, which includes Britney- and Beyoncé-related lessons, I’m sharing this little essay I wrote about these two central figures in my life. This also reflects the lessons of voice: I can’t imagine any piece that’s more “me” than this.


beyonce-strutEven though Beyonce and Britney Spears are two of the biggest pop stars of our time—and have been for more than 15 years!—it’s hard to imagine the two of them breathing the same air, or even living on the same planet. Beyonce is an untouchable deity to whom we all aspire, in every aspect of our lives, but do not expect to ever reach; she is the closest thing we have in modern America to ancient Greek goddesses, but with fewer flaws and weaknesses. Britney is the sweet, Southern girl next door who just happened to become a pop star, like an adult Hannah Montana; she is like your high school friend who’s always been kind-of a disaster, but you love her just the same.

And yet, both women clearly know something about major accomplishments. Beyonce has been dominating pop culture since her 2013 Super Bowl performance and proved her power with a surprise album drop that became iTunes’ fastest seller ever. Britney’s Planet Hollywood Las Vegas concert residency, which launched in December 2013, has now been extended another two years to 2017 after helping to boost the hotel’s annual earnings by about $20 million.

Separated by just three months in age, Beyonce and Britney typify every peril and triumph awaiting modern young women who grow up wanting desperately to succeed and willing to make every sacrifice necessary. Their most recent albums both articulate their visions of success. From Beyonce’s “***Flawless”: “I know when you were little girls/You dreamt of being in my world/Don’t forget it, don’t forget it/Respect that/Bow down, bitches.” From Britney’s “Work Bitch”: “You want a hot body? You want a Bugatti? You want a Maserati? You better work, bitch.” Beyonce demands respect and knows she deserves it; Britney wants to earn it, and believes she’s made her millions by working harder than everyone else.

There’s a reason I respond viscerally to these songs—and sometimes play them just to get psyched up for work: I’m a lifelong overachiever, and I see myself in both of them. At this point, of course, it’s clear that any of us with Type A tendencies would be better off following Beyonce’s lead than Britney’s. But the particulars of Britney’s public struggles—and Beyonce’s lack thereof—illuminate what is to me the most important lesson for any massive overachiever, especially one who’s female: People who benefit from your hard work will always want more from you, but you don’t have to give it to them.

Beyonce figured this out in the last few years to spectacular effect. She fired her own father as her manager so she’d be the only one making decisions about what she would cram onto her packed agenda or what kind of songs she’d write. Starting with her 2011 album 4, the catchy, girl-power radio anthems she could write in her sleep gave way to artistic risks and vulnerable, raw lyrics. Her profile only rose as a result, climaxing in a superior 2013 that started with the Super Bowl and ended with her album Beyonce changing the record industry and being declared a “masterpiece.” I can think of no better idea to aspire to: making a masterpiece. I remind myself of this whenever I’m working on a book now. Someday maybe I’ll get there.

Poor Britney, on the other hand, continues to be run by a management team that has groomed her to behave like a good little money-printing robot. Even as she shattered before our eyes in 2007, shaving her head and swatting at paparazzi with an umbrella and flashing her panty-free crotch, her team propped her up in the music studio long enough to record an album, Blackout. Granted, the result was her riskiest and best record—thanks to some next-level production by Danja and The Neptunes, not due to any efforts of Britney herself. Then her people pushed her into a way-too-soon “comeback” performance at the MTV awards that proved disastrous when she wandered, zombie-like, across the stage, not even bothering to lip sync.

Perhaps most disturbingly, none of this prompted a major change in the way business was done at Britney HQ. They shipped her off to rehab—robot broken, must fix!—but then she was right back into the recording studio and on the road. She’d never again display the same gleam in her eye and primal desire to entertain that had made her instantly famous with her first single, “… Baby One More Time,” and the accompanying video that bled star quality. We all know “Peak Britney” is likely gone for good, but as long as Britney keeps selling, she keeps performing, almost as if she’s unaware that stopping is an option.

I’ve been rewarded a lot in my life for doing what I was told and working hard. I got good grades, went to a fancy college, and worked my way up from an assistant to a senior writer at Entertainment Weekly. When asked to take assignments, I said “yes.” I got promoted. I said “yes” some more. I even got my first book deal by saying “yes” when a publisher was looking for someone to write about the 1950s Mickey Mouse Club; I was qualified because I’d written a lot about the Disney Channel boom of the Miley Cyrus era. I’d written a lot about it because I’d been asked to, and I’d said “yes.” The book was a great learning experience, it paid well, and I’m glad I did it. But I eventually realized I was on my way to losing that gleam in my eyes, too, if I didn’t take Beyonce-style control. I got a new agent, proposed my dream book about The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and quit my job to freelance so I’d have more say in the assignments I took. Even though the income isn’t as steady, it’s way more fun than doing what people want you to, as it turns out.

