Whose House Is This?

A close reading of Beyoncé’s “Break My Soul.” Or, four loosely related thoughts on house music, race and capitalism. (Oh, and also Drake.)

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Stacy Lee Kong

Jun 24 2022

13 mins read

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Image: twitter.com/tidal

‎This is an extremely Canadian millennial take, but: listening to Beyoncé’s new single, “Break My Soul” takes me right back to watching Electric Circus as a kid and being so, so excited to one day go dancing at a club, or singing along to CeCe Peniston’s “Finally” at the top of my lungs, despite being seven and therefore never having been in love. (Though maybe “Show Me Love” by Robin S is a better example since that’s the ‘90s dance hit Bey actually sampled.)

The song is a joyful, high-energy, house-influenced hit that feels like it was tailor-made to speak to what so many of us are experiencing right now: physical, mental, emotional and even spiritual exhaustion caused by the pandemic, racial injustice and various awful world events; skepticism about our relationship to work; nostalgia for times that seemed nicer, even if they probably weren’t that great; the desire to (finally) feel free and have fun. In fact, it was. As Pitchfork editor-in-chief Puja Patel tweeted on Monday night, “Beyoncé saw that it was the summer of late-millennial burnout, the labor movement, ‘90s revival, and queer pride and was like, ‘Yeah, I can make a song about that.’” (More on this later.)

To be clear, I’m very glad she did. (Like, so glad I’ve been listening to it on repeat for the past four days.) But, coming as it did just days after Drake dropped the similarly dance-inspired Honestly, Nevermind, this also feels like a good time to think about where house came from, why these music icons drew from this genre and what their music is actually saying (or not). So, here are four loosely-related thoughts on economic uncertainty, race and capitalism as they relate to the resurgence of house.

‎1. We were really overdue for some joy, huh?

 It’s actually not that surprising that two of the world’s biggest musicians opted to delve into dance music in their respective seventh studio albums (her: the much-anticipated Renaissance, him: the oft-maligned, but actually decent, Honestly, Nevermind). First, as we’ve already established, it has been a difficult few years and it looks like we’re on the cusp of an economic downturn, so if ever there was a moment that called for fun escapism, it’s this one.

But also, recession escapism is a real thing. As Scott Timberg pointed out in a 2018 Vox article that explores the musical legacy of the last economic downturn, 2008’s Great Recession, “during the Great Depression, which saw widespread homelessness and U.S. unemployment reaching 25 percent, popular films showed the very rich drinking cocktails in formal dress; cheery songs like ‘Pennies From Heaven’ charted. And in the post-2008 decade of recession, instability, and income inequality, blockbuster acts spent a lot of time telling us the incredible time they were having… The nation’s biggest songs in the year after the crash were numbers by Flo Rida, Chris Brown, and Coldplay that had little to do with economic strain. [And] by the end of 2009… the biggest-selling singles were songs like Jay-Z’s ‘Empire State of Mind,’ Lady Gaga’s ‘Bad Romance,’ and various party-hearty numbers by the Black Eyed Peas.”

‎Timberg argues that pop music has always included social commentary, particularly in troubled times, and that we’re all poorer when music doesn’t reflect our actual lives, and I don’t disagree. But I think his analysis misses something important: those light, danceable chart-topping songs become popular for a reason. It’s deeply human to seek out joy when times are tough—and I’d argue that’s what’s happening now, too. I mean, if you spend even a few minutes a day on the hellscape that is Twitter, you know exactly how hard things are for, well, everyone. Is it any wonder that "Break My Soul" debuted at number five on Spotify’s global chart with 5.145 million streams, or that Honestly, Nevermind took only an hour to break Apple Music’s record for a dance album’s first-day worldwide streams? Sure, some of that is star power. But I don’t think you can discount the power of music that makes us feel good.

