• Ideas
  • Culture

Beyoncé Is Boldly Defying Country’s Stereotypes

10 minute read
Crumpton is a music, pop culture, and politics writer from Dallas. In her work—which can be found in outlets like The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, Harper’s Bazaar, The Guardian, NPR, and many other platforms—Crumpton writes about a range of topics from Black Queer advocacy to the underrepresented hip-hop scenes in the southern United States to pop analysis on releases like “WAP” and “Black Is King”

Every Black woman has been called a Jezebel. The term, which originates from the Bible, is one of the oldest examples of misogyny in the world. Instead of being heralded for her reign as Queen, the Phoenician princess (after whom the term was named) was slut-shamed and subjected to whorephobia. To this day, her name conjures up images of promiscuity. 

For those raised in the church, young women and girls are encouraged to not have a “jezebel spirit” because a church girl can never be a whore. But for many Black women and girls, there is not an option to cast out or distance oneself from the Jezebel spirit, because according to America, we’ve been whores since 1619. Although the hypersexualization of Black women did not come from the Bible, the ideal of a modern, chaste woman did. When the Bible found itself stateside, those ideals and beliefs began to disseminate throughout the 13 original colonies; any woman who was not white and shapely was a Jezebel. A woman meant to be feared. A woman meant to be isolated. A woman not meant to be seen. Because if this woman was seen, perceived, and respected, it would certainly be a sign of hell on Earth.

Black women have been raising hell on Earth, particularly in the South, for generations. Rissi Palmer, Holly G of Black Opry, and Kamara Thomas of Country Soul Songbook have been leading the charge through their activism to create better conditions for Black women not just in the South, but in country music. And with the release of Cowboy Carter, the second album in the Renaissance trilogy, Beyoncé has become the latest artist to challenge these norms.

Read More: Beyoncé Has Always Been Country

When Beyoncé arrived at the 65th Annual Grammy Awards on February 4, a visible change had occurred. Although the general public did not know at the time that she was officially making her foray back into country, she was leading the charge with her fashion. No longer was she adorned in the glistening silver chrome looks of Renaissance, Beyoncé, in her white shirt, Stetson hat, and oversized Black leather jacket and skirt, had become an outlaw. And country music loves an outlaw

The problem is that country music only loves an outlaw when they are white. The outlaw movement, which started as a staunch rebuke against the red tape of Nashville, allowed white men in country music, such as Willie Nelson, to be seen as rebellious—but in a way that was not anti-Nashville. From Johnny Cash to George Jones to Merle Haggard, these hell raisers have not only been warmly embraced in country music but championed. And the way these artists would often display this defiant spirit was through their dress.

Historian and scholar Dr. Francesca Royster writes about country’s outlaw movement in Black Country Music: Listening for Revolutions: “As the Man in Black, Johnny Cash could stand up for injustices against incarcerated folks and other outsiders, his Black shirt, hat, and jeans trademarks for his heroically critical stance.” Royster continues, “Blackness’s association in mainstream white culture with danger, illegality, and outsiderhood was put to use in Cash’s career to lend an element of authenticity. These moments reveal how, for these white male outlaws, proximity to Blackness—particularly metaphorical Blackness—is the ultimate expression of outsiderhood.``

Yet it is Beyoncé’s Blackness that country took issue with in the first place. The most telling part of her Grammy outfit was not her choice to wear Pharrell Willliams’ Western-inspired menswear collection for Louis Vuttion, but the red manicure that accompanied it. The manicure, featured on the singer’s Instagram post from the night, was most noticeable when she gave her red nails a bite. Fashion and costume historian Shelby Ivey Christie equates Beyoncé’s red nails to setting off a flare, making everyone in Nashville aware about her re-entry into country music. 

“There’s a Shakespearean saying about biting your thumb at someone, and that's to make fun of them,’” says Christie. “I feel that imagery is kind of that. She's biting her thumb at you. She's teasing you.”

It’s a tease that continued when Beyonce appeared at Super Bowl LVIII with Dolly Parton-esque hair and a Texas bombshell-inspired outfit. Compared to the Grammys, where the singer donned a straightforward western look, this felt more sultry, more seductive—almost as if the singer was invoking the spirit of the Jezebel.

The Jezebel has been known by many names, one of them being Jolene. In the country music lexicon, Jolene was immortalized by Parton as a beautiful red-headed woman with emerald green eyes and ivory skin who has the ability to take Parton’s man away from her. Similar to how the Jezebel Root has been historically used in Hoodoo practices to attract men of wealth and high status, Jolene became known as the woman to avoid unless you want the destruction of your household. 

