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[whitespace] Beyonce All Reason

Destiny Child's Beyonce Knowles stars in a hip-hop 'Carmen'

By Gina Arnold

WHEN I FOUND OUT I was pregnant, my best friend suggested that I name my child--if a girl--Beyonce, after Beyonce Knowles, the lead singer for the group Destiny's Child. "Or how about Eminemma?" she added, to our great amusement.

We snorted. While admitting that both were better choices than Britney--world's worst name--we were more inclined to pick Puffy, Biggie or even the Artist Formerly Known as Prince (or Princess, as the case may be). At least those names have some legs to them. Beyonce, on the other hand, like Destiny's Child itself, is just too flash-in-the-pan, too flavor-of-the-month, too damn Brandy--the name of last year's young black diva superstar.

The name Beyonce is beginning to grow on me, however, especially in light of her recent starring role in MTV's Hip Hopera: Carmen, an original production that aired for the first time last week and will be in rotation on the station for the next month or so.

Knowles acquits herself fairly well in the title role. She is, for one thing, incredibly beautiful, enough so to make her devastating effect on the men in the sleazy bars and backstage areas Carmen frequents believable. Her acting and singing are passable--although Wyclef Jean and Mos Def are better.

Carmen was directed by Robert Townsend and is loosely based on the opera of the same name by French composer Georges Bizet--only instead of Seville, this one is set on the mean streets of Philadelphia.

The original Carmen was a Gypsy chick who worked in a cigarette factory and was courted by a soldier named José. This Carmen's lover is a cop named Derrick Hill (played by Mekhi Phifer), who's being chased down by his corrupt boss, Miller (Mos Def), after finding himself entwined in Carmen's wily romantic coils.

Like Bizet's original version, this Carmen has dialogue, although about half of it is either rapped or sung. (My favorite couplet in the show was "You're the guy I saw on MTV/I copied your album off of MP3"). Some of the background music is taken from the better-known bits of the real opera, particularly "The Toreador song," which pops up again and again as a sample.

There, however, the resemblance ends. To begin with, the new version suffers from a major plot flaw: it's hard to sympathize with the title character because she's such an A-1 bitch. The original Carmen, even at her most venal, oozed with passion and lust, but this one replaces actual eroticism with a cache of risqué underwear. Knowles seldom appears in anything other than the most bust-revealing evening gowns (even in one scene when she's eating breakfast), but that's not quite the same thing as being a femme fatale.

SADLY, NO MENTION is made in this version of Carmen's penchant for smuggling contraband (though a bit of drug-running would fit right in). Her character is by turns flirtatious and sappy, bitchy and grasping, making it practically impossible to believe she actually loves Officer Hill, and when her last beau, rap star Blaze, offers her a limo ride and a new dress, her eyes light up in a truly gross manner. In short, in keeping with most of the women's roles one sees in MTV videos, she is portrayed as one of the shallowest women ever to walk the earth.

But that's opera for ya--and 'twas ever thus. Indeed, it's quite fascinating to realize that women in operas are portrayed no differently in modern-day Philly ghetto than in 19th-century France, Spain and Italy. Operatically speaking, in both places and eras--and frankly, in all the eras in between--women are seen to have two goals and one weapon: money, power and sex, in that order.

If anything, the hip-hop mise-en-scène is the best fit to the genre you can possibly imagine, although I read a review of a recent Russian production that sounded quite similar. In that version, the action is set in Moscow's present-day criminal community, and the characters are described as "merciless and egoistic, not undecorated with good manners, inciting characters to the lowest acts and on the other hand [capable of] purifying love, fidelity, devotion and self-sacrifice."

That said, and despite its highbrow antecedent, I can't truly recommend Carmen as being any more edifying than MTVs usual fare, glorifying as it does sex and violence and offering a poor example of woman as a gender. (Of course, it's interesting to note that almost all opera falls under that heading, too, and I don't see anyone trying to censor or legislate that genre.)

Also, maybe the failure of sex and money to bring anything but death and ruination to Carmen and her friends is the ultimate message of this Hip Hopera, but if so, like so many things on MTV, it is so mired in celebrity worship, it's a message that gets lost in the telling.

Children of the Corn

AN AMBITIOUS PROJECT like Carmen must have a subtext, and in this case, the subtext is that it's a star vehicle and promotional onslaught for one of MTVs biggest acts right now. Yes, Destiny's Child has a new record out, trendily titled Survivor.

The album is, like their first and second LPs, a formulaic version of what made them popular in the first place--that is, smooth harmonies, a superproduced sound and meaningless lyrics about love. The album is full of the type of pop songs that fit seamlessly into today's truly soulless girl-and-boy-group-heavy atmosphere.

I feel sure there's something to be said for an era in which the most popular form of "band" is one that involves a number of singers of the same gender, swishing around in fancy clothes, dancing in unison and harmonizing to songs that they didn't have much to do with.

It's quite a bit different from the eras when bands were made up of groups of guys in unwashed clothes writing songs about their personal angst, or groups of boys and girls playing together, or singer/songwriters on their own. Those things still exist, but they don't do as well as the glamour parade.

Musically, Destiny's Child has a lot less edge than TLC and Salt N Pepa, and not quite the same brio as En Vogue or the Pointer Sisters. The group's success depends instead on the celebrity of the three girls--or really, of the one girl, Beyonce Knowles, whose father, Matthew, has managed the group since its beginnings in Houston, Texas.

Mr. Knowles is also the legal guardian of a second member of Destiny's Child, Kelly Rowland, but three other members--founding members La Tavia Roberson and La Toya Luckett, as well as newcomer Farrah Franklin--have all fallen by the wayside, the first two acrimoniously. (Once a quartet, the group is now a trio, filled out by recent addition Michelle Williams.)

This is a situation that I personally find less than romantic, and certainly nothing to aspire to. But perhaps Destiny Child's fans don't aspire to be them, they just want to sing along to "No, No, No." Meanwhile, I think I'll put the name "Beyonce" on hold, until I can think of something better--like Da Brat.

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From the May 17-23, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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