If there’s a better way of promoting your new album than giving in to your laziest prejudices, could someone please tell Noel Gallagher about it? Asked by Stereogum about Kanye West’s contention that Beck should “respect artistry” by handing over his Grammy to Beyonce, Noel’s retort was unequivocal: “Someone should buy [Kanye West] a dictionary. And he needs to look up the fucking term ‘artistry’ and then see if it reminds him, in any way, of Beyoncé. If shaking your ass for a living is considered art, then she’s right up there, no?”
We’ve seen, time and time again, that the man who famously described his brother as “a man with a fork in a world of soup” can be very funny indeed. But in this case, Noel isn’t trying to be funny. The quote itself strays from Noel’s customary dryness into something jarringly sour. Even most of Beyoncé’s detractors would concede that what she does could not be reduced to “shaking your ass.” But, hey, let’s take Noel at his word. Forget about the music. Would it be fanciful to dignify Beyoncé’s “ass-shaking” with the term ‘artistry’? To take the most celebrated example of her “ass-shaking”, we’ll look at the Single Ladies video, in which Beyoncé pastiches the dance that Bob Fosse choreographed for a trio led by Fosse’s wife Gwen Vernon on a 1969 episode of The Ed Sullivan Show. Despite several million YouTube plays, its impact remains undiminished. Beyonce saw the original clip and immediately singled it out as an aspirational piece of “urban choreography.” The video shoot saw Beyoncé go through the extraordinary routine several times, with the final version switching between the different performances from different angles. When I interviewed her on the week that Single Ladies went viral, she said it was “the most tiring video I’ve ever done”, but it was necessary to keep it relatively unadorned, “because the great thing about the Bob Fosse film is the way the personalities of the dancers shone through ’cos there wasn’t any tricks.” Beyoncé didn’t stumble into the Single Ladies video shoot, read the synopsis, and say, “Ok. This sounds nice.” She micromanaged the entire thing, from conception to execution.
Even if Beyoncé had done nothing else, I’d say there’s enough there for Beyoncé to earn the title of “artist” – and famously Kanye West thought so, when he staged the first of his two interventions at the VMAs six years ago. Given that Taylor Swift won for the video to a song no-one remembers, Kanye had a point. Shifting our attention to the music, Beyoncé also co-wrote the song – as, indeed, she does with the majority of the songs she has recorded: among them, Independent Women, Survivor, Say My Name, Crazy In Love, Freakum Dress, Pretty Hurts, Drunk In Love and XO. For Noel Gallagher, the fact that other people’s names are on the credits warrants some sort of points deduction when determining the true nature of artistry. “We could boil this down to two separate things,” he continues. “Beck writes all his own music, OK? There you go, the end. You have to employ a fucking team of songwriters and eight producers and nine engineers, or you can sing it, hum it, play it yourself, I don’t know. You decide. I know what side of the fence I’m on.”
So now we’re burrowing into the outmoded, faintly misogynistic assumptions that really lie beneath Noel’s “ass-shaking” dismissal of Beyoncé’s oeuvre: it’s cheating to get help. But these are weird rules, aren’t they? Imagine opening the hatch of Room 101 and waving goodbye to every great song that wasn’t wholly written by the person who sang it. We’d have to keep Badfinger’s version of Without You but lose Nilsson’s version; we’d have to keep Peter André’s Insania but lose Jimmy Ruffin’s What Becomes Of The Broken-Hearted. The rules of great pop don’t adhere to Noel Gallagher’s meat-and-potatoes notion of what warrants artistic commendation and thank God for that. Even when singers don’t have any hand in the songs that are written for them, their mere existence can draw something great from journeyman songwriters. Kylie inspired Stock, Aitken and Waterman to write What Do I Have To Do and Shocked for her – while the best that Big Fun could get out of them was Can’t Shake The Feeling. Britney Spears’ hellish Beverley Hill meltdown inspired an army of shit-hot songwriters and studio magicians to write an incredible album for her – Blackout – one that simply wouldn’t exist had she not been there to inspire it. Would I call the resulting album a great work of art? Absolutely. Does it matter that Britney probably has no recollection of making it? No more than Marilyn Monroe not having posed for Andy Warhol’s depiction of her diminishes its worth.
And if records bearing the imprint of Kylie and Britney can be called great art, it goes without saying that we certainly shouldn’t have any problem applying the same criteria to, say, Beyoncé’s magnificent self-titled double album – a personal but never self-indulgent exploration of modern femininity which produced some of her most inarguably affecting music: Pretty Hurts; Blow and Superpower, to name but three standouts. One of the many co-writing credits that seem to trouble Noel goes to Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. On the song in question ***Flawless, a sampled Adichie begins, “We teach girls to shrink themselves/To make themselves smaller/We say to girls, ‘You can have ambition/But not too much…’ and ends, ‘We teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings/In the way that boys are/Feminist: the person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.’” Even without factoring into the equation the fact that the album came with a simultaneously-released complement of films to accompany every song, this is clearly the work of an artist steering her own narrative into bold uncharted waters. Now, I love the Beck album too, but on this occasion, even Beck had to concede that Kanye once again had a point when he staged the second of his pro-Beyoncé interventions: “I thought she was going to win,” admitted Beck afterwards, “Come on, she's Beyonce! . . .”
By contrast, I woke up at 5am on Wednesday and saw that iTunes had started streaming of Noel’s new album. One and a half times I listened. I had to listen one and a half times, because halfway through the first time I realised my attention had wandered and went back to the start. In his misguided attempt to play Kanye to Beck’s Beyonce, Noel turns his nose up at the sort of songwriting assistance from which his music could almost certainly benefit, thinking this makes him superior, and that his way constitutes “artistry.” While he’s got the dictionary open, he might want to look up the difference between artisan and artist. And if he still isn’t clear about which of the two categories his brand of honest-to-goodness indie rock comes under, I’m more than happy to help.