Decoding the Beyonce Tumblr

Earlier this week, The Beyonce 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: Beyonce celebrated her fourth anniversary with Jay-Z on April 4th (4/4); she was “born” onto the web on 4/5.  This is some crazy stuff, kids.  As Jezebel headlined it, “Beyonce Joins Internet; Internet Flips Out.”

But the internet wasn’t just flipping out over some new website.  This was Beyonce’s website.  Beyonce, 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 Beyonce’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 Beyonce and Jay-Z, as evidenced by the tumblr).

The question remains: What is Beyonce 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 Beyonce, 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: Beyonce 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 Beyonce 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 Beyonce’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 Beyonce 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 Beyonce 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: why makes this tumblr so compelling?

Because here’s the honest truth: I like, but don’t love Beyonce.  But I could look at this tumblr all day.

I’ll divide the appeal into three categories:

1.) AUTHENTICITY

The tumblr is compelling because we know it is Beyonce.  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 Beyonce.  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.)

Beyonce 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.

 

 

2.) INTIMACY

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.  Beyonce’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:

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 is funny! Beyonce is funny!  (See also: Spiderman).

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 — Beyonce 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, googles 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 Beyonce “between” the best shots, and we all know that’s where the “real” self lies.

This is one of several “Instagram” style shots on the site — you can tell it’s Instagram by a.) the Polaroid-style border and b.) the distortion of colors to make it look like a photo from a different era.  The photo seems to catch Beyonce is 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 Beyonce — 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 camera man.  Beyonce 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 profesional 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 cyncial, 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 snorkles, deserted beaches, and tubing behind a speed boat.

In this video below, for example, Beyonce (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 Beyonce 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 Beyonce 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 right hand corner) –

Beyonce 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 Beyonce-as-Image, while the rest of the page reads as Beyonce-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.  Beyonce 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, Beyonce 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 Beyonce and her team would like us to.  The Tumblr is a public relations triumph, emphasizing that Beyonce may not “run the world,” as one of her most famous songs suggests, but she certainly runs her own image.   In a time when image control is increasingly elusive, it’s a feat worthy of praise.  And while Beyonce has worked hard to elide the tremendous labour required to construct such an image, my hope is that I’ve helped make that labour — 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.

28 Responses to “Decoding the Beyonce Tumblr”

  1. Great post, as usual. I was wondering about some of the photos – two of them (http://beyonce.tumblr.com/post/20451933076 and http://beyonce.tumblr.com/post/20450292869) are really obviously and awkwardly edited.

    I’m really fascinated by these photos, but I can’t figure out if I like that the edits were made. What do you think of them?

  2. [...] Decoding the Beyonce Tumblr | Celebrity Gossip, Academic Style [...]

  3. Very interesting post. But that Angelina Jolie comment seems a bit…problematic or at least was very off-putting to me. I think Jolie and Pitt are really good at handling their image but I think it is apparent she doesn’t care as much. But the bringing up weight and her gaining it to get people off of her case to focus on other things feels like such an odd even accusatory comment but maybe I just read it in the wrong way.

    • Annie says:

      Let me see if I can clarify I bit. I’m attempting to argue that since Jolie’s divorce from Thorton, she’s learned how to better influence the direction in which the conversation about her flows. It’s almost always subtle, but she nevertheless knows how to control the narrative of her image. Recently, however, she seems to care less about exacting that sort of control, and I see her body — over which she has demonstrated “mastery” in the past — as an indication of caring less about what people say about her. In other words, “let them call me skeletor.” I’m not trying to bodysnark; I’m just trying to think about what that seeming lack of concern might indicate. Hopefully that makes more sense.

      • That makes sense and I do agree. I think she is such an odd star. I also wish she would pick better project. I’m still upset she passed on the adaptation of Serena. Alas.

  4. Annie says:

    Katrina — For some reason WordPress isn’t letting me nest my comment under yours, but those edits are SO. WEIRD. It looks like someone was doing a crappy job with the “blemish” function on iPhoto. Maybe this adds to their intimacy? Was Bey sitting on her MacBook Pro on the plane trying to get rid of a pimple?

  5. Lenore says:

    Oh man, yeah, that was my reaction. I don’t even like Beyonce that much (I mean, she writes/preforms great pop songs, and she’s gorgeous, but I’m not fan, per se.) and my reaction when I saw the tumblr was “She looks so happy and carefree and friendly, why can’t I be hanging out with her on her yacht?”. It was so well done.

  6. @ Anne That makes sense and I do agree. I think she is such an odd star. I also wish she would pick better project. I’m still upset she passed on the adaptation of Serena. Alas.

  7. Claire says:

    I’m pretty sure that’s hipstamatic, not Instagram…just sayin’! (It’s better cause it doesn’t automatically share your pictures to the internet like Instagram).

