“Music should strike fire from the heart of human soul.” — Ludwig Van Beethoven
“I’ve been sipping, that’s the only thing that’s keeping me on fire, we on fire.” — Beyoncé Knowles
Freshly traumatized from Beyoncé’s crushing (yes, crushing) loss to Beck at last week’s Grammy Awards, I had to trudge through a Musicology 121 exam this week. Channeling all my brainpower toward an intro class based on the theory that music is one of the great forces in our world proved to be no problem, of course. It was all Ludwig Van Beethoven’s fault; he was the issue. Unlike any other class, I couldn’t listen to Beyoncé while preparing for this exam. I had to listen to Beethoven.
Beethoven wasn’t even covered on the test — we’d stopped in lecture after finishing his fifth symphony, which, much like Beyoncé’s loss, was deemed too fresh, too ripe for us to be tested on it. I wasn’t upset (I was a little). Classical music had always been a secret joy, one that had thrilled and confused me simultaneously. I wanted to hear it and learn about it, but the modern, wannabe-cool-cat part of me wanted to listen to Beyoncé. Beethoven was irrelevant. Stunning, but irrelevant.
Nevertheless, while studying, I obediently subjected my ears to the romance of his symphony before flicking on any ’Yoncé tunes. After administering much abuse to the replay button, I got to thinking — Beethoven’s fifth and Beyoncé’s fifth, “Drunk in Love,” aren’t so different after all.
Duh duh duh dun. Duh duh duh dunnn. We all know that intro. King B’s grand opus to the world of classical music is ominous and intelligent, simplistic and revolutionary. Not only did his 1808 symphony break the boundaries of what the opening measures (and all measures, for that matter) of a symphony could be, it marked a personal triumph for Beethoven, whose impending deafness began to cripple his mental health. You can hear the struggle in the song — it’s aggravated at points, conveying battle and a deep cry for help at others, and repetition is loud and rife. In the end, though, after layers of the central, quadruple-“duh” theme are added, enhanced and beautified, the whole piece rejoices. What happens in the middle is just as interesting — the mood (and key) oscillates between eerie and cheery, and at about the four-minute mark, we hear one note repeated a few times by the strings, quite oddly and out of place. Surfboardt.
It’s impossible (nor would anyone want to attempt) to capture the essence of Beyoncé’s “Drunk in Love” intro in text. But it’s still recognizable. Like Beethoven’s lead in, when we hear Beyoncé, our stomachs drop. As listeners, we know what’s coming, and we know it’s going to be great. Those first few notes — for Beyoncé, it’s eight — build and build as the song progresses with different synths and effects stemming off one another, all bearing that original theme in mind. The verses are creepy and sexy, while the chorus is booming and celebratory; it’s symphonic trap. And in a way, “Drunk in Love” is Beyoncé’s fifth — it’s historic, instantly recognizable, beloved by the public and arguably her best work. It’s also ominous and intelligent, simplistic and revolutionary. Those samples, those eight notes, that subject matter — everything is atypical, in the best way possible.
Musical merit is a different story. Critics and time, more than anything, have hailed Beethoven as a genius, and his music is deeply revered. Broadly, the same is true of Beyoncé. But technically, the true musicality of Beyoncé’s music — its complications, its intricacy, its traditional structure, its “genius” — comes nowhere close to that of Beethoven.
Where does that gauge come from, though? It’s almost engrained in us, as listeners. We may like both Beyoncé and Beethoven, but only one is “real” music. Society and history books and BBC documentaries and music teachers have planted that into us from birth. To them I say, try this on for size: If Beethoven was the Beyoncé of his time, what did his society and music teachers tell people “real” music was? Probably the greats that came a couple hundred years before him. Yes, he himself was critically adored and respected during his lifetime. But then again, so is Beyoncé.
So we’re back to the drawing board — the act of listening and having our breath taken away. The fifth and the “drunk” fifth both conquer this latter feat, and you can’t help but marvel at each one’s modernity. Beethoven’s virtuosity will always be as mysterious as it is essential, and Beyoncé’s pop innovation will continue to seduce our ears with its convoluted goodness. Both are, and will always be, worthy of our attention — surfin’ all in this good, good. All hail King and Queen B.