Section: Arts

On the Record: Professor Ezor on Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter

On the Record: Professor Ezor on Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter

COURTESY OF PARKWOOD ENTERTAINMENT/COLUMBIA RECORDS

On Friday, Beyoncé released her highly anticipated eighth studio album, Cowboy Carter. Visiting Assistant Professor of Art History Dani Ezor, who specializes in 18th-century Western art with a focus on race and class and is currently teaching ARHS 291: Special Topic: Beyoncé’s Art History, spoke to the Collegian about the new album’s content, cultural significance and historical influences.

First off, can you explain a little bit about your academic background? What do you study? How does it relate to Beyoncé? You know, your “Beyoncé credentials,” for lack of a better word.

So, I am a professor of art history here, and my field of art history is actually the 18th century, but it really is rooted in issues of race and colonialism. So how is that at all connected to Beyoncé? Well, her music is very integrated with the visuals that she creates to go along with it. We really saw this in Lemonade. That was her first visual album, and she continues to produce a sort of a corpus of works that go hand in hand, visual and audio. 

That’s the first bit, but it’s clear to me that she has an art historian somewhere on her payroll. And because a lot of her work, especially since Lemonade, has addressed the lasting aftereffects of racism and colonialism in the United States, which is based on the colonialism and racism that was developed in the 18th century, my interest and credentials are thinking about the historical basis in visual culture, for what she is doing to react to that right now. I have to say, I’m not a music historian at all. I’m an art historian, but also a member of the Beyhive and a big fan.

The album itself, Cowboy Carter — it’s a country album, and it’s the second act in a trilogy project. Could you talk a bit about your reactions to the album and how you see it tying in to her previous work?

Absolutely. Cowboy Carter is Act II. Act I was Renaissance, which of course works with my world perfectly. Renaissance was a house music album; it was a reference to the origins of house music in queer, Black and brown communities, mostly in New York City in the ’80s. [It was] a reclamation in many ways of house music for Black people. I see Act II, Cowboy Carter, as a parallel in many ways to Renaissance. It’s about her relationship with country music, and a reclamation of country music for Black Americans. Country music arrived in the Americas; it is rooted in the music of enslaved individuals. The banjo is an instrument that came from Africa with enslaved individuals when they were trafficked, and it was taken over progressively after the 1890s and became this sort of Southern white culture. But its origins are really rooted in a community of Black resistance, a way of preserving elements of African culture in enslaved communities where people are coming from a variety of different cultures.

Beyoncé’s music goes hand in hand with her use of visual media and material culture. What art historical references and influences do you see in Cowboy Carter?

The biggest one was in the marketing period. A week and a half before the album was released, there was a maybe not impromptu but surprise display/projection on four museums in New York City. On three of them, the New Museum [of Contemporary Art], the Museum of Arts and Design and the Whitney [Museum of American Art], there was a projection of the album image, which is Beyoncé on a horse but riding backwards, which I’ll get to in a second. The [fourth] one was on the [Solomon R.] Guggenheim [Museum], which of course is an architectural landmark for its spiral shape that has these bands. And instead of showing the image, they used those bands for sort-of texts like it was a ticker tape, and it read, “This ain’t a country album. This is a ‘Beyoncé’ album.” To project all of this on the institutions of fine arts in New York City — museums are very complicit in institutional bias — she’s claiming her part in those institutions.

[The other big reference] is her on a horse. It’s not necessarily a specific sculpture that I’m looking at or thinking about, but rather the genre of the leader on a horse. There’s something about riding horses that has been a symbol of power, but specifically a symbol of institutional power, in the visual repertoire of Western culture. She was on horseback on the Renaissance cover too, so there’s another parallel between them. She is, in fact riding on that horse backward [on Cowboy Carter], which I think is poignant, the idea that she’s doing things differently.

Clearly, Beyoncé is doing some really radical stuff, but she’s also historically received a lot of criticism for presenting herself as an outsider and an underdog while simultaneously being one of the wealthiest and most powerful celebrities in the world. How do you think we can productively engage in dialogue about these topics?

So the question is about how we reconcile Beyoncé’s understanding of herself as an underdog, someone who is excluded from the institutions of music, with her fabulous success. And my first response is always that there’s no ethical consumption under capitalism. Beyoncé didn’t choose to live in a world of capitalism. I’m not going to say that’s what she would choose because we don’t know what her personal thoughts are. On such issues, she’s a very private person. What we do know is that financial success and acceptance by the institutions that determine what is good or what is successful are two very different things. And this goes back to “APESHIT,” which is the origin of this class that I’m teaching, and the line, “Tell the Grammy’s fuck that 0 for eight shit.” That whole song is about the institutions that have systematically excluded Black artists like Beyonce, like Jay-Z, until they reach this critical mass, and then [the institutions] want to use their success to support [those institutions]. The institutions of the American music industry and otherwise have a deeply ingrained anti-Black bias that their success is contrary to.

To wrap things up, what is your favorite song on this album, and what is your favorite Beyoncé song of all time?

My favorite song on this album… Gosh, it’s a really hard question. My favorite original song is “YA YA.” Beyoncé samples Nancy Sinatra’s “These Boots are Made for Walkin’,” she samples [The Beach Boys’] “Good Vibrations.” It’s this great moment where we’re really thinking about moving beyond genre. And then I have this deep love for “JOLENE.” I think it’s the best rendition outside of the original.All time? If I may say “APESHIT” by The Carters, not just Beyoncé, I will have that. If it’s just a Beyoncé song, we are going with “Freedom” from Lemonade.

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