Being Beyonce is harder—it requires long-term vision and deliberate decision-making, rather than simply saying “yes” until you break. But being Beyonce is worth it, and nowhere was that more clear than in their most recent albums, Beyonce and Britney Jean. Out within a month of each other, they couldn’t have been more different while still competing on the same record charts. Britney Jean was clearly the weakest of all Britney’s releases, with only two memorable songs, “Work Bitch” and “Perfume,” which served as the singles. (At least her debut album had the transcendent smash “… Baby One More Time,” even if it also included first-album duds like “E-mail My Heart.”) Britney Jean smacked of a slapped-together effort, retreading trends (how novel, a rapper cameo!) instead of setting them the way her previous records did. Accordingly, it sold the worst among all of her albums, even though it was hyped as her “most personal” ever. (Why? Because its title contained her middle name?)

Beyonce, on the other hand, got so personal it would’ve been uncomfortable if the music hadn’t been so good. We got play-by-plays of Beyonce’s every sexual fantasy, from getting it on the back of a limo to receiving cunnilingus to calling her lover “Daddy” to doing it on the kitchen floor to exactly what she does with that ass during foreplay. We learned of postpartum mood swings and jealousy and divorce talks. We heard her declare herself a feminist and tell us, via a Frenchwoman in voiceover, that feminists can love sex. We heard her sing less-than-pretty for effect and get really fucking weird in the best way possible (“surfbort, surfbort …”). It sold great, moving four times as many albums in its first hour than Britney Jean did in its first week. It also turned Beyonce from the pop queen who’s always good for a hook to a respected artist on the order of a Prince or Michael Jackson, an artist whose career outlook is stellar even if she ever wants to give up the dancing in stilettos and wearing fancy leotards on stage.

Despite tabloid rumors that Britney was nearing another epic meltdown after being so soundly trounced by Beyonce on the charts, Britney said in an interview after both albums’ releases that she “looks up to Beyonce.” There’s something so honest, and maybe a little sad, in the wording there: Despite having been a solo artist for longer than Beyonce and selling more solo albums than Beyonce, Britney speaks of Beyonce like a role model. If they were equals, she might say that she “admired” what Beyonce had done with her album, or that she was “impressed” with her.

But Britney should, in fact, look up to Beyonce. They started very similarly, with very similar work ethics, goals, and even entertainment styles. But one figured out how to use her own striving perfectionism to find herself, express herself, and change the world. The other just used hers to please and pay those around her for 15 years running. I can only hope that someday, somehow, Beyonce and Britney end up having a little career chat, and Beyonce drops some serious knowledge. Maybe Britney will read Lean In and invite Beyonce out for coffee to ask for advice? Maybe Beyonce will produce Britney’s next album?

Until then, I’ll be enjoying my Britney playlist as much as ever. But, like Britney, I’ll be looking up to Beyonce.


Finding Your Writing Voice: With Jack Kerouac, Dorothy Parker, Beyonce, Britney, and me!

beyonce-knowels-net-worth-1024x768I’ve put together a really fun, short online class — if I do say so myself — about Finding Your Writing Voice for Skillshare. It’s about exactly what it sounds like, focusing just on voice in writing. I often talk about voice in my other classes, and it’s my favorite lesson, so I finally decided to do a self-contained class on just that. In it, I talk about voicey writers like Kerouac and Parker, and I also share my groundbreaking theories about what Beyoncé and Britney can teach us about writing. I also walk you through a final project in which you’ll do your best to write in your very own voice.

Here are the things that are cool about a Skillshare class:

The Silliest Pop Culture Think Pieces This Week: Debating Rudolph, Beyonce, and ‘Love Actually’

MV5BMTY4NjQ5NDc0Nl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwNjk5NDM3._V1_SX214_I don’t know if it’s just that it’s a slow time for pop culture (suddenly Barbara Walters is on instead of a new Nashville!) or that writers are desperate to make some extra cash for the holidays, but, man, have there been some extra-silly moments in pop culture writing online this week. Of course, I write about pop culture. I’m sure everything I say about it isn’t Pulitzer-worthy. (In fact, the Pulitzer people seem to think none of what I say is Pulitzer-worthy.) But surely we could scare up something better to write than the following finds from my blog wanderings this week, which do none of us any favors when we’re trying to argue that what we do at least occasionally matters:

