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Jul 15

DESTINY’S CHILD – “Independent Women, Part 1”

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#883, 2nd December 2000

destinyswomen It’s hard not to let what Beyoncé Knowles was become swamped by what she is. A veteran, an icon, a woman enjoying a remarkable critical peak, an earner, second only to headphone mogul Dr Dre on current musical money lists – Beyoncé, as she is happy to tell us, works astonishingly hard, but one of the things she works at is controlling her narrative, shaping her career so that each step seems higher than the last, and her success appears pre-ordained. It was there in the name of her own group. “Child of destiny… independent me…”. But that’s only a story. Nothing is really inevitable, and Beyoncé enters Popular running, working, managing her options, using her group’s remarkable success as a springboard, while trying to win a PR battle over the palace coup that finished a multi-platinum line-up and cut a quartet to a reshuffled trio.

The stakes were very high. The Writings On The Wall sold millions and helped reinvent its genre. In sound and attitude, the singles from it were astonishing, particularly “Bills Bills Bills” and “Say My Name”, which would glide, jab, purr, stutter, break down into precise micro-maps of beatwork and then be reconstituted in time for their earworm choruses. The group themselves were a match for their production, just as happy to change modes mid-song. Or even mid chorus – take the way “Bills Bills Bills” jumps from the sweeping repetition of “bills….bills…bills…” to the sudden, sprightly kiss-off of “I don’t think you do / So you and me are through”. On “Say My Name” the angry stacatto of the verses, and their rushes of paranoid realisation, complement the keening, screw-turning chorus: it’s a masterpiece of suspicion and wrath, playing off the great history of those emotions in soul music while sounding like nothing before.

But the group who made those songs was gone. LaTavia Roberson and LaToya Luckett complained about the management and found themselves discarded mid-video. By “Independent Women”, one of their replacements had already quit. Destiny’s Child was now a trio. That would be its final and platonic form, its megastar incarnation, one that still reforms now and then. Luckett and Roberson became the Sutcliffe and Best of the group, banished from Destiny’s Child before things really got big – or so the new story framed it, and never mind that no subsequent album actually sold as much as The Writings On The Wall:

Big was certainly the plan. Survivor – the album – is a soggy thing in parts, but it announced itself with unparalleled clarity and determination: three singles, three manifestos. “Independent Women, Part 1” was the first, with the most to prove. Right away, it’s clear something has changed. The switches and feints of “Bills Bills Bills” or “Say My Name” are replaced by a far more direct approach, a straight-to-the-point funk loop that bumps away all through the song, a framework to showcase its three singers. The aftershock of the new lingers – this record may streamline and back off from earlier advances, but it still sounds thrilling and self-possessed, confidently honing its approach while everyone else catches up. But there’s no question anymore of the production becoming the star. Whether or not ‘futurism’ was ever the point of Destiny’s Child, it isn’t here.

The group’s lyrical approach has also hardened. The 1998-9 singles were vignettes: little bullet-time panoramas circling a particular interpersonal crisis just at the moment of collapse. “Independent Women” throws out that approach and again prefers something that pulls your focus onto the singer: a song built around a rhetorical device, the snapped “Question” at the start of every line. It’s remorselessly direct: economic and sexual independence were always in the music, the subtext of “Bills Bills Bills” or “Jumpin’ Jumpin’”, but there’s zero room for subtext here. The new Destinys’ Child is ruthlessly on the nose.

So whether we want to be anachronistic or not, there’s no escaping it: everything’s pointing in the same directon. The music toned down, more a framework for its singers. The lyrics turned into a rhetorical barrage, keeping the focus squarely on who’s delivering them, not their situation. And the basic mathematics of the new group. There’s no centre to four (or at most – this was Roberson and Luckett’s complaint – a double centre), but three resolves into a natural shape on stage and on film, a V formation. Just ask Mary Wilson and Flo Ballard. While the spotlight in Destinys Child sometimes rotates – and Kelly Rowland’s glorious, camera-pleasing repertoire of smirks, side-eyes and reaction shots is the group’s secret video weapon – this incarnation of the band is a machine built to make a singer famous.

Before it can do that, there was a film to promote. “Independent Women” tackles its job as a soundtrack single for Charlie’s Angels as directly as it tackles everything else. Beyoncé isn’t just sharing the spotlight with her co-Childs, but with three other women – Lucy Liu, Drew Barrymore, Cameron Diaz – who get individual shout-outs alongside constant lyrical nods to the film. This is a hostage to fortune, you might think – Charlie’s Angels was a sharp, fun movie, one I remember with only fondness, but “Independent Women Part 1” is a landmark record by one of the major 00s pop groups. There’s certainly a risk the constant product placement might diminish it now.

