There are some things we don’t share, not even with our closest friends. Things like criticism of Beyoncé or Prime Minister Narendra Modi. I know this sounds ridiculous, but since you’re here, indulge me a bit longer.
Both are wildly popular and command fiercely loyal fan bases. Both stand for so much more than just themselves that even the merest hint of criticism escalates to significant social meaning. Both are somehow forgiven for contradictions that would end others’ careers.
They both stand for communities much bigger than themselves. Beyoncé isn’t just an individual singer and performer; she’s the aspirational ideal of black womanhood. Modi isn’t just a politician or public servant; he’s the ideal Indian man.
Beyoncé has been working to create this identity for herself since at least 2014.
We all know that celebrities like to co-opt our concerns for their art so that they can remain relevant to us. So, as feminism has gone mainstream, all sorts of female celebrities have staked a claim on ‘body positivity’ and ‘female empowerment’ and other buzzwords.
Beyoncé started this when she released her first surprise album ‘Beyoncé’ out of the blue. She’d just had a child and we all collectively lost our minds because the album wasn’t about motherhood, it was all about the great sex she was having with her husband. The videos were sexy and the lyrics were graphic. Beyoncé wanted us to know she was still sexual (and that we could still continue to sexualise her).
We were all so impressed and won over by the fact that she quoted Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s essay, ‘Why We Should All Be Feminists’ that we forgot to rage about her pandering to the male gaze or any of that other good ol’ feminist critique stuff.
Then, when Lemonade came around, we again chose to just believe Beyoncé’s narrative – ‘My husband cheated on me and I was furious about it, but I chose to forgive him. And I’m still a feminist icon.’ Now, there’s no feminist manual that says a woman must dump a cheating partner or put up with/accept disrespectfulness. But, some of us mumbled our doubts about whether this was all just made up to sell albums or if it was actually true. Art(ifice) won out over authenticity.
And now, we’re all swooning over the new joint album ‘Everything is Love’ – which is all about love (and money) triumphing over Jay Z’s infidelity.
We’d have shredded such inconsistencies apart if this were anyone else. We would have rolled our eyes at the scale of this performance – three massively successful albums from one affair? But, it’s Beyoncé, so we take her at her word.
Modi similarly gets away with a lot, because of how much we read into his image. As someone who went from tea seller to prime minister, and as someone who presided over Gujarat’s (contested) economic boom – Modi stands in for upward mobility, both individually and societally. And that’s potent stuff in a society as unequal as ours.
It’s about masculinity too – the size of his chest, the grandeur of his speeches, the authoritative aura he has cultivated. He’s the embodiment of upward mobility.
Why else is he exempt from the contempt our society reserves for men who abandon their families? It’s literally in the scriptures that the BJP and its allies care so much about. There’s an entire stage of life that’s supposed to be devoted to family, and it is only after that stage that a man, the provider, gets to leave his worldly concerns and take sanyaas.
But we’re fundamentally unconcerned with the fact that Modi abandoned his wife. Instead of reading that as a selfish action, many read it as love for the nation. And so we ourselves perpetuate this narrative, instead of questioning it.
Both Beyoncé and Modi don’t really dialogue with their audiences or the media. This way, they get to control their entire narrative.
Beyoncé hasn’t given any interviews since 2015, not even when she appears on the cover of a magazine. She doesn’t post candid Instagram stories (unless it’s staged publicity material); she doesn’t even caption her posts. She doesn’t tweet. Everything we know about Beyoncé comes from her music and performances, of which she produces a lot. And these albums are highly manufactured, minutely detailed productions – they’re spectacles. They’re entertaining and engaging, they’re new and thrilling. And they give us just enough context and story to feel invested and connected with what’s going on, but not enough to actually gain a foothold if we disagree with Beyoncé – because, what exactly do we know to disagree with?
Did Jay Z actually cheat? Did she actually take him back? We already know that Beyoncé rarely, if ever, writes her own lyrics, so these emotions in her songs – are they the result of her emotional journey or just a conveniently curated story?
You need to know things about someone to disagree with them.
Modi is also very fond of surprises and spectacle – think the sudden speech announcing demonetisation, the suit with his name on it, or the multiple photo ops with leaders across the world.
Performance matters. And all good entertainers understand this.
This allows Beyoncé’s art to find the emotionally tumultuous corners of our psyches. Her music offers us respite, it offers us hope. It entertains and distracts us from whatever is weighing us down at the time. That’s good, that’s what entertainment is for. And we can also argue that her scholarships and donations for the African American community, and the socio-political messages she infuses into her music that reaches millions of people – it’s all a net positive.
Modi’s showmanship is not as harmless. And that’s because he’s a politician and public servant, not an entertainer. We turn to Beyoncé to distract us from our troubles; Modi’s job is not to distract, but address and solve our problems. It’s worthwhile to ask what Modi is tweeting and talking about while you worry about the lack of jobs and rising fuel prices – because as the head of this democratic government, he’s obligated to keep our concerns at the core of his policies. His job isn’t to entertain us, it’s to make policies that benefit us. To put it bluntly, Modi owes us statesmanship, not showmanship.
We’re not blameless, though. Cults of personality like these don’t emerge in a vacuum. Beyoncé and Modi are both professionally obligated to be liked, and you know what we have a weakness for? Drama.
A response to this piece was published by Live Wire on June 21, 2018. You can read it here.