  8. jasmine says:

    I don’t have anything insightful to add, but this was a very interesting read. I never thought that about how much attention to detail went into the Tumblr, but after reading this I can definitely see how carefully it was probably planned. It was executed perfectly. Thanks for writing this!

  9. Zinzi says:

    I’m really interested in your discussion of leisure and conspicuous consumption! I haven’t read Dyer (yet!), but it feels like your ideas are really heavily nested in Veblen and Theories of the Leisure Class, amirite? Nice work, great read!

  10. Annie says:

    Richard Dyer is best known for his work on star theory (his seminal work, Stars, is pretty much my bible). He comes out of the Birmingham School/cultural studies, and his particular work draws heavily on the work of the Leo Lowenthal (part of the Frankfurt School), who saw a shift from “idols of production” in the late 19th/early 20th century to “idols of consumption” with the rise of Hollywood in the 1920s. Really fascinating stuff.

  11. automaticdoor says:

    I’m b) because c)? :D

  12. Yolande says:

    WOW! Great article… I didn’t realise the planning put to this tumblr. I must say I agree with u; when I first saw the pics I was amazed it was like I was there too! I felt close to Bey… If that was the plan, it worked perfectly!! Great article again Anne. :)

  13. NoName says:

    Really great article.
    I have to say that my first reaction, after I have gone through all the photos and let it all sink in, was that of disappointment. Disappointment at the fact that Beyonce has broken through her trademark privacy. Although you mention in your article that there is a general intimacy that the choice of images purports, I could still feel that this is not just to share, but that there was an element of trying to “sell” me something i.e. not something genuine/authentic i.e. something unsettling and “un-Beyonce”, in a way.
    Before I had gone through the site, I was excited, being her fan and always looking up things on her, but it did not meet my expectations… The way she went about revealing Blue Ivy’s first pics though, that was great, that had a genuine feel to it, and it fostered my respect for her. This just leaves this lukewarm, and a bit annoyed. You do mention a “construct”, and I feel that more than anything else in that site.

  14. [...] a good 30 minutes lost in beyoncé’s tumblr. have you seen it? it’s just, fresh. i read this article, which deconstructed the genius of beyoncé’s new media campaign, particularly the tumblr. it [...]

  15. Katniss says:

    My reaction was d)Disappointed.
    I have been a Beyonce fan since 2006. I love her. One of the things I appreciated the most about her was her refusal to sell her personal life, to me that’s where her authenticity lies. She always seemed like someone who wanted to be known for her craft. She worked hard on being an artist not a celebrity. The launch of this site shows that era is over, she’s willing to sell you 150 private pictures in exchange of relevance. I guess I can’t blame her, the entertainment industry today is like a machine that you put intimacy coins into and relevance comes out. The young crowds nowadays choose their favorite “artist” based on who they’d most like to hang out with regardless of whatever material they put out. Still, I am disappointed in her for doing this.
    Just a few things:
    They didn’t rent an entire floor in the hospital, that was a false rumor.
    The black & white picture that you assumed is obviously of her preparing for work actually isn’t. That’s a picture from Jay’s 40 birthday, it had a theme.
    According to the person who designed her new site, her tumblr will actually be updated once a week.

  16. [...] read an article yesterday on the PR genius of this blog that really got me thinking.  The article explained three [...]

  17. Kezia says:

    fantastic. just fantastic.

  18. Santi says:

    Nice post, but you spelled Gwyneth Paltrow’s name wrong each and every time.

  19. Great post. I feel that she and J have been really good at curating their public identity. Every time I see a photo of the two of them together (on the beach, with Blue Ivy, etc.), I always think they’re having tons of fun.

  20. [...] and blogger Anne Helen Petersen’s fascinating take on the appearance of the Beyonce Tumblr. http://www.annehelenpetersen.com/?p=2952 Share this:TwitterFacebookLinkedInPinterestEmailLike this:LikeBe the first to like this [...]

  21. I really enjoyed your pop culture analysis of the Beyonce Tumblr. I don’t think people realize what a feat she pulled off. In a world where you have to pay some people to not share information about them, Beyonce has carved a niche for herself as an illusive, but willing, celebrity.

  22. [...] for racy lyrics and even racier videos, enthusiastically embraces through her online presence.As others have noted, Beyonce is cleverly controlling the conversation about herself and steering it in a way that is [...]

  23. yoona says:

    I spent a full half hour examining Beyonce’s tumblr when it came out. I was completely riveted. As you say, it felt like an authentic glimpse into what it actually feels like to be insanely wealthy, beautiful, and famous, and as such, it was as foreign as watching a home video of aliens or something. Thanks for breaking it down.

  24. [...] Helen Petersen decodes Beyonce’s Tumblr and then argues for Bey’s ambivalent relationship to feminism (ok, [...]