The only thing more awkward than a politician doing a grip-and-grin with a movie star or a musician whom they clearly know nothing about is the sight of a candidate fulminating about the pernicious influence of a mass cultural figure and getting his target disastrously wrong.
Such is the case with Mike Huckabee, the Arkansas governor-turned Fox News commentator, who is kick-starting his second shot at the White House with a new book, “God, Guns, Grits and Gravy,” in which he reportedly takes aim at the First Couple of popular music, Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, and her husband, the rapper Jay-Z.
As U.S. News and World Report tells us, Huckabee apparently has a lot of thoughts and feelings about the couple’s 2014 performance of Knowles-Carter’s hit “Drunk In Love” at the 2014 Grammys. “My reaction: Why?” Huckabee apparently writes. “Beyonce is incredibly talented – gifted, in fact. She has an exceptional set of pipes and can actually sing. She is a terrific dancer – without the explicit moves best left for the privacy of her bedroom. Jay-Z is a very shrewd businessman, but I wonder: Does it occur to him that he is arguably crossing the line from husband to pimp by exploiting his wife as a sex object?”
As cultural criticism, this is rather silly. At the beginning of Knowles-Carter’s career, her father Matthew worked as her manager, first during her tenure as the lead singer in the trio Destiny’s Child, and later as a solo artist. But in 2011, they parted ways–she said at the time that it was a mutual decision, while he later alleged that he was fired. Knowles-Carter reportedly fired another manager early in 2014; she now runs her own company, Parkwood Entertainment, which she founded in 2008, and managed her own career.
Jay-Z may be an influential partner and sometimes-collaborator for his wife. But her career has been defined in part by her transition away from being managed and packaged by a member of her own family.
And as politics, Huckabee’s attack on the couple is awfully short-sighted.
First, there’s his invocation of an old and ugly racial trope in suggesting that Jay-Z is “crossing the line from husband to pimp,” an assertion that’s both awfully nasty and bears no relationship to the financial facts of the couple’s relationship. Huckabee’s construction simultaneously lets him express admiration for Knowles-Carter, an awfully difficult figure to attack, without having to acknowledge that the parts of her performances that make him uncomfortable might actually have been her own idea, and lets him smear a powerful black male artist and entrepreneur, all in a single lament.
Take Brangelina, for example. Angelina Jolie may be repositioning herself as a demure director and human rights activist, but no one would ever credit her current career choices to partner Brad Pitt, just as no one suggests that the other men she was married to picked her more risqué roles for her.
Then, there’s Huckabee’s repetition of a classic mistake, letting himself be guided by his prudishness. Knowles-Carter’s confident enjoyment of her own sexuality might be unnerving to conservatives who think such things are “best left for the privacy of her bedroom,” even when it comes to art. But as I wrote earlier this year, to throw a fit about the specter of Jay-Z and his wife talking about their sex life in public is to throw out a great opportunity to promote marriage not just as a source of “joy, and love, and mutual support,” as the novelist Chimamanda Adichie put it in a TEDx talk that Knowles-Carter sampled on her song “Flawless,” but of flirtation, fun and terrific sex.
Yes, the idea of marriage as a love match and a source of professional support to both partners is a relatively new one. Yes, setting up Knowles-Carter and her husband as a marital ideal might make tying the knot seem even farther out of reach for young people who see marriage as something you do after you achieve financial stability at a time when jobs are harder to come by.
But while the evidence suggests that Americans actually value marriage so highly that they’re disqualifying themselves from that office, Huckabee’s offered a different diagnosis. “We declare marriage, family, and the presence of both a mother and father to be irrelevant and no longer significant, even for the child’s well-being,” he lamented in 2013. “And then we lament the lack of responsible fathers involved in the raising of their children.” If Huckabee truly believes that marriage has a branding problem, he would be wise to pause before slamming two of the institution’s most high-profile ambassadors.