Love Actually Is the Least Romantic Film of All Time, courtesy of The AtlanticThis piece, ostensibly pegged to the movie’s tenth anniversary, argues vehemently against a perfectly harmless romantic comedy. From ten years ago. There’s a defensiveness to it from the beginning, making the case that this is an important discussion to have because it has “been gradually reevaluated and granted the status of a ‘classic’ holiday film.” Okay, except that almost every film about the holidays gets a bump from its mere association with said holiday. In other words: Our many, many cable channels wish to show seasonal movies. Associate yours with one and if its remotely watchable, it’s all but guaranteed an annual spot at least somewhere on the dial. Networks will then promote it as a “holiday classic.” That will seem fine because it gives people a warm, holiday-ish feeling and shows up at the same time every year. And since this movie is a perfectly enjoyable one—certainly better than the millions of all-star-cast knockoffs we’ve gotten since, like New Year’s Day—this is fine. I can’t tell you, in fact, how many times I’ve muttered “It’s fine” with surprising passion while reading bizarrely intense take-downs of pop cultural artifacts I would have barely given another thought. Miley Cyrus, Kanye West, random decent ten-year-old movies? They’re all fine. Ignore them if you don’t like them. Let’s move on.

‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’ Is a Terrible, Terrible Song: You Know It’s About Bullying, Right?, courtesy of The New Republic: Wherein it is argued that the holiday tune teaches children something very bad. What? I’m not actually sure. The writer urges me to read the lyrics, but I’m pretty familiar with them. The main beef here seems to be that Rudolph is bullied until he proves “his economic utility,” and that even after that, the other reindeer do not apologize to him. It’s likely meant as a satire on a pop culture think piece, but I’m not sure it’s completely clear here. (Some other time, we can argue about the role of clarity in deadpan satire.) In its defense, this would be a perfect piece in The Onion.

Hey Mrs. Carter—What About the Gays?, courtesy of Slate: In which Beyonce think-piece-mania reaches its idiotic zenith. Yes, I wrote about her, too, just like everyone else in the last week. But let’s at least stay focused on what is in her album, rather than what isn’t. I support gay rights, and inclusionary pop culture, as much as anyone, but Beyonce is not obligated to write songs about gay people simply because she has gay fans. I could argue she doesn’t write enough about dark-haired, 30-something women who live in Manhattan’s East Village and write books about television shows—and that she should, because, well, I’m a fan! I will just quote a fellow Twitter user, @CallMePartario, here: “Next on Slate: is the new Beyonce album ignorant about the nutritional value of root vegetables!??” That said, I would read that root vegetable piece. They’re super-important to overall health and Beyonce should know that. (Sarcasm/satire, that statement. Just to be clear.)

Instead of reading any of these, do yourself a favor and read Grantland writer Rembert Browne’s great piece about reconsidering R. Kelly fandom in the wake of new discussions about the sexual assault allegations against him. And honestly, his Beyonce piece is a fun read, too. Seriously.

The Importance of Beyonce’s Secret Album (Feminist and Otherwise)

beyonce-knowels-net-worth-1024x768Beyonce’s stealth-released album Beyonce, which dropped on iTunes with 14 songs, 17 videos, and no prior warning on Friday, is set to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard chart. It sold more than 800,000 copies in its first three days, breaking iTunes records and topping the singer’s own pretty decent previous sales. It did this with nothing to announce its arrival but a social media blast at midnight on Friday that went viral and had Beyonce fans and pop music critics’ phones buzzing with texts at unseemly hours of the night.

All that, alone, is badass.

Add to it the fact that the album is next-level shit for Beyonce, as well as for all of pop music, and it’s pretty stunning. While Lady Gaga and Britney Spears brought us possibly overhyped albums with eh reviews this holiday season, Beyonce re-imagined both how to release an album and how she could sound. Sonically, Beyonce finishes what Beyonce started on her excellent last album, 4, keeping the multi-layered rhythms that are her signature but also bringing in more old-school soul and funk with splashes of grit and dirt. She ditches the empowering anthems that we all love but are, let’s face it, not exactly soul-baring. (All we get here is a video for the wonderful “Grown Woman.”) Instead she gives us songs about her own insecurity (“I cooked this meal for you naked, so where the hell you at?”), wobblier moments in married life, and the imprisonment of the beauty standard; brags at least as great as her rap god husband’s (“I sneezed on the beat and the beat got sicker”); multiple shout-outs to her own awesome ass (“Let me sit this ass on you, show you how I feel”); and tons of graphic sex (oops, someone “Monica Lewinsky-ed all on my gown”). She gets wonderfully weird. (Repeated, nearly indecipherable rap: “Yonce all on his mouth like liquor.”) Oh, right, and she also takes a break in the middle of a song that seems to be about the pressure to be perfect to first instruct us to “Bow down, bitches,” and then to hand the mic to author Chimananda Ngozi Adiche and her TED talk defining feminism:

We raise girls to see each other as competitors
Not for jobs or for accomplishments, which I think can be a good thing
But for the attention of men
We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are
Feminist: a person who believes in the social
Political, and economic equality of the sexes

Then Beyonce’s back for as close to a “Single Ladies” anthem as we’ll get here:

We flawless, ladies tell ’em
Say “I look so good tonight”
God damn, God damn
Say “I look so good tonight”
God damn, God damn, God damn!


