Beyoncé’s ‘Rocket’ and the Pleasures of Artistic Freedom

When Beyoncé first met with Miguel to discuss what eventually became “Rocket,” the longest track on BEYONCÉ (2013), she’d only recently given birth to Blue Ivy. It would have been mid-2012 or so; Miguel recalls that “she was looking beautiful; her skin was glowing and she was ready to create.” Beyoncé was feeling more sexually empowered than ever as a new mom—she says as much in a behind-the-scenes doc released with the album—and wanted to record something D’Angelo-esque in that spirit. “I’ll never forget the conversation I had with Beyoncé and her insisting that nothing was off-limits,” Miguel told VIBE in 2014.

Given Beyoncé’s green light, Miguel imagined himself in her lover’s shoes to come up with “Rocket”: “What’s the first thing I would want Beyoncé to say to me as a man? What have I not heard her say?” Miguel, Justin Timberlake, and Beyoncé then co-wrote the song, working with producers J-Roc and Timbaland. On paper, the gender dynamic here is weird: we’re looking at a female sexual empowerment track made by a team of mostly men, one where the lyrics originate in what Miguel would want Beyoncé to say in a sexual setting. The album doc also suggests that, aside from music executive Teresa LaBarbera Whites, Beyoncé was the only woman in the room while recording “Rocket.” My goal here isn’t to undermine the song, but to contextualize its production. As I’ll argue, the fact that Beyoncé worked on it—and later, its visual accompaniment—surrounded by male creators didn’t ultimately prevent either from being subversive.  

Albums are generally titled eponymously to introduce a new act to the world—Queen made its debut with Queen (1973), Christina Aguilera with Christina Aguilera (1999), and so on. But self-titled albums can also debut a new sound or phase of an established artist’s career. Cher (1987) did this, as did Britney (2001). BEYONCÉ doesn’t fall neatly into one category or the other. When it surprise-dropped in 2013, the world had already known Beyoncé for a decade and a half. Still, it practically relaunched both Beyoncé the entertainer and Beyoncé the brand. 

By early 2013, Beyoncé was known to be working on new music. In January, she told Vogue that it would be “a lot more sensual… empowering.” But there was no release date or promotional single—only a track (“Bow Down / I Been On”) that was posted to her SoundCloud without comment in March, and snippets from two unreleased songs (“Grown Woman” and “Standing on the Sun”) that played in Beyoncé-starring ads in April. Her Mrs. Carter Show World Tour began in April, too, but spring ultimately came and went without an album. She continued to tour on existing work all through the summer and fall. Then, in the middle of the night on December 13th, BEYONCÉ—a “visual album” containing 14 songs and 17 videos, with a pared-down album cover inspired by the one from Metallica’s 1991 self-titled album—was suddenly available in its entirety. The release came as a total surprise, even to some of BEYONCÉ’s producers and songwriters. In a December interview, Beyoncé’s creative director Todd Tourso told Vulture that no videos were shot yet when he’d been hired in June. That means Beyoncé had made all 17 while touring, in some cases tweaking audio afterwards to better suit the visuals. (In the end, “Bow Down / I Been On” was an early version of “***Flawless,” “Grown Woman” appeared on the album only as a video, and “Standing on the Sun” remained unreleased until it was remixed for BEYONCÉ’s reissue in 2014.)   

BEYONCÉ broke the internet upon its release, largely due to the surprise but also because it presented a more mature, unabashedly sexual Beyoncé to the world than any of her previous work. Here was a famously private woman, someone who’d literally kept her marriage to Jay-Z a secret for half a year, suddenly singing about “swervin’ on [his] big body.” As Kevin Allred notes in this year’s Ain’t I A Diva?, “Empowered sexuality and provocative innuendo were never absent from [her] music, but 2013’s BEYONCÉ introduced an artist less encumbered by inhibition than ever before.” “Partition” depicted a backseat quickie with Jay-Z; “Blow” and “Drunk in Love” alluded to cunnilingus and bathtub sex, respectively; “Haunted” updated the most scandalous video from Madonna’s most scandalous era. 

As Paula Harper writes, however, “Rocket” might be “the most explicitly sexual song” on the album, as it’s “a sonic map of an act of sex, of lovemaking.” In it, Beyoncé outlines a sexual encounter with a male partner that, as far as the lyrics go, isn’t necessarily happening in the moment. Using euphemisms and wordplay, it builds towards a lyrical and musical climax. From a filmmaking perspective, “Rocket” is one of BEYONCÉ’s best videos, making clever use of the song’s metaphors and proving itself a marvel of editing. Despite this, at 15 million views, it’s one of the least-viewed YouTube videos of the album, and more generally of Beyoncé’s entire career. (It wasn’t released as a single, but neither were “Blow” or “Haunted,” which have been viewed 28 and 58 million times, respectively.)