“Women in country can be seen as more bombshell glam,” says Christie. “I think [the Super Bowl] was kind of [Beyonce’s] moment to give us that and to show us that the country genre wasn’t something that was on her. It’s in her.” But compared to her first foray into country music where Beyoncé wore what culture journalist Victoria M. Massie noted was a “voluminous Antebellum-style dress cut from African wax print” in the visuals for “Daddy Lessons,” her second attempt into country is being done the Renaissance way. 

The visuals for Cowboy Carter tell a story between the two, seamless acts. In act i, Beyoncé slyly introduced the country outlaw aesthetic by donning herself in a black fringed leather jacket for the album’s teaser trailer. At this year’s Gold Party, Beyoncé and Jay Z’s annual Oscars party, she fronted a more masculine aesthetic in a black Givenchy structured blazer and flared trousers. Both outfits were accompanied by a black cowboy hat—a playful homage to her Texas roots, which then took center stage in her album cover for Cowboy Carter. In a red, white, and blue latex outfit, a nod to her American and Texas roots, the singer’s posture feels reminiscent of painter Kehinde Wiley’s majestic compositions. (Wiley’s approach to painting, similarly to Beyoncé’s approach to country, is to bridge the gap between the past and present through the creative arts.) From her usage of Americana aesthetics to her platinum blonde locks, Beyoncé is giving the public an insight into her “un-American life.”

The one thing that stands out most in Beyoncé's country era is her bleach blonde hair. Taking note from Parton, to be a blonde in Southern culture, in particular, has always been regarded as tacky and not tasteful. But as Parton famously said: “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap,” and with her new locks, Beyoncé is turning that stereotype on its head, too.

In the South, the societal norms that police women’s bodies, especially Black women’s bodies, stem from Christianity. And in country music, women are expected to present themselves in a particular way that adheres to those rules, despite not receiving adequate resources from their record labels. Even more-so, the sexual violence inflicted onto  Black women’s bodies because they are curvier or more voluptuous are thought to be justified. As a result of these societal, cultural, and political forces, Black women are socialized to keep their distance from anything that could perceive them as Jezebel-like. 

“Instead of men controlling themselves, respecting women's bodies, and having boundaries, it is the woman's responsibility to do that, by covering herself, by contorting herself into whatever boundary or rules are created to make them more palatable around men and to make them more palatable to the women peers around them,” says Christie. “That extends to color.”

There is a reason why Beyoncé decided to use the color red for “Can’t B Broken,” her Super Bowl commercial with Verizon. She wanted to be seen. She wanted to be heard. She wanted to tell Nashville that she is doing country her way, all the while honoring the legion of Black women in country music who came before her. 

In the official visualizer for “Texas Hold ‘Em,” Beyoncé in a mixture of black and silver walks onto the screen in a beehive, side ponytail and bang, a clear homage to Linda Martell, the first Black female country star. The style, which was immortalized in the May 1970 issue of Ebony, shows Martell on a press tour at WSM Radio alongside fellow country music legend Jeannie C. Riley on the heels of Martell’s  first appearance at the Grand Ole Opry in 1969. With this performance, Martell made history as the first Black female artist to perform on the highly esteemed music show.

But despite Martell’s legendary career, she experienced intense mistreatment and harassment by the country music industry. While at Plantation Records, the record label that she was signed to, Martell expressed discomfort with the label’s name because of its racist history. In addition to racial discomfort, she fell victim to a predatory contract. When she left Plantation Records, Shelby Singleton, the label founder, blacklisted Martell from any opportunities in the country music industry.

Read More: How Beyoncé Fits Into the Storied Legacy of Black Country

When Beyonce sweeps up her hair into an illustrious beehive and side swept bangs, it is a homage to Martell. Without saying a word, she is honoring the pioneering efforts of Martell and the Black women country artists of that time, while also sounding an alarm to the country music genre:that she expects to be treated with respect. For the entire world has their eyes on Beyoncé as she enters the country music industry for the second time. But it is not Beyoncé who should be in fear—it is Nashville. 

In a celebratory dinner with her husband Jay Z to commemorate Valentine’s Day, Beyonce appeared in mourning dress. Her Black Southern Gothic look drew inspiration from the post-Civil war period where widows wore a mourning veil for an alloted period of time. The question is: whose death is she calling into existence? The death of the country genre? The death of the barriers that restrict Black women from achieving success in country? Or has she become death itself? An omen of what’s to come.  

If Jezebel has to be one to kill the country genre, so be it. It is time for the church girl and the Jezebel to be seen as one in the same. It is time for the structures that govern and police Black women’s bodies to die. And it’s time we bury the old ways country music has been governed by into the ground.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.