It’s often been said that music encapsulates an era. I was listening to a greatest hits CD of Destiny’s Child this week and it dawned on me that their music has in many ways been the soundtrack for women of my age. The girl power of the Spice Girls came and went but Destiny’s Child made it big just as I started high school, have survived in various incarnations and continue to wield influence.
Let me walk you through the lyrics of some of their most famous songs:
I depend on me (Independent Women)
OK, no worries, this sounds all very empowering, not relying on a man, working your own job, owning your own car because your earned, ‘truly feeling me’ because I buy my own clothes. But then….
I need a soldier that ain’t scared to stand up for me (Soldier)
This is classic third wave stuff. Here’s the kick arse chick who at the end of the day just wants a guy into who’ll stick up for her – even though she doesn’t need him of course, because…
Ladies leave your man at home ‘cos the club is jumpin’ jumpin’ (Jumpin’ Jumpin’)
There’s so much fun to be had out with others and especially your girlfriends – though woe betide him if he’s out with his homies when he should be paying attention to you!
Each of these songs represents a different role: the independent woman, the damsel in distress, the fun-loving gal. But trying to put them together is quite a task, in fact, that may be impossible! Oprah talks about how you can have it all, just not all at once. And so women slip in and out of different roles: it’s a performative life, kick arse chick one moment, shrinking violet the next, life of the party the next. But there are more extreme versions of it too: the primary school teacher who also teaches pole dancing; the doctor who is a dominatrix in her spare time.
Beyonce, whose career started in Destiny’s Child is a classic case study of this. On one hand, she holds a squeaky clean image, sweet hearted, married, intensely private, refusing to say a bad word about anyone. On the other, she has an alter-ego ‘Sasha Fierce’ whom she becomes when performing: it’s Sasha who wears sexy clothes and dances provocatively, not Beyonce. And yet, when asked about that behaviour in a recent interview, Beyonce responded that she doesn’t see herself as a seductress: she’s just being herself, expressing herself, being free.
For all the different identities that women can assume, it seems that the performative is so dominant that we’re confused about who’s underneath all that. Are we merely the sum of our different roles? There’s been plenty of discussion of Lady Gaga, whom Beyonce appears with in ‘Phone’. Some say she encourages the oppression of women with her sexualised dancing; others that she’s a clever satire of that same thing.
But either way, no one knows the real Lady Gaga; no one’s sure who the real Beyonce is. Sure, they’re famous and trying to protect their privacy, but they’re also symbols and messengers of femininity. And I suspect that the void that’s concealed behind their images in one that lurks behind the various roles ordinary women assume as well. If Destiny’s Child has been your soundtrack, you can enjoy a number of different roles, but do they define you? Who are you really? Is there a soundtrack that offers a workable alternative?
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.