The “Rocket” video was co-directed by Beyoncé, Bill Kirstein, and Ed Burke (a frequent collaborator who has since worked on both Lemonade and Homecoming). Completely black-and-white, it’s divided into three acts: an invitation, a foreplay period, and what I’ll call the “Got me screaming to the Lord, boy” section where the song reaches its so-called climax. These are separated by beat-long pauses where we cut to black completely.      

ACT I: THE INVITATION

For the entire first minute, Beyoncé caresses her body in a black lingerie set. The opening shot alone, in which the camera’s gaze tracks from her hip all the way up to her bust, takes 21 whole seconds—uncharacteristically long for a pop video. Throw in the fact that the location here—a suite at New York City’s The Standard, High Line—has yet to change by the one-minute mark, and we’re off to a pretty slow-burn start. But this matches the song’s introductory verse, where Beyoncé narrates herself undressing and performing a lap dance for her partner. 

Included in this verse is Beyoncé’s own declaration of consent (“If you like, you can touch it, baby”), which she immediately follows with an ask for her partner’s (“Do you want to touch it, baby?”). It’s a detail that retrospectively sticks out in a year that also brought us “Blurred Lines,” a song where consent—like many other things about the “good girl” being addressed—is completely assumed. Writing about “Rocket,” Sylvia Cutler argues that the lyrics in the opening verse position Beyoncé as sexually in charge, rather than objectified: “[Her] use of the command form rejects the male gaze in that she is the one instructing her man what she wants.” It’s unclear whether Miguel structured the song this way on his own or on Beyoncé’s direction, but it stands that she sat him down for that conversation about empowerment first.

Act I also draws attention to our gaze as viewers to establish that Beyoncé is the one in the driver’s seat. For the majority of the first minute of “Rocket,” we’re unsure whether we’re voyeurs, since she never makes direct eye contact with the camera. Were that to continue any longer, she’d risk becoming a sexual object rather than a subject. (Rihanna’s “Kiss It Better” video arguably falls into this trap, with her near-total avoidance of the camera ultimately giving it the upper hand.) But it turns out that Beyoncé tricks us: just as the verse reaches its last line, she meets our gaze, shooting us a look that’s not only knowing but suggestive. This isn’t Jenny from the Block (and Ben Affleck, whew!) being filmed in vulnerable positions without her consent; Beyoncé has deliberately put herself—and is now enjoying herself—in view of the camera. It’s worth keeping in mind that she co-directed “Rocket,” even if she was outnumbered by men once again.

ACT II: FOREPLAY

After a blackout, the song’s chorus kicks in for the first time, as does the water imagery in the song and video. Droplets land on women’s hips and torsos, standing in for mountains; their bodies are presented as landscapes for sexual activity, both lyrically and visually. The specifics of the encounter being described are murky, however, since most of it is presented in metaphors. “Rocket” gives way to multiple readings as a result—it’s been described as everything from a “celebration of female ejaculation” to a song “about singing from the heart”—but more on that shortly.

In the remainder of Act II, a tap is turned on; Beyoncé eats strawberries in the kitchen wearing more lingerie; she chills in a bathtub. The editing has picked up here, but we still end on another noticeably long shot: a 19-second one of Beyoncé sinking into a body of water. The visual takes a literal approach to depicting the song’s bridge, which we’re now hearing for the first and only time: “Rock it till water falls […] / Bathe in these waterfalls.”      

ACT III: “GOT ME SCREAMING TO THE LORD, BOY”

Act III is the video’s longest and most complex. After another blackout, we’re back in the bedroom from Act I. Now, though, Beyoncé performs for the camera instead of mostly ignoring it. She confronts its gaze, crawling towards the lens at one point and flipping her hair for us at another. There are also shots of her showering where she—again—looks directly at us. The beginning of this act solidifies her as a sexual subject, in case there was still any lingering doubt.  

It’s then revealed that Beyoncé isn’t the only player here. There are other women enjoying themselves, too, albeit from separate locales. With one or two exceptions, they’re also completely alone. As Cutler puts it, “[Beyoncé creates] a message that a woman does not need to be defined sexually by the gaze of another.” Lyrically, “Rocket” may not have been written as a masturbation anthem. It does, however, follow a woman as she describes a partnered sexual fantasy, with little lyrical evidence to suggest that said partner ever shows up. Consider also that multiple videos on BEYONCÉ have Beyoncé performing alongside different men, with Jay-Z himself making cameos in two. And yet, when it came time to give “Rocket” a visual, the choice was made to feature multiple women—Beyoncé chief among them—writhing around partner-less in bed.