2. House music *is* Black music, actually 

I definitely laughed at all the people criticizing Drake’s Honestly, Nevermind by calling it “oontz oontz” music (it’s fine; he can handle it), but… I also feel like the Twitterati doesn’t know that house actually is Black music? In fact, it’s a direct descendent of disco and, like its predecessor, owes its existence to queer Black and Latinx folks. ‎

And when I say direct, I mean it—1979’s “Disco Demolition Night” was the death knell for the genre, but according to pioneering house DJ Jesse Saunders and documentary filmmaker Jake Sumner, who produced a 2017 documentary about the genre, it also planted the seeds for the rise of house. Very long story short: in the late 1970s, Chicago radio host Steve Dahl hated disco because, he said, it was phony and inauthentic—but it seems clear that being fired from his DJ job at WDAI Chicago in 1978, when the station changed its format from rock to disco, had something to do with it, too.

Dahl was soon hired at a different Chicago station and immediately launched an anti-disco campaign that was full of racist and homophobic rhetoric. He was known for smashing disco records on-air, so when he was invited to host a promotional event during a July 1979 home game between the Chicago White Sox and the Detroit Tigers, that was the theme. Anyone who brought a disco record would only have to pay 98 cents for admission, and they’d even get to see Dahl literally blow up a crate of music by Black, and often queer, artists. (Three guesses who his target audience was.) More than 40,000 people attended the game, and unsurprisingly, things quickly got out of hand. The night devolved into a literal riot, leading to 39 arrests and thousands of dollars in property damage. And, to Dahl’s glee, it ‘killed’ disco. Or rather, it sent the style underground, where Black DJs at a Chicago gay club used it as a building block for a new genre: house.

“In New York, the demise of disco made way for the birth of hip hop, but in Chicago, a similar movement was being formed,” according to Dazed. “This came to be known as house music. Founded as a members-only gay club at 206 South Jefferson Street, The Warehouse came to be the widely-regarded birthplace of house. In the late, great Frankie Knuckles, who first took the helm as resident DJ at The Warehouse, Chicago had found a new heartbeat and built a house nation.”

‎House soon spread across America and the world, and it remains a beloved form of dance music, though its mainstream popularity has ebbed and flowed. What Beyoncé is referencing is definitely the house of the early ‘90s, though, which is why “Break My Soul” sent me on a nostalgia-driven rabbit hole on YouTube. In addition to Robin S and CeCe Peniston, I just remembered that I also loved “Deep Inside” by Hardrive, “Follow Me” by Aly-Us, “Gypsy Woman” and “100% Pure Love” by Crystal Waters and Everything But the Girl’s “Missing.”

Sidenote: since we already have Drake’s entire album, there’s a wider range of musical references to delve into, including South African house, deep house, techno and Baltimore club music—many of which are Black musical forms. Forever reminder to North Americans: there is a whole wide world out there, and what you think ‘Black’ music sounds like might not apply beyond your borders. (And let's be real—what you think of as ‘white’ music was most likely created by Black people.) Vulture published a really interesting breakdown of his sonic touchpoints, which argued that “if nothing else, the references he and his producers pull typically lead his audience of millions to his direct sources of inspiration.” That's true of both him and Bey—and that has been my favourite part of this week, tbh.

3. And relatedly, when will music critics learn how to actually engage with Black music?

‎When Variety was initially promoting its review of “Break My Soul,” it did so in a now-deleted tweet that said, “‘Break My Soul’ is the Beyonce jam fans have been waiting for: A driving dance track co-produced by the ‘Single Ladies’ team of Tricky Stewart and The-Dream, with a plinking, insistent hook, a hot beat and the dancehall-like voice of Big Freedia” and… dancehall?! Pardon? Big Freedia is actually a New Orleans bounce artist, and this isn’t even the first time she’s been featured on a Beyoncé track, so there’s really no reason for a professional music critic to make that error. And while the piece itself doesn’t actually mention dancehall (so maybe it was someone else’s mistake), I think it’s fascinating that it gets the track’s disco DNA, but makes no mention of house music.

As one Twitter user pointed out, this could be a symptom of rushing to publish. That makes sense since at least half of the piece is made up of speculation about Renaissance and backstory on Bey’s current and past release strategies rather than analysis or context about the song itself. But it’s also another indicator of a lingering problem in cultural criticism: a stunning lack of diversity. As Refinery29’s Kathleen Newman-Bremang explained in a 2021 column, “conversations surrounding art are only enriched and elevated by perspectives that capture the different facets of how it speaks to us. For too long, we've only been getting one viewpoint (read: old white men)—and our cultural understanding of art has been reduced because of it.” To be fair, the author of the Variety article is half Lebanese, but the point still stands: it’s disrespectful to engage with an artist’s work without even attempting to understand the context behind it, whether that’s because you’re trying to post quickly or you just can’t be bothered to Google the difference between dancehall and bounce. And it doesn’t serve your readers, either.

