Who runs Girl World? – Part 2: The Writing’s on the Wall

It was June 1999.  School had just let out; the summer of 1999 had just begun.  My ninth birthday was days away, and in the fall I would be starting the fourth grade at a new school.  My mother was at work, at a hair salon, and I was over my cousins’ house… sitting on the floor, relaxing in the air-condition and watching MTV like every other kid in the 90s (remember, they still played music videos then).  A video came on… it was set in a hair salon, so I was intrigued (“my mom’s a hairdresser,” I thought).  A young woman and man walked on screen.

“I ain’t giving you nothing!  I’m sick of you coming in here asking for my keys! You trifilin’, you need ya own car!  No!  Here.  Take ’em.  I’m sick of you,” she asserted, with unparalleled sass.  As she stormed away, he frustratingly asked, “Beyoncé, why you buggin’?”

It was the first time I heard her name; it was the first time I had heard of Destiny’s Child.  I had no idea that Destiny’s Child would go on to become the top girl group of the TRL era.  I had no idea that, at this pivotal moment of my own life, I would latch onto these ladies as a sort of support system and remain a fan and supporter to this very day.

“Bills, Bills, Bills” was the lead single from Destiny’s Child’s sophomore album, The Writing’s on the Wall.  Released 15 years ago last week, on July 27th, 1999, the set was a defining moment in Destiny’s Child’s career.  It made them unforgettable; it made them superstars; it birthed an icon.  It changed me, too.

The album was my reward after being succumbed to the torture of having braces put on my teeth that August.  We stopped by the now-defunct store Coconuts, and my mother bought the album for me.  It was the first album that I had ever listened to and loved all the way through, and finally, at age 9, I had found “my favorites” – and they have remained ever since.

Beyoncé, Kelly, LeToya and LaTavia were only 17 and 18 years old at the time of release, but it was hard to tell from the maturity in their music.  Perhaps, it was just four girls having fun with a team of writers, producers, and record company executives… perhaps, they weren’t cognizant of the depth of the album they crafted.  Most likely, they were merely after the “girl world” throne and tried to have their music embody the concept of “girl power,” like the Spice Girls.  In reality, “girl power” is nothing more than a simpler way to say “female empowerment” and that was a constant within the album.  However, in retrospect, there is more depth to the female empowerment message of The Writing’s on the Wall than appears on the surface.

The album opens with a strange but intriguing introduction.  Its premise is based on The Godfather movies, and Beyoncé is The Godfather.  However, it completely went over my head at the time.  Obviously I knew that that wasn’t their normal speaking voices, but, for whatever reason, I actually thought Beyoncé’s name was Beyoncé Corleone (until I read the album booklet more thoroughly).

In the intro, the ladies summarize their problems with men.  At the end, Beyoncé offers a solution: Destiny’s Child’s fourteen “Commandments of Relationships” – interludes that precede, and set the theme for, each track on the album.  For example, “thou shall pay bills” is spoken before the lead single “Bills, Bills, Bills.”

However, this introduction is significant for more than just setting up the album’s concept.  An important aspect of the introduction is the fact that the ladies of Destiny’s Child seemingly flip expected gender roles.  Beyoncé becomes the Godfather, and the other ladies put on husky voices as they emulate the male characters from the film.  This theme is continued throughout the album, as Destiny’s Child reverses expected gender roles and the stereotypes of women and men in relationships.

“Feminist – a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.”

Over fourteen years after the release of The Writing’s on the Wall, Beyoncé included this quote from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her feminist manifesto, “***Flawless.”  However, if we look back at her music, beginning with Writing’s, we see that this theme has been ever present.  While Beyoncé may have only found the perfect wording in 2013, thanks to Adichie, this feminist ideal (or as the 90s called it, “girl power”) has been a constant in Destiny’s Child’s and Beyoncé’s music since 1999 – when they assumed reign of Girl World.

First, there is “Bills, Bills, Bills” – one of music’s most misunderstood songs, lyrically.  The prominent criticism of the song was to call Destiny’s Child male-bashers, or to say that they were money hungry (which in 2014, is laughable, considering Beyoncé’s net worth).  However, if those critics had actually listened to the lyrics beyond the chorus, the song tells quite a different tale.

Essentially, the male antagonist in “Bills, Bills, Bills” spent all of her money and is too broke to give it back.  So, in all actuality, the man is the money hungry one in the song – not Destiny’s Child.  With this simple song, they completely flipped the typical expectations of a male-female relationship and the societal expectation that the man is the bread winner who takes care the woman.  The stereotype that woman chase men for money is an unfortunate one that has been wrongfully perpetuated across all sorts of media.  However, with “Bills, Bills, Bills” Destiny’s Child dared to challenge that notion.  Remember, “feminist – a person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.”  Here, Destiny’s Child addressed the social and economic expectations of women in relationships.  And this continues.

