Whether "Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)" is a meaningful song, or just a fun one, it's definitely a fun one. We can tell there's something brilliant about the song, but what exactly is it about the beat and the harmony that inspires everyone from tiny babies to Justin Timberlake to get their dance on?
"Single Ladies" was produced by Beyoncé along with the same dynamic duo ("Tricky" and "The-Dream") who produced Rihanna's 2008 hit "Umbrella." Compared to most other pop songs, there are a couple of weird things about the song's sparse, simple arrangement.
What's weird about the beat:
The song is in 4/4 time. Nothing strange there, but most pop songs in 4/4 have a "back beat"—a clap, snap or snare drumming out the beat on every other note (usually the 2nd and 4th, which has the effect of emphasizing the 1st and 3rd notes; listen to Jay-Z and Alicia Keys' "Empire State of Mind" for an example). In "Single Ladies," instead of a back beat, we hear a consistent clap on every single 8th note (that's twice every beat). That's what all the upbeat clatter is, and it is basically the only percussion in the song. This has the effect of putting an equal emphasis on each of the four beats in the measure. As one music commentator points out, this emphasis "is reinforced by the dancing in the music video, in which the choreography consists largely of Beyoncé jolting around on every beat."
On top of the unusual back beat, if you listen closely, you can hear a snare drum on the last count of every measure (the last "and" if you count one-and-two-and-three-and-four-AND). Listen closely for the single snare behind the song and you should be able to catch what makes this song's beat so strange—and so catchy.
What's weird about the harmony:
Mostly, the tune of "Single Ladies" is pretty standard, simple stuff. And during the chorus ("If you liked it then you shoulda put a ring on"), Beyoncé is singing a simple major scale (E major, to be specific). But a bass synth comes in on chords from the key of E minor. This semi-spooky contrast between the melody and the chords is a risky move called polytonality, "a technique normally reserved for highly esoteric jazz and classical music," according to the music commentator quoted above. It also give an ominous undertone to the most bitter, complicated line of the song. Who knew a single song could be highly esoteric, highly vindictive, and highly dance-able?
Beyoncé has been hailed and awarded for pretty much every aspect of her skill as a musician, dancer, and actress, and compared to big diva names ranging from Diana Ross to Marilyn Monroe. What is about the super-poppy "Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)" that goes so perfectly with her ever-growing image as a contending queen of pop?
There's the female independence theme, and the perfection of the Sasha Fierce alter-ego. But for "Single Ladies," the outstanding feature—and the one that's gone beyond viral on the internet—is the music video. Shot in black and white in order to pair it with the video for "If I Were A Boy," the "Single Ladies" video features Beyoncé with two back-up dancers in black leotards doing an original dance that has become "the single ladies dance." As if we needed to tell you that.
And we probably also don't need to tell you that a gazillion people have made YouTube videos imitating the dance, and that of these gazillion, a few of them were very young children.
On top of that, you have probably already picked up on the fact that Justin Timberlake attempted the dance on Saturday Night Live, and that Kanye West made a fool of himself defending the music video at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards.
We might need to tell you, however, that even President Barack Obama reputedly has his own version of the dance. At least, that's what he told Beyoncé when he met her backstage at his inauguration.
You know you're a big deal when everyone from small children to Barack Obama wants to be like you, and most of the rest of the country approves. For the time being, Beyoncé's calling card, perfected in the "Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)" music video, is being a ridiculously talented woman who is about as widely imitated as anyone in the world.
Single ladies, independent women, chicks with attitude, women on the move…sound familiar? A superstar like Beyoncé doesn't really have to pick an original theme in order to get some radio airtime. In fact, part of the success of "Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)" may be the fact that it tells a story that's been told before. Did you know that the influential British monarch Elizabeth I is still called "the Virgin Queen" for her refusal to marry during her long sixteenth-century rule? Or that former Congresswoman Jeanette Rankin, a feminist activist and the first woman ever elected to Congress, was the subject of a historical film called A Single Woman? With the song's title alone, Beyoncé puts herself in a long line of independent single ladies.
But, unfortunately for Beyoncé, these high-falootin' comparisons are not entirely accurate. "Single Ladies" isn't a song about running a country, or even about changing a policy here and there. Beyoncé, who is herself one of the song's writers, says it herself on her website: "That song is all about: 'I've been with you all this time, you're taking too long and now I'm looking hot and you see it and you gotta suffer because you shoulda put a ring on it.'"
So the woman who narrates the song is hurt, a little bitter, and blatantly showing off for the man she wanted to marry. Does this sound all that independent to you? L.A. Times columnist Ann Powers breaks it down with this quote: "There's no getting around the fact that these songs ["Single Ladies" and Taylor Swift's "You Belong With Me"] imagine female self-worth solely in terms of male approval."
Powers' gripe is that Beyoncé is supposed to be performing a song about female empowerment—but her empowerment is always relative to a man who's in the picture somewhere. "Single Ladies" is about getting a guy's attention, even while it's also about getting over him. And, as in Taylor Swift's song, which beat "Single Ladies" out for the 2009 MTV Video Music Award for Best Female Video, not getting the guy is presented as the basic problem. "While Swift laments male cluelessness, Knowles scorns male carelessness," says Powers. The point is, men are still at the center of both big hits (kind of like how Kanye West put himself at the center of the MTV Video Music Awards, outshining the ladies in both carelessness and cluelessness…)
Kanye shenanigans aside, the actual idea behind the song seems like it could undercut the power of the whole "single ladies" image. It's less desperate than Taylor Swift's hit, but it's no Thelma and Louise. What do you think? Is "Single Ladies" an empowering song for some women and girls, or is it just another song about a disappointing guy?