Say Their Names

Destiny's Child's breathtaking pop finally has the respect it deserves.

Ladies and gentlemen, we gather here today for a most sorrowful purpose: to sift through the earthly effects of the soon-to-be-dearly-departed Destiny’s Child. And as is only appropriate for a group inspiring some of the most heated, confused reactions in pop criticism, we must consider its legacy equally schizophrenic — a contradictory odds ‘n’ sods of postfeminist confidence dashed by marriage; of sisters doin’ it for themselves though occasionally dabbling in Hollywood gold-diggin’; and perhaps most tellingly, of girl-group pop gleefully meeting electronica, shimmying along for a bit, and ultimately getting beat up by it in the parking lot.

A good many of you, I’m certain, have serious issues with anyone treating the legacy of Destiny’s Child with anything more than the seriousness given to, say, 702. Or XScape. Talk about an unfair shake! But such were the times DC was born in. In the mid-’90s, hip-hop and soul had been flirting with bleepier, pricklier textures and beats — Missy Elliott’s Timbaland-assisted records Supa Dupa Fly and Da Real World tore up the charts with their electro-soul eclecticism — and long before anyone heard of the Neptunes, Swizz Beatz’ high-profile productions had him poised to become the next great tastemaker for commercial hip-hop. But little good was going on in the realm of pure pop in 1999: Wonder Bread like Britney Spears’ and N’Sync’s first albums (not to mention the triumphant return of the Backstreet Boys) sadly dominated radio and MTV. What was a more discerning listener to gravitate toward?

Destiny’s Child. Specifically, “Bills, Bills, Bills” and “Say My Name,” the amazingly weird key singles from DC’s indisputable masterwork, ’99’s Writing’s on the Wall. Do they sound weird to you now? Did they even sound all that strange to you then? Of course not. I bet you had the chorus to “Say My Name” stuck in your head so long you were dying to hear “I Write the Songs.” Yes, that chorus, with its insane opening that sounded like Alvin and the Chipmunks matured into grown women. Or maybe you just went crazy over the range-shattering “Bills, Bills, Bills” staccato finale, an octave-jumper that would’ve given even Minnie Riperton pause. Destiny’s Child in those glory days really had it all: impressive vocal talents, and a fleet of mad scientist songwriters and producers capable of crafting high-speed roller disco anthems like “Bug a Boo.”

But what became of these fortunate lasses? Everything. They raked in the dough. They got a Christmas album. Respectable pop outlets like Spin declared them a third-wave feminist success, hailing “Jumpin’ Jumpin'” as “a celebratory scream of ‘Whose pussy is this?!'” in anointing it one of 1999’s top singles. But all was not well in Houston — in a case of Gwen Stefani-itis, media attention focused solely on Beyoncé, and if the following few years are any sign, bitch went crazy.

First, the firings. Then, the hirings. Then, the firings. Beyoncé was armed with her daddy’s power and Tina Knowles’ unconscionable style decisions, turning her into a full-blown Household Starlet and ensuring that her sidekicks stay firmly in their place. After all, what have Michelle and Kelly done lately? But then again, what has Beyoncé done since “Say My Name”? Without mentioning Jay-Z or the terribly unfortunate Carmen: A Hip-Hopera, you could start with the L’Oréal deal. While pop celebrities can and do hawk anything Madison Avenue can attach to them, Knowles’ contract with the cosmetics company was at the time unprecedented simply for the amount of money changing hands. For appearing in a few commercials for Féria, and making sure her complimentary $250,000 weave stayed tight, Knowles was guaranteed $4.7 million. That’s at least eighteen new weaves.

But oh, with these successes came dramatic failures — notably, 2001’s Destiny’s Child follow-up. Remember all that gloss I gave DC for its pioneering work in pop music and representations of women therein? Yeah, erase all that and you get Survivor, wherein its predecessor’s nimble electronics turned heavy-handed and jarring … rumor has it, all thanks to an imperious Beyoncé Knowles at the decks. The playful, empowered femininity of “Say My Name” and “Jumpin’ Jumpin'” devolved into either vacuous filler (“Bootylicious”) or misogynist vitriol (“Nasty Girl”). And frankly, by this time, even when the girls were succeeding, it felt like failing anyway. “Crazy in Love,” lead single on Knowles’ 2003 solo debut, Dangerously in Love, was admittedly ragin’, but it also hinted at the mediocrity to come — Beyoncé, at her best channeling Joan Crawford, had gone soft.

And here we are now. The girls have once again shown incredible acumen, and chosen to shut down the barn right when they got the last golden egg out of the goose. Last year’s Destiny Fulfilled had a few innovative moments — the drumline to “Lose My Breath,” for instance — but for the most part, it’s packed with self-satisfied clunkers like “Soldier” and scarier moments like “Cater 2 U,” which nearly single-handedly destroys all that previous pro-feminism success. Radar Magazine snarked out with these completely fabricated sample lyrics: Boo, I’ve got no trace of self-esteem, would you like your coffee with cream? The actual sentiment isn’t that far off.

Shortly after Fulfilled‘s release, Destiny’s Child announced this would be its farewell tour, though certainly we haven’t seen the last of Beyoncé. So get your digs in now, but don’t forget to pay homage: Frankly, it’s hard to imagine the careers of Pharrell Williams, Justin Timberlake, Kelis, and Pink without the mighty DC. It’s difficult to imagine life without Destiny’s Child, so I ask, dear parishioners, that we celebrate the girls’ legacy rather than write them off as kitsch footnotes. After all, pop music could be much, much worse.


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