Beyoncé’s Vogue Cover Is Fabulous. And It’s an Insult to Journalism.
We should celebrate Beyoncé's power in making the September issue of 'Vogue' a cultural landmark. But it also shows the weakness of journalism in service to the cult of celebrity.
In the much-hallowed September issue of the magazine, the superstar speaks, in moving, inspirational extended captions, about race, racism, body positivity, motherhood, her legacy, and raising her children to be open-minded and open-hearted (“They can explore any religion, fall in love with any race, and love who they want to love”).
She talks about her past (“I researched my ancestry recently and learned that I come from a slave owner who fell in love with and married a slave”).
Beyoncé also looks stunning, and speaks powerfully about the importance of this cover of the famed September Issue—it has taken 126 years for a black photographer to shoot a cover for the magazine.
As Beyoncé says, “Not only is an African American on the cover of the most important month for Vogue, this is the first ever Vogue cover shot by an African American photographer.”
This first time is the achievement of 23-year-old Tyler Mitchell, and it has come about because of Beyoncé—brilliant for her, and shaming for Vogue.
A bastion of white privilege has been schooled by a black, pop-cultural icon. Vogue has had to be made to do the right thing, and only a very powerful person could make it do the right thing.
So, who chose Mitchell? According to Anna Wintour, the magazine's editor in chief, Vogue did.
“The concept and the photographer was entirely Vogue’s, specifically Raul’s,” Wintour, told Business of Fashion on Monday, speaking alongside Condé Nast creative director Raul Martinez.
BoF reported that Mitchell had said "the Vogue team made clear that they wanted him to stay true to his vision, telling him they didn’t want the shoot to feel overproduced."
Yet in her text Beyoncé makes clear the seismic cultural change she is attempting to lead. “If people in powerful positions continue to hire and cast only people who look like them, sound like them, come from the same neighborhoods they grew up in, they will never have a greater understanding of experiences different from their own. They will hire the same models, curate the same art, cast the same actors over and over again, and we will all lose.”
Beyoncé’s Vogue cover is not only revolutionary in its being, but also in the manner of its creation. According to HuffPost, Beyoncé had full creative control in this endeavor; she oversaw and approved everything about it, including writing long-form captions herself.
HuffPost reported, “The publication is contractually obligated to give Beyoncé full control over the cover, the photos of her inside the magazine and the captions, which she has written herself and are in long-form, according to two sources who are familiar with the agreement between Vogue and Beyoncé but aren’t authorized to speak to the press.”
Now that the piece is published, we learn that Beyonce’s words were “as told to” a journalist.
It is not clear if that journalist interviewed Beyoncé in a free-flowing conventional sense—there are no words other than Beyoncé’s conveyed on the page.
There is no sense of questions being asked and answered.
There are no challenges or questions made of the interviewee.
We simply read the words and thoughts of Beyoncé, and we read them in light of the apparent absolute control the magazine has given to Beyoncé.
In 2015, the last time she was on the cover of Vogue, there was no accompanying interview—Beyoncé rarely grants them.
“As last time, and the time before, there was a lot of discussion about the best way to approach this,” Wintour told BoF on Monday. “Who is better to write about Beyoncé than Beyoncé?”
Really? Does the same go for Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Tom Cruise, Kate Winslet, Angelina Jolie, Paul Ryan, Bill de Blasio, Jennifer Aniston? Surely, a journalist asking questions of someone will produce a more rounded portrait of that person than if we simply leave people to mass-distribute their own musings about themselves? A good interview combines both intimacy and distance, an open mind, and a critical eye.
It is not clear if the journalist worked with Beyoncé on a pre-approved set of subject areas Beyoncé wanted her words associated with.
It is not clear how the journalist worked with Beyoncé and her representatives to produce the copy on the page. Did Beyoncé approve all the words, as well as all the pictures?
Sometimes “as told tos,” as they are known, are interviews where the journalist transcribes answers from what has been a conventional interview, with some question or topic breaks in the text to signal shifts in subject.
Is this what happened? Could the journalist ask anything she wanted? Did Beyoncé dictate what was talked about, if anything indeed was talked about, or was the journalist simply transcribing Beyoncé’s thoughts?
The Daily Beast has contacted Vogue to ask exactly how the words in the piece were produced, and has yet to receive a response.
If it is true that Beyoncé and her representatives controlled everything that we see in Vogue, however those words were produced, then that is significant for a range of reasons.
Principally, the most powerful fashion magazine in the world, with the most powerful editor at its helm, has ceded control to a celebrity it wanted to feature.
This may not mean much to those who believe that glossy magazines are little more than shopping windows, with puff copy simply to support lucrative advertisements for handbags and perfume.
This isn't true. Those magazines are staffed by editors and journalists, producing typically crisply-written, rigorously-researched copy that flows within and around those advertisements. Anna Wintour is one of the great editors, and her team are equally at the top of their professional game.