4. Let’s not project too much, though. Bey is a capitalist, babes

To me, the funniest “Break My Soul” discourse has been the quit-your-job discourse. According to an Elle UK essay, the song is calling for an end to grind culture: “Not merely a canapé to excite us for the release of Renaissance, [it’s] the death knell for a cultural phenomenon. A song to signal a serious vibe shift towards slowing down and making time for ourselves.” Bloomberg christened the song a “hymn to the Great Resignation.” Buzzfeed even found two people who took Bey’s first verse—"Now, I just fell in love / And I just quit my job / I'm gonna find new drive / Damn, they work me so damn hard / Work by 9 / Then off past 5 / And they work my nerves / That's why I cannot sleep at night"—to heart and actually quit their jobs.

‎I obviously love analyzing seemingly superficial things, but trying to position Beyoncé as an anti-capitalist is just too much of a stretch for me, guys, I’m sorry. She does not have a nine-to-five. She is a millionaire (and one who is married to a billionaire, to boot).

This obviously isn't the first time she has incorporated political movements into her work, but I think it's fair to consider her motivations for essentially cosplaying as a nine-to-fiver. As political education organization @thedownballot.org argues on TikTok, “one thing Beyoncé is always going to do is take advantage of a lack of class consciousness to rebrand herself as a revolutionary or an activist, despite actually being a capitalist, every time she wants to sell an album.” (Past examples: her embrace of pop feminism at the 2014 VMAs, her references to police brutality on Lemonade and her use of pre-colonial African imagery on Black is King, which is intended to be empowering but also romanticizes an era that was “rife with slavery, imperialism, women’s oppression and class oppression,” as a 2020 essay by Burundian writer Judicaelle Irakoze points out. Also: her hard-working, I'm-not-bossy-I'm-the-boss persona.)

The org also points to past missteps as indicators of her capitalist worldview—she recently crossed a picket line to attend Jay-Z's 2022 Oscars afterparty, and for a time, her Ivy Park line was allegedly produced in a Sri Lankan sweatshop. (The company denied those claims.) Which brings us back to the idea that "Break My Soul" was tailor-made for this time. It was! But that's because Beyoncé is a genius who understands how to make music that resonates with her audience and is guaranteed to sell, not because she feels what we're feeling.

I’m not trying to say that Bey is supposed to have perfect politics (lord knows I bought into hustle culture in 2014, too), that her understanding can't evolve or that her pro-Black messages are diminished by the fact that she may not have 100% altruistic reasons for talking about labour and rest. But I do want us to think a bit more critically about how and why she (and all celebrities) use politics and stop mistaking marketing for activism.

Also? It’s okay if this is just a great song to dance to. We don’t need to reach for meaning that may not actually exist; joy actually is enough.


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And Did You Hear About…

The Cut’s recent feature on a teen boy who had been ‘cancelled’ for sharing nude photos of his then-girlfriend. Horrifyingly, writer Elizabeth Weil spent most of the piece downplaying what he’d actually done and making the case that it was wrong of his peers to ostracize him. As a counterpoint, I suggest reading lawyer Carrie Goldberg on what cancel culture *actually* looks like in cases like this, and feminist writer Jessica Valenti on why the article was truly fucked up.

This excellent essay about the harmful representations of Asian women in movies and TV shows—and how often they’re written by white women.

Sportswriter Shireen Ahmed’s column on the International Swimming Federation effectively banning trans women from competing at elite levels, and why there’s no such thing as separate but equal.

Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, Emma Thompson’s new movie about a sexually unfulfilled widow who hires a male escort so she can see what all the fuss is about. It’s inspiring some really interesting essays about female sexuality; I liked this one a lot.

Anne Hathaway’s recent Interview mag cover story, which is just genuinely very charming.

Bonus: The Twitter thread that launched a thousand TikToks, and this one on bad movies.

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