It’s serious business to declare yourself a “feminist.” We’ve seen a rash of discussions this year about which pop stars are feminists, which are not, which call themselves that, which do not. (For the record, I think we’re at something like: Declared Feminist—Lady Gaga, Miley Cyrus, Beyonce; Undeclared Feminist—Taylor Swift; Non-Feminist—Katy Perry. But this changes all the time; we need a constant stock ticker.) As someone who wrote a book about feminism and ran a website about feminism, I can tell you that just saying the word, particularly labeling a specific work “feminist,” puts a target on it. If you don’t declare yourself or your work feminist, you can get away with what you please. The minute you call it that, everything is up for dissection. In the case of Beyonce, that means: Is this lyric “feminist”? What about this one? This comes at least as much from feminist camps as non-feminist ones. And maybe that’s fine. Maybe that’s part of what we do to further the discussion. How else to define modern feminism? But it’s complicated: No feminist is a perfect feminist. And just defining what makes a good feminist could spark major debate among people who call themselves feminist. There’s also the more specific matter of Beyonce’s husband showing up for a typically problematic cameo on “Drunk in Love,” referencing Ike Turner while bragging about a particularly intense sexual encounter. (Though he also says he was like the violent Turner “in ’97,” so I must admit I can’t totally parse this.) Jay-Z is always going to mess with B’s feminist record; let’s just say she’s not the first feminist to experience this.

I sort-of agree with this piece from The Root that I’d rather talk about the zillion other interesting things on the album (now I know about “surfboarding,” for one), than debating for the zillionth time whether Beyonce is “really” feminist or not. How about we just acknowledge that she’s allowed to be a feminist if she declares herself one (god knows we need them), and that said declaration is among the many ballsy moves this record represents?

Happy Birthday, Ms. Fierce: Why Beyonce Matters

beyonce-knowels-net-worth-1024x768In honor of Beyonce’s 32nd birthday today, I decided to make a list of all the reasons Beyonce conjures feelings inside me, a grown woman (“I’m a grown woman … I do whatever I want!”), not unlike my giddy, fawning, admiring, disproportionate reaction to Debbie Gibson when I was 12.

Here, why Beyonce matters to me, and many grown women like me:

1. At least from the outside, she seems to have the most enviable relationship in history. She supports her man in life and song (“Ladies, if you love your man, show him you the flyest/Grind up on it, girl, show him how you ride it”), yet still manages to hold her own against one of the most powerful, hyper-masculine rappers ever. (She basically shuts that whole thing down in “Upgrade U”: “I know you be’s the block but I’m the lights that keep the streets on,” she begins, before engaging in essentially a song-length rap battle/love fest with her husband.) She basically has the ideal we’re all looking for in 2013: a best friend and equally mega-powerful partner. ’03 Bonnie and Clyde 4-eva.

2. Her dancing. Going to a dance class where we learn pop-star routines has (seriously) changed my life, most notably through our Beyonce phase in the spring and early summer. (I like to call it “Beyoncercize.”) It’s not just a workout; it’s not even just a fun workout. Learning her Sasha Fierce moves and owning them as we practice throughout the hour does something to a woman. You feel like Beyonce when you’re done. I don’t think that’s happened to me in quite the same way with other stars’ routines. I think it’s in the hips. (Or maybe in acting out lines like, “I got a cute face and my booty’s so fat.”)

3. Then there’s the strut, always worth emulating:



4. And finally, the shoulders-back, pop-the-hip stance — which I find is her most everyday-practical move, even if it doesn’t look terribly practical here:



5. What all of this adds up to is the most important part of Beyonce-ism: She has a way of cultivating otherworldly confidence, but more to the point, she has a magical ability to share it with her fans. She wants you to be as Beyonce as she is. She has a startlingly touching and sincere way of convincing you she’s aware of how lucky she is and truly grateful for her life. She hopes to pass a little bit of it along to each one of us, if only for 3 minutes on our iPod during our morning run or a few hours on a Saturday night at her concert. I was shocked, and a little embarrassed, that I cried when she appeared on stage before me at Barclays Center in Brooklyn last month. But now I know: It’s because I want at least a little bit of her spirit in my life, and she wants to give it to me.

Here’s a little Beyonce spirit for your day: