If there’s anything we love more than building pedestals for celebrities to pose on for us to admire, it’s yanking those very platforms from under them and pointing and laughing while they fall down.
After video leaked Monday afternoon of Hollywood’s hippest power couple, Jay Z and Beyoncé, in the midst of a behind-closed-doors family skirmish—Beyoncé’s sister, Solange, for unknown reasons, maniacally attacks Jay Z for a full three minutes—our society of pedestal-builders is now sweating out a tough question: Is the unsavory family brawl enough for us to knock Bey and Jay’s podiums down?
After all, the first couple of the music industry has carefully, in the years since they began dating, built a brand and image based on perceived perfection. They were two artists at the pinnacle of their careers combining their respective star powers into one nearly blinding supernova. They honed a balance of coolness and class that not only bolstered their popularity, but has worked to create an expectation of infallibility. The words “perfect couple” aren’t used lightly, and Jay Z and Beyoncé have parlayed that branding into a pop-culture empire that rests delicately on that very word, “perfect.”
Call it the business of being #flawless.
And family feuds? Those are hardly flawless, or perfect. As a firestorm of controversy and speculation blazes its way across the Internet and social media, it’s hard not to wonder what kind of effect the Solange vs. Jay Z smackdown (and Beyoncé’s unrivaled performance as a passive bystander) will have on that brand.
We work hard on and, for better or worse, really value those pedestals we build. Do they get to still stand on them?
“These two are among the Brad and the Angelinas,” says Howard Bragman, vice chairman of Reputation.com. “They present their image better than anyone in Hollywood. That’s why this whole event is surprising.”
Just how exalted are the Carter-Knowles?
“They’re all going to have the crazy aunt or uncle in the closest or basement. In some ways it makes them more real.”
In a 2013 Newsweek article titled “It’s Beyoncé’s World and We’re Just Living In It,” ZZ Packer wrote about the pop deity, for whom “Halo” is as much a description of the glory she seems to effortlessly emanate as it is a signature song, “She has become—perhaps even more than Michelle Obama or Oprah—the all-around compliment-by-comparison for any black woman.” There’s a reason that the terms “Queen Bey” and “Beysus” have been shorthand for the entertainer, and employed only with a slight wink.
As for Jay Z’s own coronation as one of pop culture’s reigning kings, you only need to look to the additional titles he’s bestowed on himself in the lyrics to his own songs, all of which have gone all-but refuted: “I’m not a businessman, I’m a business, man”; “I make the Yankee hat more famous than a Yankee can”; and, naturally, “I’m the motherfucking greatest.”
All of that renown, however, has been replaced in the past 48 hours by fervent speculation over deep-seated family drama and possibly even marital issues, all raised by the question: Why in the world would Solange go after Jay Z like that? What did he do?
Jay Z and Beyoncé had a reputation built on perfection, and now that reputation is experiencing fast and furious trauma.
With flash trauma comes lingering side effects, too. In this case the rampant speculation over the circumstances that may have led to Solange’s outburst against Jay Z—did he say something disrespectful to her, or did she perhaps catch wind of an affair he may be having or of any mistreatment of her sister?—served as occasion to drudge up some of the more uncouth and unpolished events of Jay Z’s past that he’s, by and large, managed to bury in the years that he’s risen alongside Beyoncé to exalted His and Her celebrity thrones.
The Daily Beast’s Marlow Stern, for example, called “the smackdown seen ‘round the world” the fruition of “peak schadenfreude” for a litany of misdeeds from a troubled history: shooting his brother as a kid, stabbing a record executive, allegedly assaulting a woman during the filming of a documentary. Who knows why Solange unleashed on Jay, but a subset of observers are wondering if, given his history, he might have had it coming.
But the façade of perfection that Beyoncé and Jay Z have so painstakingly chiseled is so Teflon, Bragman says, that even the dredging up of those details won’t tarnish it. “I think he’s moved so far beyond all of that that I don’t think it’s a huge problem for him,” he says.
“Painstaking,” however, doesn’t even begin to describe the lengths to which Jay and Beyoncé have gone to preserve their image of untouchable superiority. It’s an admirable effort, and certainly fun for a legion of celebrity gawkers who gleefully bow down to such hyper-controlled immaculacy. But it’s also an effort that’s increasingly outdated in a society that’s learned to embrace the fallibility and messiness of celebrities, warts and all. It’s also a mission that’s becoming damned near impossible.
The obsession with which Beyoncé, for example, seems to pursue perfection and manage her brand has even, at times, sparked a backlash. Remember when her publicist emailed Internet news outlets and attempted to have them remove unflattering photos of her taken during her iconic Super Bowl performance from their websites? Or when a supposed-to-be revealing documentary, Life Is But a Dream, revealed little else about the pop star besides an alarming amount of vanity and even a smidge of narcissism? We admire Bey’s impeccable image, but we also crave authenticity and relatability.
Plus, in the day and age of Twitter and camera phones and TMZ, it’s a wonder that something like this video hasn’t crept up on the couple before, and it’s incredibly unlikely that they’ll be able to keep it from happening again.
“It’s almost impossible today to keep up that veil of perfection, because of the electric medium,” says R.J. Garis, national publicist and crisis PR consultant. “People have this image of ‘spin control.’ But today, spin control has become, basically, a strategy of being honest. Where it used to be a strategy of hiding, or covering up, the strategy now has changed to honesty.”
The story went so viral so quickly because we were, collectively, a society in a mental state of giggly shock, snickering like nosy neighbors peeking behind closed (elevator) doors and seeing something we weren’t supposed to see. But maybe a little bit of that shock and controversy would’ve been tempered if the Carter-Knowles weren’t so diligent in shielding the public from any of their slightly messy humanness. We’re not saying get that Solange should attack her brother-in-law on film again. But a little fallibility to seize on to would go a long way.
By that regard, this whole thing may actually be a good thing for the couple. Or, as much as an embarrassing, probably traumatizing skirmish between family members that may have ended in sisterly alienation can be a good thing.
“It shows that Jay Z and Beyoncé are just like us,” says Eric Schiffer, chairman of ReputationManagementConsultants.com. “All celebrities have issues that at one point are going to come to light. They’re all going to have the crazy aunt or uncle in the closest or basement. In some ways it makes them more real. More relatable. More understandable.”
“I think there’s always a danger when you’re a celebrity than when you play off that your life is perfect, you’re going to have a problem when something comes out proving that you’re not,” says Glenn Selig, founder of The Publicity Agency and crisis management expert. “And that’s maybe a lesson that you don’t need to put yourself on a pedestal. You can be well-liked without being perfect.”
Besides, isolated incidents like these aren’t likely to bring down an empire—in this case a multimillion-dollar empire involving sponsorship details and corporate branding contracts. “I think that any company that’s invested in their brand would take notice at it and be moved to make a phone call in order to be reassured that everything is OK,” says Selig. “But it would take a series of incidents, especially when dealing with people of Jay Z and Beyoncé’s stature, for more eyebrows to be raised.”
From a publicity and crisis management standpoint, however, the whole affair raises two questions: how long will the controversy last, and should they speak out about it?
“They’re at the mercy of the news cycle at this point,” Bragman says. “If Donald Sterling does something else stupid…” In other words, it may not take long at all for the Carter-Knowles family drama to be bumped off the headlines. Because of their mega-celebrity platform, agrees Schiffer, “they have so many options and opportunities to send new images out there, and present themselves in a different light.” They can even, for that matter, change the news cycle themselves. “He’s still going to ‘run this town,’” Schiffer says. (Heh.)
Bey and Jay already seem to be ready and eager to push the conversation forward. In a move that some read as sheer gall and other read as utter brilliance, the couple attended a Brooklyn Nets basketball game Monday night, sitting—very publicly—in courtside seats where they could be photographed while the tornado of negative media coverage surrounding the elevator video was still wreaking havoc outside the confines of the Barclays Center.
“What you don’t want to do in a situation like this is put forth a vibe like, ‘I’m going to put a fortress and hide,’” says Garis. “That’s a huge mistake. It causes more curiosity. The media starts to speculate, and they make up more—and worse—stories and scenarios.” Jay Z and Beyoncé are a very public couple. Being seen immediately in public again is the smartest way to telegraph: There’s nothing to be fazed by here.
“If they don’t feed the fire, it will go away,” says Selig. In other words, smiling at a Nets game is smart. Calling a press conference to supposedly clear the air is not. See, for example, crisis management Hall of Shame honorees like Paula Deen and Donald Sterling for evidence of that. If they are forced to address it, self-deprecating humor on an amiable talk show host’s program would be the way to go. James Franco managed to quash a salacious controversy surrounding his apparent use of Instagram to seduce teenagers by doing just that.
So are Bey and Jay going to be OK?
“The question I always ask is: Is this a speed bump or a sinkhole?” Bragman says. “I think this is a speed bump.” And we’re solid builders. A little bump is hardly enough to knock over our pedestals.