I think it dodges that risk. Partly it’s that within the economic game the record uses to define independence, showing off your soundtrack deal is plainly a legit move. Partly it’s the thematic tie – Charlie’s Angels is a vision (or fantasy) of a Hollywood where women get to front action films, and the line between the record made to promote the movie and the record Destiny’s Child would be making anyway is almost invisible. (”Synergy”, as the memos no doubt put it.) Mostly it’s just that the record is so forceful a celebration that it brushes caveats aside.

Because while it’s easy to see Destiny’s Child’s new directness in terms of what’s been lost, this is pop, and there’s an advantage to making the obvious unavoidable, going all-out for the anthemic. The context the group operated in wasn’t just their earlier singles, it was a trend within R&B of probing power-games and inequalities in relationships: TLC’s flaying of impecunious suitors on “No Scrubs” just the most prominent example. By September 2000, when “Independent Women” came out, Billboard could refer offhanded to “a wave of male-bashing sweeping R&B”. If they didn’t have the no-nonsense stringency of Destiny’s Child’s ‘98-’99 singles in mind, others were happy to lump the group in. The concern was overstated: rock and pop songs had been about women, money and sex since forever. The only twist was now the women had – on record, at least – control of the money and the sex. But the trend was real enough. “Independent Women, Part 1” doubled down on it by presenting the underlying theme as starkly as possible.

That meant cash: if you’re going to do a song about independence, you aim for what keeps people dependent. “Independent Women, Part 1” is as clear sighted about the transactional side of relationships as any Gang Of Four song – the difference being that the critique is pragmatic not systemic. The solution to inequality is to earn enough to afford what you want yourself. Here’s where the song’s focus, its musical and lyrical bluntness, pays off – the successive “I bought it… I bought it… I bought it…” is a stirring application of force. And then the record plays its best trick, taking the latent churchiness within the preaching, rhetorical style and unleashing it for the chorus, turning individual autonomy into a communal celebration – “throw your hands up at me!”. It’s not solidarity, exactly – no room for those who can’t or won’t earn. But in that moment, “Independent Women, Part 1” – the anthem, the film promo, the comeback, the crest of a trend, the next step in a business plan – lives the dream of the virtuous market, where all interests perfectly align.

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Comments

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  1. 61
    Ed on 15 Jul 2015 #

    So on your reading, the boyfriend has another girlfriend who is relaxed about the idea that he’s already attached, but would be horrified if she realised his other girlfriend was her own best friend?

    Next version: when he rings her, she realises the call is coming from inside the house…

    BTW, haven’t we already come across something quite like our misheard version, from Madison Avenue?

  2. 62
    Tommy Mack on 15 Jul 2015 #

    And then we discover his mistress, er, Tylera Durden was Beyonce’s wild alter ego all along. But only after she’d cut his knob off for cheating.

    Too much?

  3. 63
    Tommy Mack on 16 Jul 2015 #

    #62: clearly I should have said Sasha Fierce!

  4. 64
    Mark M on 16 Jul 2015 #

    Just heard – on Vintage TV revisits 1980 – Sheena Easton’s 9 To 5 (or Morning Train, as we knew it on the other side of the Atlantic) for the first time in years. Jesus Christ. It’s one thing to go, ‘I’m only really alive when you’re with me’ (which is of course the standard romantic gunk of thousands of songs and films*) but quite another to bring in the notion of the working day, so that the narrator’s life is by her own account meaningless specifically while her bloke is off earning a crust. And this is sung in a buoyant, even celebratory manner. What I’m saying is it puts the criticisms above of IW, Pt1 and its capitalist/materialist version of feminism into some kind of relief, at least for me.

    *Eg, ‘I was born when she kissed me. I died when she left me. I lived a few weeks while she loved me.’ from one of my favourite movies, In A Lonely Place.

  5. 65
    Ed on 16 Jul 2015 #

    @64 True. But you could also compare it to Dolly Parton’s own blistering ‘9 to 5’, released the same year.

    I wonder if she had heard Easton.

  6. 66
    Mark M on 16 Jul 2015 #

    Re65: Nice idea, but timing and the fact that Parton’s song was written for the movie of the same name, which she starred in, suggests not.

    I’m aware that Easton’s song was shockingly retrograde by the standards of its own time, not just from a later perspective.

  7. 67
    Phil on 16 Jul 2015 #

    #65 – or “Car Wash” four years before that.