“Bug a Boo” is another track where a stereotype commonly attributed to women in relationships is flipped back on the man.  As its title suggests, the song is about an annoying man who is overly clingy and simply won’t give the woman any room to breathe.  She berates him for his aggravating persistence in a triumphant shade-fest.  Again, it was uncommon for a woman to come at a man in this manner, and by saying “men do it too,” Destiny’s Child strived to create a more level playing field in relationships.  “Jumpin’, Jumpin'” does this as well by placing woman in an equally dominant position “in the club.”

Similar to “Bug a Boo,” the ballad “Now That She’s Gone” also puts Destiny’s Child in control.  In this song, DC sings to a man who has cheated and wants to come back, but only because the other woman left.  The song is more or less calling him out and saying, “oh well, your loss.”  The song places the man in the vulnerable position, which is another stereotype that woman are often labeled with.

However, just as they showed that men too can do the very things that women are often accused of doing wrong, Destiny’s Child turns the tables twice more with “Confessions” and “Temptation.”  On these two sexy mid tempo tracks, they confess to being tempted by other men and… not exactly being on their best behavior.  This sort of unfaithfulness is a topic frequently sung about by women, but in the role of the accuser.  However, with these tracks, Destiny’s Child owns up to being the unfaithful party.  Perhaps this is done in an effort to show that women can do it too, serving as a warning to men who become too comfortably complacent in their relationships.   “If You Leave,” a duet with R&B group Next, is similar in theme as well, as Beyoncé and R.L. (the frontman of Next) duet about leaving their significant others for each other.

The album takes a more vulnerable turn on its most desperate track, “Where’d You Go,” which seems a bit out of place.  On it, they plead with the man, begging him to come back.  And, while there is a certain strength in embracing vulnerability, “Hey Ladies” quickly follows up with a “snap out of it!” message of female empowerment.  On this track, they ask, “hey ladies, why is it that men can go do us wrong? … Why is it that we never seem to just have the strength to leave?  But, he’s got to go.”  The ladies serve a bit of cockiness (with a hint of jealousy) on “She Can’t Love You,” as they throw shade at the “new girlfriend.”  This track follows the career defining hit “Say My Name,” which illustrates a phone conversation laden in suspicion and jealousy due to a man who’s “acting kinda shady.”  While vulnerable in places, both songs have an underlying message of empowerment: “She Can’t Love You” and “Say My Name” are both commanding tracks that once again find DC reacting to each situation with strength and sass, rather than sadness or desperation.

The mix of vulnerability and empowerment continue on “Stay,” a song that encourages women to be in control of their sexuality.  The lyrics deal with the internal struggle of giving in to sex (before you’re ready) to coerce a man to stay.  The message of the song is summed up by the lyric, “promise me one thing, no matter what, you’re gonna stay.”  This idea of the female having control of her sexuality is essential to feminism.   The song, and Beyoncé and Kelly’s subsequent sexual freedom in their recent music, echo Janet Jackson’s “Let’s Wait Awhile” when compared to her later singles like “If” and “Any Time, Any Place.”  So, yes, while Beyoncé and Kelly might seem hyper-sexual on songs their 2013 releases, “Partition” and “Kisses Down Low,” it is only because they both choose to be.  As the commandment says, “if thou can wait, then thou shall stay.”  As married women and mothers in their thirties, Beyoncé and Kelly clearly have found men who were willing to wait until they were ready.

“Stay” is followed by “Sweet Sixteen,” which is a story of a young girl who gave into her man, to make him stay… and ends up pregnant.  The preceding commandment is “thou shall cherish life,” and overall, the song has a positive message intended to uplift, inspire and empower young girls to make wiser decisions in their relationships.  Similarly, the album’s opening track “So Good” encourages positivity and unity, frowning upon the naysayers.  Meanwhile, its closer is an a cappella rendition of the inspirational Christian hymn, “Amazing Grace,” lovingly dedicated to Andretta Tillman, the woman who discovered and built Destiny’s Child (before Mathew Knowles took over).

The Writing’s on the Wall was not only career defining, but it also defined and identified one overarching theme in Destiny’s Child’s music: girl power, a.k.a., feminism.  Again, it may have been unintentional, but the fact that it happened organically just makes it all the more authentic.

Destiny’s Child: established in 1997, defined in 1999, and forever changed in 2000.

To be continued…

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