Beyonce: “Countdown” video and the art of stealing

November 18, 2011

This time, the mass market is leading the avant garde. And it is Beyonce who is pushing the boundaries.

Granted, the pop star has done nothing radical or unusual. But by virtue of her enormous celebrity, Beyonce has attracted wide attention to one of the world’s most common creative strategies: the art of stealing.

Beyonce’s appropriation of moves and staging from Belgian choreographer Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker in her new music video “Countdown,” released last month, has sparked an Internet uproar. Helpfully, there’s a split screen clip on YouTube that exhibits a few brief scenes from the R&B singer’s video alongside nearly identical moments from two of de Keersmaeker’s experimental works, “Achterland,” from 1994 and a 1997 film of a piece called “Rosas danst Rosas.”

But though the scoldings throughout the blogosphere are compelling — Beyonce has been bawled out for being a copycat and for lacking imagination and respect and so on — much of art history says that the recording artist and dancer has done nothing out of the ordinary.

Existing material has formed the core of countless artworks, including those now enshrined as masterstrokes. Andy Warhol cashed in on Campbell’s soup, Marcel Duchamp plunked a urinal on a pedestal and called it his own creation. His reasoning? He had devised “a new thought” for it.

If it seems a stretch to liken any aspect of Beyonce’s output with that of esteemed visual artists, there is a concept that links them all: appropriation, the art world’s term for using borrowed material to create new work. It’s a method that the field proudly stands behind, and in addition to Warhol and Duchamp, those who have practiced it include many prominent names in modern painting and sculpture.

In the music business, sampling has been around for decades. Beyonce’s husband, hip-hop mogul Jay-Z, knows more than a little about this. Sampling is not without its own controversies over rights, credits and whether legal issues impede creativity. But contemporary musicians have gotten a long head start on dancers in feeling their way around these obstacles.

The younger and more insular dance world tends to be more secretive about its borrowings, though they are pervasive. In fact, de Keersmaeker, a longtime modern-dance force in Europe whose works have a nervous, edgy look, has also lifted steps: In her piece “D’un soir un jour,” she includes part of Vaslav Nijinsky’s ballet “The Afternoon of a Faun,” and acknowledges that in a description of the dance on her Web site.

Still, I can sympathize with de Keersmaeker’s initial sourness over seeing her postmodern work plucked out of context and dropped into a commercial video for a sexy love song.

“It’s a bit rude,” the choreographer told the radio station Studio Brussel. “What’s rude about it is that they don’t even bother about hiding it.”

Yet it’s not clear how “hiding” it, which presumably means “making it less like the original,” would be better. The openness of the copying (or tribute?) in Beyonce’s “Countdown” is striking, and that’s precisely how the word got out that it’s de Keersmaeker’s work, not bad publicity for an artist on the fringes. The scenes in question account for just a few seconds of the video’s 31 / 2 minutes of dizzying cuts from one cultural reference to another, but the gray T-shirts, raw warehouse set and even the cold, flat lighting are accurately — if playfully — reproduced from the Belgian clips.

Beyonce has weathered claims of dance plagiarism before. When she released her “Love on Top” video, also last month, some derided her for lifting portions of the choreography and the set design from the clip “It Isn’t Love,” made by the 1980s boy band New Edition.

In fact, you can go back through any number of Beyonce’s videos and catch references to other performances. From the side-to-side head movements to the pelvic twitches and emphatic bouncing of the hindquarters, the splendid 2008 video of “Single Ladies,” surely Beyonce’s best-known release, fairly drips with odes to Tony Award-winning jazz great Bob Fosse. Indeed, the singer has spoken publicly about chancing upon a YouTube clip of Gwen Verdon and two other women dancing a Fosse number in close alignment on a plain white set. That seeded the idea for replicating the threesome in the video, as well as the wiggly moves and stark decor.

Regarding the “Countdown” video, Beyonce also came clean about borrowing from de Keersmaeker.

She referred to the Belgian’s work in a statement to the New York Times: “Clearly, the ballet ‘Rosas danst Rosas’ was one of many references for my video ‘Countdown.’ It was one of the inspirations used to bring the feel and look of the song to life.”

