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Music How Beyoncé guaranteed the “Single Ladies” video’s place in pop history

Oct. 12, 2018
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Ten years ago this week, Beyoncé premiered her official music video for “Single Ladies” on TRL. Directed by Jake Nava—who, as of now, has worked on ten videos with the mononymed star—the black-and-white clip features her (as her alter ego, Sasha Fierce) flanked by dancers Ashley Everett and Ebony Williams as she chides the former lover who missed his chance to tie the knot.

Though simple in concept, the video quickly became, and has since remained, a cultural touchstone. It was heavily referenced in an early episode of “Glee,” was parodied on “Saturday Night Live” in a skit that guest-starred the artist herself, and—perhaps most famously—was deemed “one of the best videos of all time” by Kanye West. 

But one under-discussed aspect of its legacy is its early employment of what we now call meme culture. Always ahead of the curve, Beyoncé was among the first YouTube-era pop artists to market a music video with the help of memes. To be clear, she wasn’t the first to launch a viral dance trend through online video-sharing; that would’ve been Soulja Boy, who’d beaten her to the punch with “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” the previous year. But while Soulja Boy’s video helped his song become a dance-floor staple first, Beyoncé’s helped hers along through more deliberate means—which, in the years since, have left the latter with more cultural lasting power.   

These days, it’s quite common for new music to spread through memes. It usually happens, and arguably works best, without the artist’s involvement. Think of all the “Raindrop, drop top” tweets, or the #InMyFeelingsChallenge. In both cases, the artist(s)—Migos and Drake, respectively—profited from meme culture without having to actively participate in it. It’s much safer to let the internet run the show than it is to manufacture a meme yourself, mainly because consumers can tell when you’re trying to force something on them. Last year, when Katy Perry kicked off her #BonAppetitChallenge, in which participants were meant to try and “look sexy” while pouring water on themselves, fans were quick to point out that the challenge didn’t have much to do with either the song or video. 

With “Single Ladies,” Beyoncé managed the rare and risky feat that is launching a successful meme yourself, and did so by executing a clever, two-part strategy. Despite being coined in the 1970s, the term “meme” was not yet part of our daily lexicon in 2008, at least not the way it is now. “Viral” was still very much our go-to, and months before “Single Ladies” went viral itself, it was inspired by an existing viral video. The story goes that Beyoncé was browsing YouTube when she came across a clip of “Mexican Breakfast,” a dance routine choreographed by Bob Fosse and performed on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1969. The clip’s original audio track had been replaced with Unk’s “Walk It Out,” and Beyoncé immediately knew what she wanted the “Single Ladies” video to look like. Her own choreographers, Frank Gatson Jr. and JaQuel Knight, then spent about three months putting together an updated version of “Mexican Breakfast,” which we now know as “Single Ladies.”

This origin story is essential because, as a refashioning of an existing viral clip, the “Single Ladies” video is technically a meme. Its choreography also served as the first part of Beyoncé’s strategy. Her spin on Fosse’s dance was striking but just difficult enough that it was tricky to replicate—at least well. (Even Beyoncé had some trouble mastering it.) As a result, the video practically begs viewers to try the dance for themselves—not in spite of its demanding choreography, but because of it. As scholar Harmony Bench put it, it’s “a dance that demands a response from a larger community of dancers.” It was clear when the video was released that the challenging nature of its choreography was attracting people, not turning them away. In droves, they started to post their attempts at the dance on YouTube. As Bench noted, many of these were women laughing at themselves for doing the dance so poorly: “A search for ‘Single Ladies fail’ on YouTube results in mostly female performers, who have identified their own performances as fail(ure)s […], who do not possess the skill to perform either the ‘Single Ladies’ choreography or Beyoncé’s/Sasha Fierce’s diva-like femininity.” 

Once it was clear that the video had struck a pop-cultural chord, it was safe for Beyoncé to then unleash the second part of her strategy: the “Single Ladies” Dance Video Contest. In February of 2009, about a month before the first show of her I Am… World Tour, Beyoncé kicked off the contest, which asked fans to submit their best “Single Ladies” dance covers. She promised to select some of her favorites for a montage that would play during the tour. Though participants were required to physically mail in their submissions—already considered an “archaic” practice a decade ago—many also shared them on YouTube for other fans to see. This resulted in a second wave of user-generated “Single Ladies” content going up online, at this point a full four months after the video’s release. The contest was a viral marketing strategy masquerading as a just-for-fun activity for fans. 

“Single Ladies” was an early example of what’s now practically mandatory in the music industry: creating a video that’ll thrive in a meme-obsessed world. As David Turner wrote last year for Wired, “What Soulja Boy started—crafting content that fans wanted to mimic and share—a decade later has become the common language of song promotion.” But despite its astounding success, “Crank That” somehow feels tethered to 2007. There’s a durability to “Single Ladies,” on the other hand, that can’t be explained away solely by Beyoncé’s existing star status or the song’s comparative palatability to the general listening public, though both of those things were certainly relevant. “Single Ladies,” like all Beyoncé videos, was built from the get-go for cultural longevity. She forged a place for it in the zeitgeist by tempting us with its now-iconic choreography and then cementing its place in pop history with the dance contest—essentially tricking us into marketing the video for her. It remains ill-advised today for music artists to try and force viral moments, but a decade ago, Beyoncé pulled it off right under our noses.