    SE’s 9 To 5 was a weird little 50s throwback; remember the NTNN sketch?

  8. 68
    Ed on 17 Jul 2015 #

    @67 I don’t think Car Wash quite fits: it’s about the fun of working in a low-wage manual job. “The boss don’t mind sometimes if you act the fool”.

    That’s very different from Parton’s scathing critique of the way women’s energy and intelligence is exploited under patriarchal capitalism. The singer’s “cup of ambition” is revealed as a delusion, a sign of the false consciousness inherent even in white-collar employment:

    It’s a rich man’s game
    No matter what they call it
    And you spend your life
    Putting money in his wallet

    That could, again, have come straight from a contemporary Gang of Four album, except that Parton’s lyrics are more observant and more pointed.

  9. 69
    Tommy Mack on 17 Jul 2015 #

    Dolly Parton was the original Sleaford Mod.

  10. 70
    Phil on 17 Jul 2015 #

    I mentioned Car Wash because it’s about a woman going out to work. It certainly doesn’t have the class consciousness of Dolly Parton’s song – something which I think is much more normal in country music than soul/R&B (though there are probably counter-examples aplenty).

  11. 71
    Pink champale on 18 Jul 2015 #

    And tying things up nicely, the Independent Woman / Dreadlock Holiday mashup I mentioned up thread segues on the album into…. Dolly doing 9 to 5.

  12. 72
    speedwell54 on 7 Nov 2015 #

    Independent Woman Part 1 was the 43rd simultaneous UK and US No1 hit single.

    In November 2015 ‘Hello’ by Adele has become the 71st, and we also have a simultaneous No2 hit single with ‘Sorry’ by Justin Bieber.

    Three of the next four places on the chart are shared singles (“but not necessarily in the right order”) Drake, Weeknd and Bieber again.
    Has there ever been such a transatlantic similarity?

  13. 73
    Ed on 7 Nov 2015 #

    That is interesting.

    Is it the homogenisation and end of local idiosyncrasies that we were promised as a consequence of the internet?

    The most distinctively British song in the charts for the rest of the year will be ‘Half the World Away’, of course. Because America doesn’t have John Lewis.

  14. 74
    mapman132 on 8 Nov 2015 #

    I noticed this too.

    FWIW, the last US #1 to not reach the UK top 5 was “Stronger” by Kelly Clarkson three years ago. It reached #8. The last US #1 to not chart in the UK at all was “Buy U A Drank” by T-Pain eight years ago. It is still common for UK #1’s to not reach the US, but less so than it used to be.

    The US and UK had/have the same top song of the year in 2012, 2014, and so far 2015. They probably would’ve been the same in 2013 if Billboard had used the calendar year rather than “chart year” that ends in November. 2011 saw different top singles, but they were by the same artist.

    We’re probably at the greatest point of convergence since at least the 80’s, and maybe ever.

  15. 75
    Billy Hicks on 14 Nov 2015 #

    ‘Hello’ and ‘Sorry’ are also respectively #1 and #2 in Australia, which makes it three countries if not more with the same top two.

  16. 76
    speedwell54 on 14 Nov 2015 #

    RE Ed@73.

    I agree with the internet theory, this and other events have contrived to lead us here. The internet undoubtedly eases simultaneous promotion, release dates, and access to stream/download/purchase.

    The current situation is a perfect storm and I guess it will not be a frequent occurrence that two such huge international artists (in this case, both at the peak of their careers thus far ?) will release singles at the same time.

    A lack of a (inter)national soundtrack single, a ‘X Factor’ type track, or a really strong home grown release, has really cleared the path.

    You could argue poor timing from the Bieber camp. ‘Sorry’ has missed out on multiple No1s. So far he has only made it in Sweden and Denmark, and they do kind of like him in Denmark. (‘Sorry” is his eighth No1)

    At least they have managed to get Bieber’s album out a week before Adele’s’25’ lands.
    How many countries will have the Adele/Bieber No1/No2 in the album charts in a fortnight?

    Billy@75 I see your Australia and raise you Denmark, Spain, Finland, Italy, Norway, New Zealand, Netherlands, and Ireland.

  17. 77
    Ed on 14 Nov 2015 #

    Even more shocking: that identical US and UK top 5 of Adele, Bieber, Drake, Weeknd and Bieber again has no Americans in it!

    No US Americans, anyway.

    It’s the Commonwealth Invasion.

  18. 78
    Ed on 14 Nov 2015 #

    (Trying there to shoehorn Adele into what is basically a Canadian takeover.)

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