But it wasn’t the only “inspiration.” “I was also paying tribute to the film ‘Funny Face’ with the legendary Audrey Hepburn. My biggest inspirations were the ’60s, the ’70s, Brigitte Bardot, Andy Warhol, Twiggy and Diana Ross,” she said in the statement. “I’ve always been fascinated by the way contemporary art uses different elements and references to produce something unique.”

But owning up to the sources of some of her ideas has not been enough for Beyonce’s critics. Many have charged that the pop queen should have credited de Keersmaeker in the video. I agree that would have been the right thing to do.

In an interview posted on GQ magazine’s GQ Eye blog, “Countdown” video co-director Adria Petty (daughter of musician Tom Petty) addresses those complaints. “It was always meant to be a straight homage. . . . Of course, ultimately I’m disappointed that she wasn’t credited on the video because I know it was everyone’s intention from the get-go. But I’m assuming that’s because they were still finishing it the day that it launched and stuff, it was basically an oversight, you know?”

To be clear: I’m arguing for creative borrowing on epistemological and esthetic grounds, not legal ones. Copyright law is a whole different matter, and some recording artists have been sued for lifting too much. (Singer Rihanna settled a lawsuit last month brought by a photographer who claimed she copied his images in her “S&M” video.) Strictly from the point of view of enlarging awareness and fostering creativity, there are positives in dance appropriation. Beyonce’s dancing has brought great attention to the name and work of an important choreographer little known outside the field of modern dance. Do we really believe de Keersmaeker would prefer that her moves be, to use her term, hidden?

Not for a minute.

The same can be said for the band New Edition, granted a recent jolt of recognition long past its peak. It’s great fun to dive back into history whenever one of these copying kerfuffles erupts. And what’s that saying — the more things change, the more they stay the same? Watch New Edition’s “It Isn’t Love” and guess what: You’ll see them borrowing, too. They slip in some of the Temptations’ moves (the artists dubbed in their heyday “the most copied group around”), a Michael Jackson-ish falsetto and his tight, twisting turns. Which, by the way, Jackson copied from James Brown.

Speaking of Jackson, think he invented the Moonwalk? That step, otherwise known as the backslide, was a tap dancer’s staple going back at least to the 1940s. Hoofers, of course, were the greatest appropriators and proud of it. In that business, your eye was constantly on the competition’s feet, stealing steps, perfecting them and topping them. That’s how the art form expanded.

Jackson’s roving eye for dance didn’t stop with the Moonwalk, or with the trick of rising onto his toes with bent knees — a tap move also borrowed by Elvis Presley, among others. The King of Pop found inspiration from Jerome Robbins (see his “Beat It” video and think back on “West Side Story”) and Fosse — the strutting walk, angular poses in profile and some of the same pelvis-centric moves Beyonce rocks in “Single Ladies.”

If you want to see choreography lifted wholesale, look at the dancing Fosse created for himself when he played the Snake in Stanley Donen’s 1974 film “The Little Prince.” Then watch how Jackson dances when he sings “Billie Jean” — complete with Fosse’s bowler hat and black suit — nearly a decade later. (This is not my discovery: Others have posted clips on YouTube of the utterly transfixing Fosse segment, with split-screen views of the Jackson homage.)

A difference between that appropriation and Beyonce’s is that in those days, there was no YouTube. No readily accessible record of sources, so Jackson largely escaped the accusations. But just as the case for Beyonce’s presumed transgression is made on YouTube, the theft itself — if you want to call it that — was also made possible by YouTube, that indiscriminate dumping ground and invaluable treasury of the performing arts, out of which a niche artwork can be scooped up and thrust into the mainstream, as de Keersmaeker discovered.

The fact is, in our world of knowledge sharing, it is no easy thing to claim originality and hold on to it. Perhaps it’s time to let go. Some of the greatest creative minds freely admit to a roving appetite.

“We have always been shameless about stealing great ideas,” said Apple founder Steve Jobs in a 1994 interview, speaking about his company’s creation.

With so much of the world’s artistic output being tossed into the communal cook pot known as the Internet, the act of helping oneself to the bounty will only increase. You could look at it as stealing, or as Duchamp did: “new thought.”

Or you can see it as Beyonce did: a golden opportunity to mash up something new.

Sarah Kaufman received the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for Criticism and has been The Washington Post's dance critic since 1996. But after logging serious sit-time in opera houses, church basements, fairground tents and lawn chairs, what moves her most is seeing grace happen where she least expects it.
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