As “Rocket” approaches its climax, there’s an interlude where Beyoncé repeats the line “Hard, rock, steady, rock” several times. Almost every word here gets its own shot in the video, and my freshman film professor would want me to tell you that these images are overwhelmingly phallic: Beyoncé smokes a cigar; a key enters a keyhole; a tube of lipstick is twisted; a nozzle is pushed into the gas tank of a car. 

Then, when the song’s big finish eventually arrives, the visuals and editing do much of the legwork. Harper agrees, writing that the video “[ends] abruptly after the shattered, shimmering vocals and quick-cut, overlapping images of the […] climax.” The imagery here leaves little to the imagination, particularly one shot of a drill entering a plank of wood. “Rocket” ends with a 12-second shot of a satisfied, tired, smizing Beyoncé; her curls in her face, her eyes only slightly open. “Damn,” she says, and we cut to black for the last time.

The video omits the song’s last two minutes, or its fourth and final verse. This part of “Rocket” is rhythmically different from the rest of the song and lyrically concerned with the relationship between Beyoncé and her partner as much as it is the physical sex happening between them. Combined with its placement after the climax, it therefore reads as post-coital chatter. After all, Beyoncé says in the album doc that the track “takes you through this journey. You know, you’re flirting and you’re talking all of your arrogant shit. Then, you climax, and then you have your cigarette.” Whereas “Rocket” up until this point could be addressed to pretty much anyone, the fourth verse specifically alludes to Jay-Z. “We’re so much more than pointless fixtures / Instagram pictures, consumers,” Beyoncé sings. I’ve already noted that Jay-Z wasn’t called in for this video, nor was any faceless stand-in for him. How interesting, then, that the one verse where his identity comes through in the lyrics was cut from it, too.   

What if that’s because “Rocket” isn’t exclusively about sex with Jay-Z, or even sex at all? In the album doc, Beyoncé reveals that the song is actually “about singing from the heart, and harmonies, and adlibs, and arrangements.” We can take that at face value, since it’s undeniably full of those things. But if we instead revisit the lyrics through that lens, a whole other world of meanings is suddenly unlocked. Now, when Beyoncé tells us that she’s “proud of all this bass,” she might not be solely referring to her ass. When she offers herself up as a “personal trainer or a therapist,” it’s because she knows that people listen to her music on the treadmill and after their breakups. Maybe some of the women in the “Rocket” video aren’t actually going at it at all; maybe they’re just ‘rocking’ to a new Tidal exclusive.

As Harper also points out, alongside the “images that make up most of the video—slow motion, extended shots that linger on Beyoncé’s curves—are more anodyne ones,” including a shot of her at a piano early in Act III. The piano returns when the video reaches its climax, as that’s where Beyoncé is stationed in the moment. “Musical labor is blurred with—acknowledged as—bodily pleasure,” Harper writes, which might be the best summary of “Rocket” there is. It would also explain why there’s a metronome included among all the phallic imagery in the “Hard, rock, steady, rock” interlude.

Over a decade ago, Beyoncé recorded a song called “Radio.” The second track from the Sasha Fierce side of I Am… Sasha Fierce (2008), it’s about being in love with a radio in a literal sense. Beyoncé refers to hers as “he/him” throughout and tells us that it’s “the only one that Papa allowed to hang out in my room / With the door closed.” Beyoncé has obviously been horny for music for a very long time, but a lot happened between 2008 and 2013 that gave her the freedom to make that horniness more explicit in her work.

Nine months before BEYONCÉ’s release, Beyoncé put out Life is But a Dream (2013), a feature-length doc that’s largely remembered for revealing that she suffered a miscarriage prior to having Blue Ivy. Much of its first half, however, chronicles her decision to fire her father, Mathew Knowles, as her manager in 2010. (He’d held the position since the 1990s, some might say since her birth.) The split took an understandable toll on their relationship, but here are some highlights from 2010-2013, once Beyoncé was acting as her own manager: she headlined Glastonbury, released her fourth consecutive number-one album, became a mother, performed at Obama’s second inauguration, performed solo at the Super Bowl halftime show, and embarked on the majority of her second-most successful tour ever. It was amid this professional momentum that BEYONCÉ appeared online.

Much of the album meditates on sexual pleasure, yes, and that’s especially significant given Beyoncé’s Blackness. (I highly recommend the Sylvia Cutler paper cited throughout this piece, which argues that although “subjection to the gaze is inevitable for Beyoncé as a black female entertainer, she does not permit it to either delimit or denigrate her expression of sexual autonomy and female desire.”) But as Beyoncé’s most daring record up until that point—one that was sonically experimental, that delved into new and sometimes unflattering subject matter, that was released without any prior marketing—it’s equally about the pleasures of artistic freedom, of finally being able to create on your own terms. “Rocket” is the only video of the album’s 17 that expressly equates those two ideas. 

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