However brilliant and inspiring a celebrity is—however much of a landmark having a black photographer finally shooting a Vogue cover is—having Beyoncé dictate what is said about her in Vogue and how she is presented, is a startling jettisoning of editorial control, and what journalism should be about, whatever the outlet for that journalism is.
Journalism is many things, but one of the things it shouldn’t be is such brazen PR in service of a subject you crave to have in your pages, however beloved and respected that celebrity is.
Yes, it says a lot of amazing things about Beyoncé that she can demand and execute this level of control, but it says something more troubling about Vogue that it should agree to it.
The September issue of Vogue is a Beyoncé beliefs pamphlet. Those beliefs may be intelligent, laudable, and stirring. Beyoncé may be right in all she says. Beyoncé may be indisputably fabulous. But what we are reading is not-journalism masquerading as a journalistic scoop.
That a celebrity should co-opt the means of production of a glossy magazine says much about the power of that celebrity, and what celebrity means today.
Social media has made dedicated silos of fans and followers—this is as true of Beyoncé as it is of Kim Kardashian West (and her siblings), and President Trump.
Today, those in the public eye can command huge followings via Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook and use these platforms as their own personal cultural and consumer malls. The only significant thing that magazines and television can offer now to a celebrity is one of maximizing an impact they are already resolutely in charge of.
Beyoncé tells Vogue, “The beauty of social media is it’s completely democratic. Everyone has a say. Everyone’s voice counts, and everyone has a chance to paint the world from their own perspective.”
This is true and yet it's more complex than that; some social media voices are more powerful than others, and these are the media conditions under which Beyoncé's Vogue cover takeover have blossomed. Old forms of media crave the buzz, the youth, the now-ness that trending on social media and creating a splash on social media can bring.
The most-desired, most-followed, most-beloved, most-notorious, celebrity still needs the occasional imprimatur of boldface publications like Vogue to sell themselves. And so, the delicate dance starts anew. Not all celebrities can command the control that Beyoncé can, but more will be emboldened to try pushing those boundaries given her success in co-opting Vogue for herself.
The September Vogue cover also shows, in the most unsparing light possible, the power (and negotiation) dynamics that all journalists who deal with the world of celebrity directly and tangentially come across.
The journalist or publication traditionally insists on having that control. Along comes a celebrity and their handlers to publicize something. The two parties eye each other.
Ideally, the celebrity, in service of publicizing something, gives themselves up to be interviewed by a journalist. They understand that an interview, covering all aspects of their life and work, is the quid pro quo for whatever that new project is also getting discussed in the article or on-screen, on-radio interview.
From outlet to outlet, editor to editor, the level of control is either zealously guarded or, in parts, given away—whether that celebrity is given quote or copy approval for example. Ideally, that too should be a no-no, although celebrities and their representatives may ask for it.
What the Beyoncé Vogue cover shows, then, is a publication that wanted the subject much more than the subject desired it.
On the strength of that cover and its subject-speaking-only words, Beyoncé, at least right now, is more powerful than Vogue, is a more significant and potent cultural force. That is why Beyoncé could make the magazine do as she wished. If they wanted her, they had to fulfil her conditions.
Via the Beyoncé/Vogue cover, we see that the star has trumped the star-maker; the arbiter of style has been trumped by one of our contemporary chief avatars of it.
Alongside the cheers for Beyoncé's brilliant words—and Wintour and co.'s happy eyes as they see the clicks and hype mount around their exclusive—a moment of reflection may also be valuable.
First, and most pressing culturally speaking, will Vogue change? Will we see more black photographers and creatives working for the magazine? Will Beyoncé's intervention lead to lasting change?
We should also ask what giving up the principles of journalism to get one's scoop means. Perhaps, not much to you, if Beyoncé and Vogue exist in a media universe far away from debates about President Trump and his insidious attempts to delegitimize the workings of the press, with his refrains of “fake news” and the rest of it.
But the two are acquainted. Just as President Trump uses Twitter and Fox News as his arenas for power play and audience consolidation, so celebrities like Beyoncé and the Kardashians use their tribunes of select media for the same. Ideologically these parties could not be more different, but the level of control they exert in what they say, and who they say it to, is comparable.
This is a time, when—whether you are glossy magazine or the New York Times and Washington Post—holding true to what journalism is and what the principles of reporting and editing are, are vital.
Celebrities and politicians are finding their own biased, not-to-be-questioned ways to reach their audiences via social media and media outlet choices, with as little criticism and interrogation of themselves and their lives and beliefs as possible.
This is little more than PR, spin, and advertising; bespoke branding; a set of personal megaphones; a self-sustaining, self-promoting marketplace.
The media, any media, should be questioning that unquestioned cult of personality, not facilitating and celebrating it.