“Book Review: Ain’t I a Diva?”
Reviewed by Liam Anthony
A revelatory and nuanced look at one of the world’s most treasured popular culture icons.
Based on a course by author Kevin Allred called “Politicizing Beyoncé,” Ain’t I a Diva? is the analytical dissection of Beyoncé’s work and how it has revamped the status quo. It combines Allred’s enthusiasm of one of the world’s biggest superstars with the insight into why everyone else should be celebrating her too.
Allred asks, “Who is Beyoncé?” at the very beginning of the book, inviting readers in to contemplate and fasten their observational seat belts as our course in Beyoncé has finally begun. It immediately puts the reader into an active agent role, letting you stop and think for a moment, recognizing where Allred will take us, before continuing on.
Kevin Allred peppers Ain’t I a Diva? with myriad references about black feminism and black history, both of which I found incredibly enlightening. It reinforces the impetus behind the book, which is to look at Beyoncé as a political figure, a person who has been a vanguard for many black people in the twentieth century. Allred encourages further learning by providing the reader with historical references, normally in the shape of essays, speeches, and literature. One being Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech. “Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me.” Like this quote sheds light on the erasure of black women, Allred shares how Beyoncé has changed the present in similar ways while reminding us of a darker past.
Structurally, the book cultivates Allred’s analysis while providing consolidation using his most loyal resource: Beyoncé. The reader is taken through a three-hundred-page landscape of social ideological commentary, linguistic analysis of her lyrics, and more–all in an accessible, entertaining voice.
In the section “A Crooked Room of One’s Own,” Allred not only references the classic Virginia Woolf book, but he creates an alternative metaphor in which Beyoncé lives and creates. This section of the book resonates with me the most. On the one hand, the crooked room represents how black women experience America, how they have to morph and change themselves in order to fit, and on the other hand, the crooked room is how the reader experiences Ain’t I A Diva?, looking at someone as familiar and successful as Beyoncé from a plethora of angles.
Allred discusses the video clip for Beyoncé’s song, “Pretty Hurts,” where she participates in a beauty pageant. The author unpacks beauty standards and westernization of black women in popular culture, highlighting a key point in the video when a pageant judge asks Beyoncé the question, ¨What is your aspiration in life?” She is unable to answer the question, and the scene that directly follows is of Beyoncé submerging herself completely in water. Just one example of the many brilliant analyses of Beyoncé’s videos, Allred argues here that the water can be seen as a rebirth, a cleansing process in which Beyoncé eventually comes back even more aspirational on her follow-up album, the conceptual Lemonade.
I really enjoyed Allred’s observations on the art of storytelling and Beyoncé’s continuity in creating long and complex narratives in her music videos. He references songs like “Run the World (Girls)” and “Superpower” as post-apocalyptic social landscapes and later, even dons Karl Marx’s cap as he dissects the nuanced image of her song “6 inch” in relation to capitalism.
Beyoncé’s trajectory as an icon comes full circle when Allred and his reader (or student) are facing the end of their course. He leaves us with a message which has been inspiring for me as both a reader and has fueled my enjoyment to write this review: “I continue to find utility in talking and teaching, while always researching and learning the best, most responsible ways for me to use my voice, position, and privilege.”
Publisher: Feminist Press
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