I read the jokes on Twitter for more than an hour before I could bring myself to watch the video. Punny ideas for headlines. Gags based on Beyoncé Knowles-Carter’s songs and videos about how to get revenge on a man. Half-serious suggestions that Jay Z deserved some punishment for his verse on his wife’s hit single “Drunk In Love.” Many, many attempts to determine which percentage of Jay Z’s problems now stem from his sister-in-law, Solange Knowles. Comparisons between the incident and the instantly famous elevator fight scene from “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.”
After procrastinating long enough that the diversion started to feel more embarrassing than the act inevitably would, I finally clicked play on the black-and-white footage of Solange attacking Jay Z in an elevator at what was reportedly an after-party for a gala at the Met.
The video is both intensely personal and hugely enigmatic.
A bodyguard appears to stop the elevator between floors to avoid the altercation from spilling out into a hallway. But while the fight was kept out of public view temporarily, what happens in that metal box is the opposite of the Knowles-Carters’ carefully cultivated public image. Solange Knowles flails at her brother-in-law, even after she is locked in a security man’s bear hug, the force of her fury moving the big man around the elevator. Jay Z keeps his hands at his sides for much of the tape, though he catches his sister-in-law’s foot when she kicks out at him.
Even as this little extended family is exposed by the footage, they are ghosts on it, too. There is no sound, so we have no context for Solange’s rage, her sister’s stillness or Jay Z’s response. Captured from above, we cannot see their expressions. This supposedly revealing moment is agonizing, but it gives way to further mysteries.
So what do we think we will get out of pressing play?
Is it the nasty pleasure of seeing what we previously only speculated about: that the marriage the Knowles-Carters present to the outside world is subject to damage and indignity, just like any other? Do we want to see the spectacle of a woman whose career has followed a more idiosyncratic route and whose family life is less praised than those of her older sister acting out as that sister stands by placidly? Are Knowles-Carter’s biggest fans hoping for further proof of her perfection, her refusal to turn into either a harpy along with her sister or a woman who defends her man against her blood?
The video’s silent spareness, rather than giving us further insight into any of these dynamics, is enigmatic enough to allow us to continue with whatever interpretation we choose. What we are searching out is not truth but rather evidence to confirm the secrets we are convinced lie under the airbrushed surface Beyoncé Knowles-Carter has presented so successfully to the wider world.
There is a reason we so greedily gorge on private moments of famous people: We think we want to know everything about their lives, particularly those of people we admire. But I am not sure how true that actually is. If we paused to consider the experience itself, we might acknowledge the misery of it. Watching a woman so thoroughly lose it is degrading. Listening to V. Stiviano draw out Clippers owner Donald Sterling — actually listening to the tape, not just reading the words in print — and hearing him berate her is sickening. But the rush of self-satisfaction afterwards, the sense of private moral superiority that no one will ever bother to expose, is why we keep on watching.
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